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Boardwalk Empire: The Interrogation

Should we start with the first scene, or the most memorable? In the first scene, Al Capone creeps into a brothel and blasts a pistol into the pillow next to Jimmy's ear, suggesting that being friends with Capone would be about as fun as hanging out with Steve-O. In the most memorable scene, well: If you've been howling for more Michael K. Williams, you got your fill this week, in an intentionally operatic aria we might call The Interrogation.

And then there's the scene that we wish the show had started with: Nucky Thompson staring straight into the camera, feigning surprise. "What? You shouldn't have! Who planned this?" It's a beautiful shot that perfectly frames, and explains, our Nucky. Then, when he's interrupted by Eddie (Anthony Laciura), his German man Friday, we get a deft reverse shot: Nucky and all his reflections as he stands half-dressed before a three-way mirror. Already this week's episode, directed by Jeremy Podeswa, is the most visually accomplished since the Scorsese-directed pilot.

Onward, toward Chalky and his tool set! Margaret moons over news of a marooned woman who might just be a Russian princess. "It's like a fairy tale!" she cries. Meanwhile, the deafened Jimmy plays house with his impossibly lovely and moonfaced hooker paramour, who says she too dreams of moving West. Nucky busts Eli over the lynching of Chalky's employee and the threat to the colored vote, and when Eli's deputy makes a racist crack, Nucky swiftly cuts him down. (Yet just when Nucky seems like a paragon of racial tolerance, he throws a fit over a crystal glass smudged with some whore's "cock-smeared lip rouge," blasting his German servant, who blasts the black attendants. Everyone has, and knows, their place.) And when Jimmy's abandoned wife tells Ma Darmody that some women are proud to be called "grandma," Ma replies, "Not while the peaches are still in season!" and gives her shoulders a seductive shake. Said peaches are employed not minutes later, when Lucky Luciano appears, looking for Jimmy. "Maybe he's up your ass," Ma says, as saucy as Mae West. "Have you considered looking there?"

In its first few weeks, Boardwalk Empire's been most often compared to The Sopranos (gangster epic) and Deadwood (expert period re-creation), but maybe its closest antecedent, at least in intent, is The Wire. Boardwalk similarly wants to patiently paint the portrait of an American moment, constantly expanding its canvas. Added this week to the grand panorama: The Klan, with its echoes of today's xenophobia. Watch as the purple-hooded Grand Cyclops rails against the dark-skinned interlopers, who are "feeding on jobs heretofore reserved for white men." The hoods are relics, but not the rhetoric.

Eli and Sergeant Dummkopf bust in and arrest the Grand Cyclops for the lynching. They figure he probably didn't do it, but knows who did. Chalky figures the same thing, which brings us at last to Chalky's Big Moment, the scene most people will likely be talking about all week.

What did you think: Masterpiece or familiar manipulation? Some critics are already calling this the series' defining moment and the first truly great episode. As for us, we have to admit that, for all of Michael K. Williams's charisma, this scene played out exactly as we expected from the moment it started, right down to landing on the line, "I ain't going to build no bookshelf." The gangster genre offers many rugged pleasures, such as seeing lawless men enact rough justice on the wicked. But we would have enjoyed this particular monologue a whole lot better if we hadn't been mouthing the words along.

We did, however, love the moment when the Cyclops called Eli a "grafter, whoremonger, bootlegger," and Eli replied drily, "You're thinking of my brother." Or, in another impressive flourish by Podeswa, Chalky opens the hankie containing the Klansman's finger and we hear an audio overlay — "Surprise!" — from the next scene: The grand birthday party for which Nucky was rehearsing.

Back in Chicago, Capone proves himself as subtle a negotiator as he is a practical joker. The irony here is that, of course, Capone's going to eventually ascend to Boss of All Bosses, so we look forward to the show revealing some of his preternatural cunning, and not just his tin ear. Because, from the moment Sheridan and his men leave the table, claiming they don't want any trouble, you know they're planning something, and it's not acquiescence. Indeed, they plot a hit on Capone and Jimmy, but end up slicing the face of that moonfaced hooker. Again, this sequence, while powerful, seemed all too familiar, especially if you've seen the first ten minutes of Unforgiven.

Then there were Nucky and Margaret. At Nucky's party, he angles for government road money, bristles at the braying Lucy, and dances with the eloquent Mrs. Schroeder, who's shown up to deliver a dress. There's even a shot, from Nucky's POV, of Lucy, cheese-caking it in the middle of Nucky's birthday cake, with Margaret visible on a balcony in the background. Later, though, Margaret passes a newsstand with a headline declaring the Russian Princess a fraud. Not all fairy tales have happy endings.

So — what did you think? On the one hand, we're greatly enjoying the show's slow unfolding of this bootleg Babylon. On the other, we were less taken with such showy elements as Chalky's torture scene or the fairy-tale subplot, both of which seemed a bit too on the nose. This week further established Boardwalk as a series full of subtle pleasures: a shot here, a line there, an exquisite visual flourish. What we're really looking forward to are a few more hard left turns, unexpected reversals, and outright shocks.

Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO