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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Mr. Hyde

So, does anyone still think Boardwalk Empire hews too closely to familiar gangster-film conventions? Or that Steve Buscemi isn't strong enough to carry a show? If there was a rough consensus that last week's episode, "Family Limitation," was the best one of the season, let's raise the ante right now: This week's installment, titled simply "Home," was twice as good as last week's, landing somewhere in the vicinity of brilliant.

We open on Liam the Dirty Face-Slasher eating in a Chicago diner. (And, yes, we're going to crow here: We totally called this last week.) Now, in a regular gangster movie, here's how this would have gone down: Open on Liam, sipping his coffee. Cut to: Jimmy riddling the place with a tommy-gun while cackling and/or blowing the restaurant sky-high.

Not so with the slow-burn Boardwalk. A dirty cop drops a dime to Capone, who tells Jimmy, who's laid out with leg troubles. Patience, my pretties. Patience.

So we switch to the filthy hovel of Old Man Thompson, who fights cats and falls screaming with leg trouble of his own. He's carted off by Eli, while Buscemi treats us to this show's second Master Class in Silent Acting in as many weeks: He scans the empty house and we read every transgression, every insult, every injury as they flicker across his face.

Jimmy heads to the hospital to get his bum pin checked and catches a glimpse of an unfortunate fellow who's last half his face in the war. This seems at first like a fleeting bit of scene-setting, but later we meet the phantom himself: Richard Harrow, sharpshooter, in an astonishing performance by Jack Huston (of the John, Anjelica, Walter Huston movie clan). He speaks in a low and hesitant growl, interrupted with guttural slurps. He recounts the horrors of the battlefield: how he waited patiently for days for a German sniper to lift his metal mask and give Robert his shot, "one inch below his eye." (Harrow kept the mask; without it he "feels anxious." He's cursed to carry two masks for the rest of his life.) When Jimmy offers him a cigarette and asks, "Smoke?" he answers flatly, "Not possible." He later says, heartbreakingly: "On the test they ask if you ever made love to a girl." And by the way he says it, you know he never has, and believes he never will.

Interlude: A pips-queak gangster shows up to offer Chalky a bribe, to persuade him to slip a few cases of Nucky's hooch out the back. Chalky throws the cash back and growls, "Tell ol' Nucky Thompson it's going to take a lot more than ten grand to get me to fuck him over."

Exit the pip-squeak — who we learn, later, is Meyer Lansky, real-life gangster sent not by Nucky but Rothstein. Together, he and Lucky Luciano enlist Mickey Doyle and his Italian backers into a Rothstein robbery. Maybe giggly Mickey will make it to season two alive after all.

Elsewhere, Margaret is getting sour advice from a fellow concubine: Don't let Nucky unburden himself, or he'll always see his own weakness in you. So Margaret cuts Nucky off brusquely during a visit to the old homestead, after he explains how his father gave him a poker-shaped burn on his hand. Later, when she prods him about a lost childhood catcher's mitt, he retreats coldly. It's a complicated tango, but at dance's end, they wind up more entwined than ever, seated around the dinner table, a false and fragile family.

Other developments of note: Jimmy takes Harrow to the whorehouse and relieves him of his virginity. Van Alden finds the third crook from the botched hooch heist, who fingers Jimmy. Nucky listens to a teary tale of a premature baby nursed back to health, and we get more clues that Nucky's tale of woe involves a baby who didn't make it.

And it turns out, Jimmy's wife was never canoodling with the photographer; she was canoodling with the photographer's wife! Exclamation point! This subplot may go somewhere interesting, but we have to admit, among the show's growing panoply of characters, Jimmy's wife is the one we're least interested in catching up on, even when she's in bed with another woman.

Now back to Harrow, and a scene which may be the most chilling three minutes the series has thrown at us so far. Jimmy sits down with Liam at the diner. "I'm not going to kill you," he says. He recounts a wrenching war story of a dying German strung up in barbed wire, calling out weakly for his mother. Then Jimmy gets up, pats Liam on the shoulder, and leaves. Liam exhales. At which point he's taken out by sniper, one inch below the eye. It's our man Harrow, from across the avenue. Cue Phantom of the Opera organ music — a macabre and inspired Halloween gag. Cut to: Lucy, alone, watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A title card on screen reads: "Think of what it would mean — to yield to every evil impulse — yet leave the soul untouched." (P.S. Remember how Nucky promised earlier to see this film with her? Here she's all alone.)

At the episode's end, "Uncle Nucky" takes Margaret's son to the old house, all fixed up for a new family. But he accidentally runs into Eli and his father, who spits one last acid insult: "You were never worth a damn." Nucky stands stoically, then sends his adopted son out to the car — and burns the house to the damned ground. When the aghast new owner arrives, Nucky hands him a wad of cash and says, "Find a better place to live."

What about you? Did you see this meltdown coming? We found the scene shocking and exhilarating: A moment that's entirely unexpected but totally logical; perfectly in keeping with a character yet revelatory as well. (Another nice resonance: The fire department were the ones who fixed up the house in the first place.)

This was Nucky's, and Buscemi's, strongest episode: His backstory, his buried pain, his ongoing belief that wads of cash can sponge away every shame of the past. We even started to wonder if his rat-eating story from episode one, brushed off as a convenient lie, might actually have some truth in it. And we finally saw Nucky's Mr. Hyde, as well as further glimpsing the demons of Jimmy Darmody. In this perfect Halloween episode, everyone's injured, everyone's haunted, and everyone's yielding to evil impulses, but no one's soul is going to be left untouched.

Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO