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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Dirty Laundry

Welcome back to Atlantic City! And to Boardwalk Empire: a place where the color blue still has yet to be invented, and where the lyrics to every popular song heard on the boulevard or in the club seem rather apropos to the underlying goings-on. It is now the year 1921 (check the episode title), and, well, just listen to the period ditty that covers the opening montage, “After You Get What You Want.” In this particular case, that's President Harding, a return to normalcy, and everyone’s ass. But the hustle is still on, all over. The question is: can any form of sustenance satisfy these characters' various appetites?

The Commodore, newly weaned from his all-arsenic diet, is up and doing calisthenics, though he desires more than a full return to health: He still longs to wrest control of the city from Nucky, his erstwhile protégé. Meanwhile, Margaret Schroder is back in bed with Nucky, at least in principle — though we’re reintroduced to her as she casts a woeful glance at his empty half of the mattress. Turns out, Nucky still goes out clubbing rather late, all under the guise of working various back rooms. (Also: We see him nearly burying his head in another bosom, a development forestalled only by his assistant’s clock-watching interruptions.)

Elsewhere, over in Chicago, while young Al Capone may not wear doofy, childish hats any longer, he still has yet to develop into a fully mature thug. A Cincinnati slicker named George Remus has darkened Johnny Torrio’s door to offer an alternative whiskey supply to that coming from Atlantic City. While waiting for Torrio, Remus correctly identifies Capone as the guy who picks up the boss’s metaphorical laundry. (“Laundry,” more broadly construed as dirty linen, is the unofficial theme of this episode, and so can be counted on to make more appearances.)

At first, Al can’t even follow the line of conversation, since Remus speaks of himself in the third person. Once he does grasp the syntax, though, Capone takes his studied manner of offense. Remus tells him to take it easy; after all, George Remus once used to play the same role underneath Torrio — and now look at George Remus! George Remus is sittin’ pretty. (This does not get old at all, even in a brief scene.) There’s all but a neon sign pointing to the gears turning in Al’s head. This character development with Al sometimes seems a bit linear, doesn’t it? Last season, he went to a bar mitzvah and then immediately decided to stop with the exploding cigars. Now, after he’s met a guy who never misses a chance to say his own name, how long before Capone’s talent for self-mythology begins to emerge?

But having a known name has its downsides: Chalky White’s increasingly public profile seems to have attracted the attention of the KKK (not seen since the early going last season). The terrorist group drives a Gatling gun up to Chalky’s distillery and neatly perforates the premises (and a few workers), all until a casing-jam takes out what appears to be the only weapon they thought to bring along for the job. If you come at the king — excuse me, if you come at Chalky — you best not miss, you know? At any rate, he survives and immediately calls a meeting with the Thompson brothers.

One of the best aspects of Chalky’s character is how dedicated he is to making black excellence a matter of public record on the Boardwalk (as when he demanded access to the victory party in last season’s finale as payment for delivering black Republican votes). The writers make sure this trend continues in the scene where Nucky and his (now Commodore-allied) brother, Sheriff Eli, arrive at Chez White. In fact, I bet Chalky made the Thompsons wait in his foyer on purpose — just so they’d have to sit and listen to his son deploy some casually elegant pianism all over "Clair de Lune." (Credit, again, goes to the show’s Dept. of Subtle Musical Cues.)

“Talented,” Eli sniffs, in that nakedly envious way of his, where the subtext reads like: “What — you assholes think I couldn’t play Debussy real good, too, if only somebody had given me lessons on the peeee-anna?” Since this cultural-refinement beat is good for another exclamation point, the boy’s mother tells Nucky and Eli that Lester is bound for college, at Morehouse, in a couple of years’ time. In the interim, Chalky quite sensibly proclaims himself “sick of this shit” from the Klan and hints at broader unrest among the city’s 10,000-strong black population, should he be the victim of any further terror campaigns.

There’s a pretty great edit in a subsequent sequence, when Nucky heads out to both black and white church communities to identify himself as the defender of each group. (He goes from deriding the Klan as “cowards” to promising a white congregation protection from the “obstreperous Negro” on both sides of a single, crisp edit.) Eli may think of Chalky as “one uppity shine,” but Nucky and Jimmy both distance themselves from the most casual racist inclinations on the tail end of the visit to the white church, lest we think the absolute worst of them.

“It’s an awful waste of a lotta good tablecloths,” Jimmy says. “The laundry bills alone,” Nucky replies — laundry again! — before asking why Jimmy’s been so distant lately. Jimmy mumbles something, and then Nucky gives him an out by referencing his recent marriage to Angela as perhaps the proximate cause of his reduced emotional investment. But honestly, they both know Jimmy’s conspiring with the Commodore axis. Nucky only has time to warn Jimmy of the Commodore’s duplicitous nature before he has to carry some more laundry for the Klan, though: One of Chalky’s self-defense gunshots has now resulted in the death of one of the white terrorists, and so Chalky needs to be arrested for his own near-term protection.

At a meeting of the Commodore Axis, Eli asks what the old man has in store for Nucky and is promptly told to shut it. (No matter which side Eli joins up with, he gets treated like this!) After the Sheriff exits, the Commodore waxes Hemingway-esque about all his big-game kills, completely forgetting or neglecting how Jimmy revealed that he was scared of them, as a child. The Commodore closes this iteration of his new fatherly incarnation by telling Jimmy a man’s not judged by what he attempts.

Elsewhere in the town, hellfire-style judgment still seems to weigh heavily on Agent Van Alden’s mind, as he shepherds his wife around during a rare (for her) visit to the Boardwalk, in light of their thirteenth wedding anniversary. Something’s up with her husband, she can tell: He’s not all gung-ho about a pamphlet identifying houses of ill repute when it falls into their hands. And he seems slow to react when spirits are offered by the owner of the restaurant where they take their celebratory dinner.

Finally, as if to get her off his back, Van Alden excuses himself and calls in the cavalry — correctly intuiting that only a brute show of morality will shut his wife up before she departs for another month. The reason why Van Alden might be having slightly more trouble with the moral indignation part of his job is revealed after a luxurious, tracking shot through his rooming house apartment. We see several lines of laundry (reference No. 3!) hung outside the windows as Nelson Van Alden slowly makes his way to the bedroom — which, contra what he told his wife at their hotel, isn’t off limits to women at all. Because there’s Paz de la Huerta, preggers and all, calling a lover of hers “daddy” for good reason, for maybe the first time ever.

The father question gets splashed all over this episode. Nucky has to play dad to one of Margaret’s misbehaving children, and all he can come up with is a payoff meant to make the boy stop playing with matches. He misses their family date at Chaplin’s The Kid, though, when a late-night visit by the State’s Attorney’s office results in Nucky’s arrest for election fraud. This seems like what the Commodore had in store that he refused to reveal to Eli earlier. If so, it’s a pretty undisguised play — since election tampering is what he was sent away for, paving the way for Nucky’s ascent in Atlantic City.

Luckily, before Nucky was carted away, he had a chance to send Jimmy a belated wedding gift. There’s cash in this present, too, but not just that. Lovingly included in the box is a wood-carved statue of a father taking a young boy out hunting. It’s the precise opposite of what the Commodore was trying to sell Jimmy: that a man is the sum total of his kills. This is a gift that memorializes the process. And it amounts to the proposal of an emotional bond that exists outside the realm of manly score-keeping, precisely at the moment when Jimmy starts wanting to take his own boy out to shoot seagulls. (It’s a little bit neat that this is exactly the same activity he once participated in with Nuck, but it still works.) Whether Nucky’s appeal beyond materialism has any chance of succeeding in the culture of Boardwalk Empire is an open question. But because it’s the least obvious thing to happen on the show so far, it’s also one of the most compelling developments the writers have thrown us yet. Jimmy didn’t have an answer for Richard Harrow, when, with that low voice grumbling under his facial reconstruction plate, he asked what it was like “to have it all.” The answer, suggested at the end of the episode, is that someone in town might eventually discover the virtues of settling for something less than the entire world.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO