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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Outsider Artists

Jimmy visits a "special" butcher on Boardwalk Empire.

Well, now: This is the Boardwalk Empire I like to see. Last night’s episode was the show’s best by a country mile — a distance more or less equivalent to the one Chalky White traversed to get from the metaphorical fields to his own current manse. (But is he the true master of that house? More on this later.) Let us count the virtues: a bravura sequence for Richard Harrow; multiple scenes for Rothstein; improved material for some of the supporting women (Gillian, Angela); the aforementioned arc of Chalky; and some Nucky-prosecution-plot developments that didn’t seem telegraphed from a long ways off. Whew! The list of what the episode didn’t have is almost as satisfying: Lucy; Al Capone/Torrio; miscellaneous/anonymous politicos chomping cigars; or much in the way of Eli. Good choices, all.

One typically interesting character who doesn’t have all that much to do in this episode is Margaret, who mostly just worries about the maids being too comfortable, and reflecting on her own past miseries. (She also milks Nucky for $100 and puts it in her secret cash drawer.) It feels a little bit strange for her to be so out of the action, and self-concerned, especially after her ingenious play-acting on behalf of Nucky’s ledger and cash-stash the other week. But maybe she’s just still reeling from the effects of hearing that she’s dead to her family in Brooklyn.

Jimmy isn’t a huge factor in this episode, either. At the outset, we see him as he tours Mickey’s stuffed-to-bursting warehouse. Sellers are outnumbering buyers at this particular moment in the illegal liquor trade, but Jimmy doesn’t seem worried about this, yet. He will be, soon, though, since his Officially Very Strange mother, Gillian, is seducing the Commodore with what looks like an adapted section of her upscale striptease act. Draped over a lounge chair, the Commodore looks on, half entranced by her semi-nakedness and half making excuses for not having been part of her life over the last couple of decades. In this sense, her striptease is truly a tease, as she gives him a little bit of trouble for being out of the picture while she raised Jimmy. “We’re all here now, aren’t we?” the Commodore says, in between his protesting the music of Vivaldi (which he derides as “cats in a rain barrel”). Yes, you’re all there, sir: but for how long? Soon, Gillian’s act (mimicking the mythical Diana) boosts the Commodore’s blood pressure (or something) to unsustainable levels: his hands (and glass) shake, he can’t quip, or even respond to the simplest of commands. This is bad news for his plans to retake grasp of Atlantic City.

Soon after, when Eli is summoned to observe the post-stroke, half-paralyzed Commodore, he (predictably) loses it. As he walks past the tokens of the Commodore’s fading virility — the stuffed bear and the elephant tusk — in the adjoining room, you can all but hear him thinking up his mea culpa to Nucky. Gillian asks him to please calm down already, and Jimmy joins in: They’ve got all this liquor, after all. Now they just need some buyers. Eli exits on another high whining note, and then, well, then Jimmy’s mother goes and kisses him on the mouth again as a means of … calming him down? Restoring order? In any case, her boy makes the slightly disbelieving face of an abused child. (We’re probably past the point of this being a minor characterization, I’d say. We’ve seen this hinted at enough times by now to expect that the writers have something up their collective sleeve about this whole borderline-incest business.)

The weaving of new plot strands — and the introduction of action in yet another city — is handled pretty efficiently, when Jimmy and Richard Harrow go with Mickey to visit a butcher shop in Philadelphia. (Jimmy exhausts all his available charm for this episode here, when he gamely attempts a bit of rehearsed Yiddish for the benefit of the Jewish shopkeeper/neighborhood gangster. Fun cameo there by character-actor staple William Forsythe, who played Al Capone in the 1993 TV revival of The Untouchables.) Meanwhile, Nucky chats with Rothstein on the phone and makes arrangements for his boats to dock in the same city’s harbor. Rothstein then dragoons Lucky Luciano and Meyer back into his service, as the muscle to secure Nucky’s shipments. There’s to be a showdown in Philly, before too long, obviously.

There will also be a reckoning for Agent Van Alden, who is mostly absent from the episode, but whose subordinate agents sense he’s hiding something. One of the agents has even been tailing him at night and sounds like he’s seen his boss palling around with Mickey. He convinces the anonymous agent at the desk next to him to come check out one of the stills that night. Not so luckily, it happens to be the same distillery that Nucky has contracted Sleater to blow up that same night. Uh-oh.

In other Philadelphia-assisted plot-machination moves, Nucky’s lawyer alights on a brilliant change-of-venue strategy when taking a break from suckling at a whore’s nipple during Mayor Bader’s riding-crop-strewn birthday party up in the Ritz. These girls, who help things along by narrating how they remember being shipped in from Philly to help sway votes in the last election, amount to a federal case, what with crossing state lines and all. Nucky (and his lawyer) seem to think that their friend the attorney general will automatically bail them out, and so they promptly send the girls over to the state’s attorney, affidavits in hand. Uh, did anyone call the attorney general earlier, just to make sure he wasn’t hiding behind federalism as an excuse not to help Nucky? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Still, this birthday party scene is worth celebrating for a few other reasons. Often, Nucky’s “strategy” story beats are fairly pat, dramatically. He comes up with a plan, and either it works or doesn’t — usually based on whether the person he’s trying to influence is locked up by the Commodore already. But this scene — and its narrative, er, thrust — is actually loaded with surprise, which is great. Also: check out the vocal chops on Eddie, who, accompanied only by piano, gives a rowdy account of an aria from Johan Strauss Jr.’s The Gypsy Baron. (I love this operetta stuff, and did not previously know the piece, so thanks, Boardwalk Empire music team! The most complete recording of the score — which I ordered this morning — is available here, by the way.)

Lots of people in town have hidden artistic talents, of course, not least of whom is the oft-neglected Angela. When Richard Harrow shows up looking for Jimmy the morning before their first Philadelphia run, he discovers Angela alone with her canvas. Its “bold” perspective reminds him of a painter whose work he saw in Paris, and Angela, fully conscious of whose style she’s biting, intuits that he’s talking about De Chirico. The next day, when sitting for a formal portrait in Angela’s makeshift studio, Harrow tops the painter’s risky moves with one of his own, when he lays out an absolutely heartbreaking story about his postwar trauma; specifically, a tale about lost family love that, in turn, tells us everything about how and why he turned to gangsterism.

Everything about this performance is great. For the first portion of the scene, we see half of Harrow’s face struggling to hold back tears, the right side of his lips quivering (while also doing all the enunciating). Then, finally, the mask comes off — figuratively/literally — as Harrow shows his full true face to Angela. She stops the sketch in progress and reaches for a new piece of drawing paper. When incurious Jimmy interrupts them, later on, he doesn’t even ask to see the finished portrait that Angela has gifted to Richard — and so he fails to understand how intimate they’ve become. (When Jimmy later brood-muses that he can’t figure Richard out, Angela looks at him with what looks like a mix of pity and condescension.)

Of course, the outsider artists in Boardwalk Empire can’t be as central to the narrative as the people who run the booze, but it’s no surprise that they’re the most emotionally engaging. Harrow has a foot in both worlds — he’s more than just a gangster, even if he doesn’t know it yet. The same goes for Chalky White, who, fresh from prison, meets some harder realities than the ones he absorbed while locked up. Instead of just fielding the odd prison taunt (which we saw was easily handled, a couple episodes back), now he’s now getting it from all sides: his educated son mocks his illiteracy at the breakfast table; Nucky keeps preaching patience about the Klan; while the mothers and wives of his broader community want to know exactly what they’re getting for all of Chalky’s exalted status.

At the beginning of the episode, Chalky can just about handle it. (His son Lester’s mild offenses are dispatched with a playful mussing of the head.) Midway through, you can see Chalky reaching his boiling point (particularly when Nucky advises him to be “a good boy”). Though, naturally, Chalky is too sagacious a power player to lose his cool. He does finally erupt when his daughter’s “educated buck” medical student of a suitor comes for a formal dinner. Chalky’s wife has prepared duck with a variety of fine-looking sides, but what Chalky really wanted was Hoppin’ John. She says it’s not the thing to serve a guest, and then asks the medical student to forgive her husband’s “country ways.” The kid tries to smooth things out by offering to absent himself from the table, and their house. But Chalky intuits that he’s the odd man out in this refined milieu. While Lester plays piano for his mother, sister, and suitor, Chalky retreats to the garage, where he and his country ways take to whittling a long branch into what looks like a weapon.

Up front, this is all about class and money and comfort, sure — though underneath, it’s also about the refresher course in ethics Chalky got from the local plebes at his church glad-handing session. What good is all this status and luxury, if it doesn’t lead to a deeper humanism? It’s the same question Gillian has for the Commodore in the episode’s final scene, when she recounts the horror of his initial drunken assault on her. Gillian, who up until now has seemed willing to let the past be the past — especially if it helps her son — now unleashes vengeance for the central pain of her rape trauma on the helpless Commodore, slapping him repeatedly as he moans, unable to defend himself. The lust for power needs to see some valuable ends for itself in the near future, if only to keep from curdling into a simple thirst for vengeance.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO