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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Get in Line

Jimmy won’t stand for being disrespected. Eli responds to being backed into a corner by starting to kill his way out. Nucky can’t accept an apology, even when doing so is the right play. The Commodore is still out of commission. Agent Van Alden and Lucy continue to be non-factors. The actor playing Richard Harrow keeps on making his case to the writers that the show should lavish as much screen time on him as possible. Yes, it was another generally satisfying episode of Boardwalk Empire.

I think we can finally perceive what the showrunners were doing by bringing the Commodore back to health, briefly, before cutting his sails once again. No other force could have brought Jimmy and Eli into common cause so efficiently. (And, well, it wasn’t all that efficient — but now that it’s happened, we can move on.) They needed his connections to make a revolt seem within the realm of the possible.

As each man has complained since the Commodore’s stroke, they’re a bit overmatched — especially since Nucky seems poised to shed himself of his short-term legal jeopardy. Though that’s not quite a done deal, either, as we see when Nucky asks the attorney general for a guarantee that his new prosecutor will make it all go away — and only hears in return the suggestion that he throw the power-brokers another one of his trademark naughty-boy bashes.

In any case, Jimmy and Eli are joined at the hip, like it or not. Eli knows this in a way that Jimmy doesn’t, what with his sniveling, failed attempt to make things right with Nucky mid-episode. Also: This is the point at which Shea Whigham is finally allowed to show how much range he can cover while playing Eli. Watching him go from glumly apologetic, to mildly peeved, to full-on tears time, and then finally combative in the space of a couple minutes was a pleasure.

Jimmy — though similarly vexed by the problems of owing $70K to the town elders, as well as a full shipment of now-exploded booze to the Philadelphia butcher — never thinks about bowing to Nucky, by contrast. When the treasurer puts his ex-protégé on the public spot by asking him to read the names of fallen servicemen at a Memorial Day ceremony, Jimmy proves more than equal to the moment. (That is, after a brief period of being tongue-tied, which is masked by the gathering’s overall solemnity.) Jimmy gives an improvised speech full of such adroitly faux-humble patriotism, it’s clear that he might pose as much a problem to Nucky on the campaign stump as he does in the backrooms of Atlantic City. (You know Nucky thinks the speech was good, too, because he whines about its elegant phoniness later.)

The four major (male) characters spend most of the episode in isolation from one another, after the opening scenes. Jimmy, licking a head wound dealt out from the cane of an impatient town elder, needs another pep talk from Gillian before he can conceive of an appropriately violent riposte. Meantime, Richard is off to destinations unknown. Harrow’s unscheduled absence takes the form of a journey into the woods, with only an apple, a knife, and a rifle. It all has the hint of elegy about it — even before we see the mist roll in. DON’T LET RICHARD KILL HIMSELF, every single viewer of Boardwalk Empire shouts in his or her head. Of course that’s not going to happen! But something nearly as pat and ill-advised happens after Harrow removes his glasses/face-plate and sticks both barrels in his mouth (or as much of ‘em as his lips can accommodate). A dog saunters up and absconds with the other half of his public face. DON’T SADDLE RICHARD WITH A TRUSTY OLD HOUND DOG, is what I thought, here.

But no: The dog belongs to a couple of hard-core habitués of these woods. Harrow chases after the dog, which is its own choice in favor of living. (“Hey, I need that,” he says, taking the gun out of his mouth.) After exhausting himself, Harrow plops himself down at a tree for a spell. It’s here that he’s discovered by the dog’s owner, who more or less commands Harrow to join him at his campfire. This particular woodsman knows a suicide-ideation forest trip when he sees one; as his campmate offers Harrow as many pulls from a flask as he can handle, Harrow receives a lecture about how these woods “are for livin’.” His public face once again unified, Harrow promises that he takes the meaning of the speech and declares himself bound for Atlantic City with renewed purpose.

In case you thought (or secretly hoped) that Harrow’s purpose was going to be Angela, well, you’d be disappointed. When Jimmy asks why Harrow was a no-show all day long, his sidekick gives some gloss about not being much for the Memorial Day festivities — and then asks, “Would you fight for me?” Jimmy says he would, “to the last bullet,” and then asks if Richard is up for a job.

That job is one of two decisive violent acts that crown the episode. In the first, Jimmy and Richard visit the town elder who cracked Jimmy’s head early on. He’s savoring a bit of Native American bead-craft, which tells us something. Aesthetes don’t have much moral authority on this show, after all. (Think of Chalky’s kinda snotty son Lester.) After having advised Jimmy to respect his elders during the Commodore-less strategy session earlier in the episode, he now learns about a different manner of deference. That would be fear in the face of terror — as Jimmy neatly scalps the man, while Harrow holds him still. It’s focused, symbolic — the kind of thing that gets around in the criminal underworld. What Jimmy can’t control through suasion, he’s willing to do through terror.

His co-headlining partner in mutiny, Eli, is also ready to go to guns — though he’s sloppy about it. When one of the turncoat aldermen comes ‘round looking for assurances about the Commodore’s health, a drunk Eli flubs the fib. The alderman gets frazzled, asking all the obvious questions like what will they all do now that Nucky has the edge again — until a short grappling session with Eli ensues. (That’s the only outcome you can have with Eli, in this episode.) The fight doesn’t last long, though, as Eli swings a wrench that slits open the poor man’s throat. In the end, Eli has to call in some backup from his deputy to help dispatch the body. Unlike Jimmy, he’s not in a position to mete his violence out in a deliberate fashion — or let anyone know about it once it’s happened by accident. Whether their two approaches can complement one another may have as much to do with Nucky’s fate as the mercurial ways of various federal court appointees.

And, uh, what else? Oh yeah: Sleater and Katy totally did it! And did so to such a feverish degree that poor Margaret was chasing down the provenance of throaty yelps in the middle of the night, all over the house. Poor woman! After seeming so onboard with the gangster lifestyle, she’s haunted by having had to break up Nucky’s brawl with a shotgun — so much so that a climax-cry doesn’t even enter into her analytic mind. So far on the show, she’s been a kept woman, or else a semi-equal partner in crime. But right now she’s neither, and for her, that’s obviously a burden no number of niceties can salve.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO