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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Hired Help

Last night we saw the beginnings of the overt confrontation the show’s writers hope and pray we’ve all been waiting for. Nucky vs. the Commodore: This Time It’s Personal. Fifteen rounds, or episodes, whichever comes last. Except their opening exchange of punches manifests as … a food fight? That upturned plate of lobster should be fun for someone on the staff of Babette’s Supper Club to clean up. But at least this episode does take a little time, at various points, to think about the hired help.

At the outset, Margaret — her hair packed with sensible concision inside a braid — tells Nucky that she’s returned some high-value clothes and jewelry, the better to stay liquid during their time in the political desert. Nucky won’t hear of it, of course — his expectation that she’ll be wearing French couture at all times is part and parcel of his whole Agassi of the Boardwalk routine: l’image, c’est tout. But even when he convinces Margaret to get the goods back and on her person, you can tell she’s thinking about what life would be like if she had to fall a couple steps down the class ladder. That’s what happens to sensible-headed women not so long removed from their desperate Irish pasts.

Throughout the episode, Margaret encourages the house staff to take liberties with her — insisting they stop calling her “ma’am,” for one thing — and even enlists Katy to help out with some highly personal (and sensitive-seeming) detective work. Turns out Margaret’s enlisted the help of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to help locate her estranged family members (they are found in Brooklyn, of all places — not so far away!). She has Katy dial the number given in the Pinkerton’s readout, and then ask for one Peggy Rohan. Katy regrets to inform Margaret that whoever it was on the other line said Peggy Rowan died twelve years ago. The still legally surnamed Mrs. Schroeder seems saddened by this news for unarticulated reasons, though Katy — who I estimate will be in bed with Owen Sleater (the new tough on the block) inside two or three episodes — seems both smart and ambitious enough to add it all together. Margaret was once Peggy Rohan, a fact that Katy confronts her boss lady with at the end of the episode. This is a statement of fact that is allowed to stand without even a pro forma denial. Katy seems thrilled to be part of the show’s inquisitive action. Make it one more character soon to be vying for screen time.

Oh yes: The characters we haven’t seen of late! Back this week is Agent Van Alden, who has a sorta thing going on with Foucault's Discipline and Punish. For he's been keeping Lucy locked up in that apartment until she has their out-of-holy-holy-wedlock baby. Some part of me (at first) thought, There’s no way Lucy would stand for this for a week, let alone for months — though the writers (and, yes, I’ll say it: Paz) won me back over in her scene with a visiting Eddie Cantor. (We’ve seen the actor playing Cantor doing vaudeville at Babette’s before, but commenters, remind me: Have we seen him referred to onscreen as the real historical Mr. Cantor before?)

After very gamely attempting to lift Lucy’s spirits with some patter swiped from his act, Cantor listens as Lucy says she’s carrying the child in order to feel important — to be a part of something outside the act of “makin' whoopee.” (This is one of the show’s characteristic “get it?” nudges, as Cantor would later make a song of the same name rather famous.) Cantor has another idea — and that’s to give Lucy the script for a so-called boring musical that’s casting at the moment: a little thing called A Dangerous Maid (a lost musical that featured Gershwin tunes). When Agent Van Alden discovers Lucy giving it a (surprisingly) good read, he takes it from her after dimly ascertaining what scripts mean to dramatic entertainment. (Don’t blame him! Apparently his parents cut off all contact with an aunt who took Young Agent Van Alden to a Christmas pageant one year!) Lucy talks about getting out, seeing people — and throws in the dig that at least Nucky “was fun.” Later, as she’s preparing to throw herself (and the cause of her imprisonment) down a flight of stairs, there comes a form of jazz-age dues ex machina: a Victrola on which she can spin some records in private. Sometimes the warden knows just how much liberty to give a condemned person (see: Foucault).

But Lucy’s not the only character hankering for a more substantive piece of the dramatic action. “Sorry for bargin' in,” Al Capone says at Nuck’s office — by way of reintroducing himself to the narrative. “Been a busy time; haven’t been able to get the maid in here lately,” Nucky adds, lending the episode’s theme another bell-ring. Capone — on this coast to settle his deceased father’s affairs — brings word from Torrio that Chicago won’t be in need of Atlantic City liquor any longer. (It comes out, in a needlessly long scene, that Team Chicago will be bringing their hooch over from Canada.) Then Capone goes over to Jimmy’s house to trade Italian with his wife and look on jealously while Jimmy plays with his son, who can hear and banter with him. Jimmy, for his part, gets to wondering whether being a simple barber (as Capone’s late father was) wouldn’t be so bad. Everyone keeps talking up the rough life to Jimmy: not least of whom is his mother, who spends an entire scene lathering up his arms with lotion like they’re about to get it on in an eighties porno. Jimmy asks his mother “what changed?” How come she’s so pro-Commodore now? She dutifully provides some blather about forgiveness and such, which Jimmy (correctly) turns around as logic that could be used to forgive Nucky, in turn.

All of which leads to that climactic scene at Babette’s Supper Club. Nucky, putting on his best public profile, submits to the boredom of dinner with his puppet mayor and his wife. When Margaret attempts to order the lobster, they’re informed that the last plate of it has already been served. Nucky can see the Commodore eating it, over at the table with Jimmy and the Governor. So he goes over and knocks it off the table. Jimmy stands up to him, sorta, but then draws back when told to by the Commodore (“you’re stronger than that”). He’s doomed to be doing the bidding of either man no matter what he decides. (Unless he does become a barber.)

By way of complete contrast (once again), Richard Harrow seems a much more interesting character than Jimmy, even as he’s equally indecisive. While Owen Sleater intervenes to bust up the delivery of Commodore-sponsored liquor to one of Nucky’s erstwhile casino clients, Harrow draws his pistol. “Why didn’t you shoot me?” the plucky young Irish lad asks. “I may yet,” Harrow says, with a twinkling of potential solidarity twitching in the half of his face we can see. (Is everyone on the show going to fall for Sleater? Maybe.) But maybe Harrow is being pulled in by the same thing we can see: The decisive Sleater’s a lot more fun to watch (and, one presumes, to gangster around with) than Jimmy — the schmuck who doesn’t even know how to enjoy having it all. Anyway, to be continued next week, when Chalky White gets released from jail and the show earns back another one of its more interesting characters — and maybe also a couple more maids to tidy up some of these plot strands.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO