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Boardwalk Empire Recap: I’m Confessin’

Nothing too difficult to tease out about this particular episode’s thematic concern: The Highly Effective Confessional Habits of the Guilt-Ridden. We open with Agent Van Alden reading his holy book while Pregnant Lucy is moaning for lemons off-camera. Deep in her third trimester, she can’t get comfortable — not least of which because her suitor/jailor turns a consistently cool eye toward anything resembling empathy. (He shuts Lucy up with a juvenile, apples-to-oranges analogizing of her pain to that of Agent Clarkson and his third-degree burns.) “I will get lemons,” he says at the end of the scene — his face brightening momentarily, as though he’s done an official Good Work on behalf of the Lord.

In the meantime, we see Tyke Teddy of the Schroeder clan being drilled by an Atlantic City priest ahead of the boy’s first confession. He’s all flustered about some of the magic words, causing Margaret a wee bit of embarrassment, while an onlooking Nucky assures the priest that they’ve properly coached the child and can we get on with this thing already? Then Nucky runs off to a meeting, which gives the priest an opportunity to needle Margaret about her own private need to confess as well. This priest has a severe, unfriendly look about him. And, I think we’re meant to wonder, perhaps a bit of untrustworthiness in reserve, as well. Is he looking for dirt on Nucky he can use somehow? Margaret seems surprised to learn that she’ll need to make a confession along with her son, but she’s been surprised by everything lately, so that tracks. Her subsequent thinking on whether/what/how to unload all that’s been on her mind gives the episode a framing device (and the writers the opportunity to play with our expectations).

While some characters need ample time to reflect before becoming at all confessional, Jimmy might need to work on keeping a few more of his emotions private. That’s the advice given by wizened machine elder Leander Whitlock (Dominic Chianese’s character finally merits being called by his own name in a recap, by the way). After reviewing last week’s scalping incident, Leander answers some lingering questions by informing the room (and the audience) that no one much cared specifically about the jerk who smacked Jimmy in the prior episode and then got his, but that the impertinent and violent response has “alienated” some key allies. Leander reads from Alexander the Great on the joint influence of fathers and teachers, and it’s a line the proto-Princeton Boy can I.D. properly, though without much additional reading comprehension. Leander underlines that Jimmy should look to emulate the hated Nucky’s smooth, understated way of operating, of seeing several moves ahead in the game (as evidenced by the maneuvering of charges onto Federal turf). “Not every insult requires a response,” Leander tells Jimmy in this scene. The Commodore, upright in a wheelchair but still mostly paralyzed, mumbles something in protest but is told, essentially, to pipe down, before being wheeled out of the room. While leaving, Gillian again applies an on-the-lips kiss to her son, who then explains to a startled Leander that it’s just “a thing she does.” That explains … nothing, really. But it confirms at minimum that Jimmy doesn’t merely go into an empirically addled fugue state whenever his mother tiptoes along the boundary of incest.

There’s also some B-Team machination in the early part of the episode that gets the plot-advancing work done but feels a little flat. Boy Lawer Chip, with a perpetual shit-eating grin, goes through the motions of getting Nucky’s case kicked to the federal courts. It’s so colorless a scene that he’s given some green dress shoes for the judge to admire/comment on. Then we see Nucky get a phone call from George Remus in Cincinnati. At first it’s just a thank-you conversation, since Nucky set Remus up with a local booze courier in the last episode. But it quickly devolves into name-calling and hostility. George Remus again proves incapable of going three seconds without saying “George Remus.” This is an annoying tic to give a character who’s been onscreen so far for about three minutes, and, moreover, feels like a compensatory one meant to make up for the general colorlessness of the role. Like Boy Lawyer Chip’s shoes. Anyway, these scenes with the B-team character troupe don’t really torpedo the narrative momentum, in part because so much of last week’s episode was devoted to Richard Harrow’s extended trip through the woods. We didn’t really need more probing, deliberate character studies. We needed the gears to turn, and so this episode feels like a bit of a respite that also sets up the next round of catharsis.

To that end, Lucy also delivers her baby. By herself. All episode long. Her water breaks, and she drops a plate of food. Then we cut away. When we come back, she’s still hunched over in pain. She screams across to the neighboring building, asking the kid at the window to get his mother. He runs away, and the narrative leaves Lucy alone once more. Time and again, as we dive in and out of other business, we see Lucy struggling toward the realization that she’s gonna have to do the whole thing on her own. And Paz sells it! The whole pregnancy arc has been good for the actress and good for the character. Now that we’re done with it, it’ll be exciting to see where Lucy goes. (Hopefully, she doesn’t just revert to “duh-daddy” type.)

Where’s Agent Van Alden during all this? He’s almost giving away his whole double-life game to his boss, while they brood at Agent Clarkson’s bedside. After being on the business end of some mild and vague burn-victim taunting — “I see you. I know.” — Van Alden is convinced that the moral reckoning is upon him. (That’s a side consequence, perhaps, in putting as much literal faith as Van Alden does in mystical texts.) He executes one of his patented asshole late-night phone calls to his deserted wife, as ever under the pretext of “doing the right thing,” but that of course only leaves her with assorted worries and questions. This time, though, Mrs. Van Alden helps everyone along by not simply retiring to bed and fretting in her (huge, frumpy) nightgown. She up and travels north, gets Van Alden’s hideaway address (all offscreen, and somewhat fuzzily, since wasn’t the point that Van Alden kept his Lucy-dorm a secret and under a different name?), but nevertheless, thank God we birth this particular dramatic baby. Mrs. Van Alden is caring for the sweat-drenched Lucy by the time her husband returns with the doctor he promised to bring. She rages at him, refuses to be consoled, and leaves. With this particular private weight off his mind, Van Alden manages to not spill the beans to his boss (once he realizes that the delirious Clarkson is telling everyone he sees that “he knows” about them). So, now. Maybe Van Alden can get back to his job, putting pressure on the crooks? And maybe he can have a slightly more public relationship with Lucy? What with nothing to hide on that score any longer? That could be interesting.

What the show might call the Philadelphia Problem also moves to a new and gratifying stage of development. Early on at the Ritz, we see Nucky, Chalky, Rothstein (and, by extension, Lucky and Lansky) meeting with Philly’s Waxey Gordon … and, oddly, one of the Jewish Butcher Horvitz’s main henchmen. Jimmy, rather conveniently, spies the man he thought was meant to be his ally as he makes his exit down the Boardwalk. He calls Manny Horvitz and tells him his associate is playing both sides. And before Jimmy knows it, Horvitz has the man strung up in his cooler like a piece of grade-A traitor. Jimmy interrogates the man, gets the details of Nucky’s new operation via the Philadelphia ports, and then slits his throat.

When Lucky and Lansky get waylaid by Jimmy and Co. later that night, we see the crystallization of the alliance that’s been hinted at for weeks now. Nucky can have his booze, the two sides decide (while pointing guns at one another), but Lucky, Lansky, and Jimmy are going to team up on the heroin tip. And the increased margins (and an advance of product) will go to offset Horvitz’s losses on the intended first round of booze that he never received. See: This is what you get when you talk things out, boys! Laying everything out on the table doesn’t just have to be about confessing sins or guilt.

Margaret’s still taking that part pretty seriously, though. “How Catholic are you?” Nucky asks her after a fairly limp round of bedroom pounding. (Isn’t this a question that they’d have already broached?) But in the same way that the episode toys with us in relation to Van Alden’s multiple potential confessions, so it does too with Margaret’s. We’re primed to think she may or may not spill consequential beans about Nucky’s various illegal activities once she goes in the booth, but what Nucky really ought to be worried about is the integrity of her carnal connection to him. As much as Margaret’s been sniping at Maid Katy of late, we come to understand it’s as much out of jealousy as anything else. Margaret wants Sleater, too — a fact that’s underlined when he grabs hold of a broom, and Mrs. Schroder’s hands, for a brief second, causing her to almost faint. During confession, the priest tries to steer the conversation about Margaret’s impure thoughts to the man who provides for her family. But nope: Margaret’s decided the biggest weight on her conscience that needs offloading has nothing at all to do with Nucky. The only question is how long it’ll take him to notice that this is the case. Since Senator Edge has since intervened with the attorney general to thwart Nucky’s traipsing toward the free and clear, it seems likely that he could go a few episodes without noticing the hot new guilt and expectation that Margaret’s consciously nursing.

Photo: Macall B. Polay