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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Standing Still

“A year ago you were a brigand in the woods. Who are you?” Let it be noted that this question, asked of Jimmy Darmody by Arnold Rothstein — and hey: welcome to season two, AR! — is one we might just as well put to the writers of Boardwalk Empire.

Rothstein gets a pass regarding this inability to place Jimmy as a character; he’s too busy staying out of jail for fixing sporting events. But those of us entering hour fourteen of watching Boardwalk Empire — why don’t we know, either? This is the central paradox of the show: Even with its writerly flaunting (“brigand” is some perfect diction for Rothstein) and propensity to give us long scenes that “breathe” and etc., what exactly do we learn from it all, except that we might have to wait until the next episode to see our favorite character? (Checking in: Is everyone disappointed when Richard Harrow is absented from an episode? And does no one care when the same thing can be said of Al Capone?)

So: “Who are you?” is the basic question asked of all this episode’s prime movers. What kind of man will Nucky prove to be when his underlings are (mostly) allied against him, instead of kissing his ass in concert? How much value will Margaret prove to be when Nucky needs it? Can Chalky White survive the few days in the slammer that Nucky swears are for his own good? And sure, while we’re curious, we might as well try to learn about Jimmy, too.

But sigh: There’s not a lot to learn, in that latter case, except that he remains a trusty steward of his boot-knife. (Jimmy throat-slits a couple roughnecks who follow him from a lucrative card game.) This dead-ending plot strand is maybe meant to show a developing sense of common cause between Jimmy and Lucky Luciano and Meyer, who run the aforementioned game without Rothstein’s knowledge. But give it a couple of weeks: I’m sure we’ll be back to Luciano being all “I fucked yer mudder” with Jimmy lunging at him while subtexting “how dare you do that to the woman who kissed my ‘winky’ when I was a baby” while anonymous thugs lunge between them going “Guys! This is boring! Stop!”

Anyway, the convenient-slash-annoying thing about Jimmy’s trip to New York, where he tries to cut an independent deal with a noncommittal Rothstein, is that it removes him from the meeting of fair-weather alderman convened by the Commodore and Sheriff Eli. (Later, Nucky will agonize over Jimmy’s uncertain loyalties before he even discusses his brother’s outright hostility.) The Commodore, since returning to health, has devolved into some textbook old-man’s-still-got-it shtick: After dyeing his hair jet black and going the grease-paint route with his eyebrows, he military-presses an elephant tusk as a not at all embarrassing way of overproclaiming his virility. But obviousness (not to say overcompensating) doesn’t count as a demerit among this secondary cast of unimpressive functionaries — I think “Neary” is the only name we’re really supposed to remember among this crew — and so the Commodore successfully convinces everyone to switch their allegiances, save one, who turns up at Nucky’s “real” treasurer’s office to scratch at the floor and whine-apologize.

Meanwhile, in jail, Chalky finds himself on the business end of a pretty long wind-up at the hands of Dunn Pernsley, a Baltimore thug who surmises that Chalky is actually illiterate (despite his knowing what precarious means). Pernsley’s role is rather overwritten — it’s all drawn-out dipthongs and leering eyes (and he has the temerity to call Chalky “Brother Tambo”?), though the actor playing him turns it into pretty electric material. (You get big asshole points for using “palaver” when poking at someone’s literacy.) But, by the time he’s in the same cell with Chalky, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen: All the other black cell mates (herded together so as to prevent “mixing the races” in the jail) have a firmer loyalty to Chalky than the aldermen do to Nucky. One by one, Chalky pulls on the tendrils of his familiarity with each man until the message is delivered, and big-talking Pernsley gets stomped to shit, another screen-time-chewing dead-end new character who exists only to be quickly dispatched.

But Pernsley’s pacing and preening around the cell bear a striking resemblance to the Commodore’s feats of strength in front of the aldermen: It’s a form of showiness that belies a deeper weakness. Like Rothstein, who never pulls out from behind his desk in the earlier scene with Jimmy, neither does Chalky have to move an inch to dispatch Pernsley in the cell. He doesn’t even have to ask for his book back. And it doesn’t matter whether the novel he was only pretending to read was Tom Sawyer or David Copperfield — real power is having somebody bring it back to you, and then read it out loud, if you need it read. The strength is all in the sitting still.

Nucky, understandably, is running all over town in his first daylight hours since making bail, so it’s up to Margaret to remind him that all he needs to do is calm down for a bit in order to start regaining his power. “You are smarter than your enemies and you will persevere,” she tells him after they both endure a bore of a dinner with a Sinn Fein fund-raiser and representative, who seems introduced to the plot only so that he’ll leave behind a security expert (who walks around the episode with the word “charming” all but emblazoned around his skull). To calm him down, Margaret shows him the fruits of her own hustling around during the day: his ledger and the cash-stuffed envelope from Nucky’s Ritz hiding spot, which she acquired while pretending to play poor and ignorant in front of the state’s attorney’s men ransacking Nucky’s lair. She burns the ledger and tells Nucky to commit future dealings to memory. He nods in assent, his face fairly shocked as it learns something new about power. If men best project their potency by appearing immovable, the women in this empire are still underestimated frequently enough to make them the best, most moveable pieces on the boardwalk.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO