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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Just Bookkeeping

BOARDWALK EMPIRE episode 19 (season 2, episode 7): Michael Pitt.

If you are tired after a long day of work and just want to watch a show with good performances and strong technical chops, etc. etc., Boardwalk Empire remains a totally valid choice. Even at its worst, it never makes the world an objectively poorer place. (Most hours of cable news can be described this way. We should all just stop watching those.) It’s a show! It can muddle through an hour with fighting and sex and guns and a well-hewn overall style, plus occasionally some snappy dialogue. So when we say an hour of Boardwalk Empire was “bad TV,” then, that’s not to suggest that the stakes of its relative goodness or badness were ever particularly high. But good Lord this episode was all over the place. And the more you think about it, the less impressive it becomes.

Remember the other week, in the woods, when Jimmy/Harrow/Manny and Meyer/Luciano, etc. had their midnight meeting of the guns? And they all decided to let Nucky have his booze so that they could start running heroin? The general idea being that they’d expand the field of play rather than go directly at their rival on his turf. Well, nobody who was there remembers it — because in what’s easily the most out-of-nowhere narrative device of the season, most of the aforementioned parties (with Capone subbing in for Manny) decide it’s time to off Nucky, after a helpful nudge in that direction from Sheriff Eli. As Capone helpfully explains, they’ll make more bread that way. Which is what it’s “all about,” this gangsterism. The moo-lah. Cash rules everything et al. Then Mickey (yeah, he’s back) does that laugh of his. Inexplicably, no one shoots him in his seat.

So there are a bunch of narrative strands that are hinted at in this scene, none of which are much developed. As in, no one is curious about why Eli’s so eager to kill his brother? That’s a speed bump that everyone just hops right over. It’s not like Eli’s ever been the go-to strategy guy or anything. Maybe it’s possible he’s being driven by some emotions that are irrelevant to everyone else? At any rate, Jimmy is maneuvered into deciding to do something only because other people are waiting for him to do it — a particular move that, because of how transparently Jimmy is given to making it, doesn’t connote strength nearly so much as he’d like it to. It’s painful to watch him in the decision-making chair. And disappointing, too, after we’d begun to see him get under Nucky’s skin by being minimally creative. He just forgot all that stuff from last week about being a subtle player of the game. So, we’re back to where we’ve been before, with a boring, confused, easily manipulated Jimmy. As a trope, it didn’t get more interesting while we were away, during the past few, very good episodes.

And listen: If Al Capone is gonna trouble himself to travel across the country, sit in the makeup chair, and get hauled out for a scene on this program, the least Jimmy could do is agree to kill somebody. And so, largely on this argumentation is the hit on Nucky born. For this vital and important task, the brain trust in the room elects to go with an anonymous “paisan” off a train to be named later. It’s really neither here nor there. Almost anyone will do, because all the characters in this scene would like to get out of it as soon as possible. (I like to imagine the Commodore, over in the next room, using that one good arm of his to throw some feces on the wall in protest, while listening to this scene play out.)

Would you believe that Nucky is not successfully murdered by the person tapped for this task? No, it looks the treasurer’s hand needs a bandage — but that’s about it. This happens near the end of the episode, but it’s worth dispensing with now, it’s such a predictable dead end. Jimmy tries to be tough right before the putative kill, approaching Nucky in Babette’s supper club. He says this line, full of feeling, about being decisive, and then turns away as the moron assassin gets off one shot (the one Nucky catches in his defensively raised hand), before being in turn plugged by one of the new federal investigators in town. After Nucky takes some pain medication, he may begin to wonder what that fed on his tail is all about. We see Jimmy limping out of the hall, wincing like “argh, why am I even doing any of this when my only true wish is to curl up in the fetal position and have my mom lick my face a bunch?”

Also, haphazardly spread in and among the scenes that make up this episode’s main arc, we had a bunch of other well-acted story strands that didn’t really get us anywhere. Margaret’s brother in Brooklyn? Still not very kindly disposed toward her, turns out. Perhaps you thought there was a little glimmer of something there when he was telling Maid Katy that the old Margaret was dead to him. If so, maybe you would have taken a car up to the borough, too, and spent the night even after getting the cold shoulder at a family dinner. But would you have come back the next day, for more of it? This whole thing takes for-ev-er. Are we ever going to see any of Margaret’s extended family members again? We can hope not, while also hoping that young girl gets all the books about horses she can bear to read. (Aw, reading!)

Let’s contrast Margaret’s family drama with that of Chalky White, who is nowhere to be found in this episode. (And was just window-dressing in the prior one.) I think a few recap readers found Chalky’s last big arc pretty hard to swallow — the whole bit where he got chased out of his own home at dinnertime after being spooked by the class difference between his childhood origins and his current status as a high roller who can afford the finer things. It was a stretch, sure — but also an interesting one. And it also pushed us into a more complex understanding of the character’s role in the community. Could Chalky be patient on Nucky’s timetable while the Klan’s murders went unanswered? And if he could stand to wait, what good was he as a minority power broker? And if he was no good at that, why even pretend to be able to read, or be interested in eating anything other than Hoppin’ John. Hey, I wonder what happened to that guy! Seemed like he was on the verge of doing some stuff we hadn’t seen on the show already.

Margaret’s trip to Brooklyn has got none of that going for it. The whole output of her journey, after suffering another round of family heartbreak, is that she’s ready to be a badass again — which manifests back in Atlantic City as a secret fuck with Owen. But like Jimmy, we’re just going 'round in circles with Margaret. She was already a badass well before Owen’s arrival. Then she got timid again, asking questions that we thought she’d dealt with in season one, when she was reading Henry James and being all upstanding.

Oh, and about Owen. You might not have known this, but there was a brief crossover sequence in this episode with the HBO Ireland program The Troubles. The first season of that show follows Owen as he goes on a frustrating five-month chase for some fellow Irishman, before he comes to the Boardwalk, where he then finds and kills him in this episode of this show. Anyway — go and watch that entire series and then come back and watch this part again. It’ll really pay off for you in a way that it never would have, had you just seen it in this episode, stripped of all context.

Okay, but seriously. What was good in this episode? Agent Van Alden was good. Esther, the sass-talking new U.S. Attorney who can’t be bought by Nucky, has inspired Van Alden to return to something resembling law enforcement, which is also a smart call. He hands her all his non-booze-related paperwork on Nucky and then holds his baby after Lucy splits (perhaps bound for the stage in Manhattan, if the piece of paper pinned to the diaper in the phonograph is any indication). Some scores were at least settled here: Lucy got her money, though from Nucky instead of Van Alden. Strangely, this may have freed Van Alden up in a way no one anticipated. But as Gillian tells Jimmy when he’s brooding over the Nucky hit, mere bookkeeping is beneath the aura of a great mover and shaker. Here’s hoping the show picks up again next week with more inspiration, instead of dutifully diversifying its attentions among an ever-thickening portfolio of narrative accounts.