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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Let the Real Battle Begin

We’ve seen how it takes a lot to kill a character on this show. Send a man after someone with a double-barreled weapon, and the ensuing shot merely grazes the shoulder of its intended. Order some assassin to execute a hit in a crowded club, and he only kills off the target’s ability to use a single hand.

So, no, Mickey Doyle didn’t suffer a series of cracked ribs that in turn poked holes in his lungs after last week’s impromptu second floor flight into a dinner table. Just a couple scratches on a face that can be propped up by a neck brace, thanks very much. And … Dunn Purnsley is not only alive, post his jail-cell beating some weeks back, but also seems to have reached a degree of rapprochement with Chalky White in the interim. (I would have loved to see their first meeting on the outside, at some point during these past few weeks. But I’m glad that two of the show’s most fascinating talkers are getting scenes together again — even if their rich, Deadwood-esque brand of argot only makes some of the other scenes feel lackluster by comparison.)

Purnsley’s consolation prizes for absorbing that rough justice have taken the form of some new gold teeth, and what passes for a plum job in the kitchen of the Ritz. Though the bad working conditions of the latter, which Chalky once heard about at his church Q&A reality-check session, have thus yet gone unremedied. Now that Nucky’s given Chalky the green light to throw a general strike, Purnsley becomes Chalky’s ground-level operative in the movement — stirring dissent among his fellow cooks and dishwashers for most of the episode, until, at long last, the cardboard-cutout shitheel of a white manager gets Atlantic City’s first taste of the coming uprising. The whole arc is well acted and well paced. Totally onboard to see more of Purnsley-as-agitator.

Elsewhere, with Margaret increasingly sidelined from the show’s action by her family oriented stress (if it’s not the older brother cutting you off, it’s your daughter catching polio, you know?), there’s an opening in the show for another woman to put all the little boys in their respective places. “I’m your boss, Clifford,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph admonishes her subordinate while rising, naked, from the bed they just worked out together. (He held back his sleuthing about the Thompson brothers’ mutually exclusive burial rituals for their father until after the sex had been had.) This moment, combined with Esther’s facetious toying with Deputy Halloran’s low-wattage misogyny later in the episode, should win actress Julianne Nicholson a few fans (or marriage proposals, or whatever). She’s so much more a compelling foil for the crooks in town than Agent Van Alden ever was. I’m somewhat impatiently waiting for her to come in more direct conflict with both sides of the Nucky-Darmody divide.

Nucky’s Belfast Adventure, bless us all, eats up only one part of a single episode. The unceasingly sanctimonious IRA leader McGarrigle, after clucking his tongue at Americans’ lust for money-grubbing, gets supplanted by a new leadership that’s only too happy to trade guns for whiskey. This changing of the guard also allows Owen to return back Stateside with Nucky. (Owen’s arc, which culminates with a closing realization that Ireland is no longer his home, helps make the detour feel more fulfilling than it would have, had it been just for the benefit of Nucky’s business lobbying.) Before their return voyage, Nucky tells Owen that he doesn’t dig secrets, in a sorta portentous reminder-nod from the writers that Owen’s affair with Margaret will likely be uncovered at some point. Right, then, boyos — back to America (and its many stockpiles of guns) with you!

About Team Jimmy: Yeah, the gang’s all pretty much the same as they’ve ever been. Richard Harrow’s a soulful sort just waiting to make a change in life (we all hope); Al Capone’s a colorless mug (read a book? Well he never, etc.!); third-person-loving new recruit to the axis George Remus keeps talking about George Remus. I’m rarely moved or intrigued by much that this crew says or does, save for Harrow’s presence — though the expositional “what’s the new plan, fellas” scenes in this episode zip by rather efficiently. Jimmy gives the go-ahead for a hit on Manny the Butcher. Of course that doesn’t pan out, though what does surprise is Manny’s head-splitting work with a butcher’s tools, shoulder wounds notwithstanding.

Several of these arcs are tied together via anticipation, and then broadcast, of the Dempsey fight that we’ve been building to for weeks. The obvious symbolism of a contest beginning in earnest isn’t as grating as you might fear. When Harrow snagged a sympathy grope session from one of two floozies who approach Jimmy in recognition of his status as “the new king” in town, I was wondering if that was the type of thing that would calm his tortured mind. If Jimmy’s going to cheat this openly on Angela, in Richard’s full view, I could see how the sometimes-mocked man behind the mask might be willing to revise down his estimate of what their friendship really means.

Photo: Macall Polay/HBO