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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Take the Bath Yourself

Here we have an episode in which everyone takes matters into their own hands (or at least tries). After weeks of hemming and hawing on multiple narrative fronts, the spirit of direct action is now spreading throughout the show’s story universe like a virus. The city’s exploited black underclass takes their civil disobedience beyond the kitchen assembly line and occupies the boardwalk. Margaret, in a dispiriting turn for a once-gully character, decides to double down on magical thinking in response to her recent, paralyzing ennui. (And her priest, who previously appeared shifty, confirms as much by seizing on her weakness — and accepting Margaret’s cash-drawer emptying attempt to purchase an indulgence, absent an additional confession.) Meanwhile, Nucky finally fires his lawyer while pulling off a big booze sale that doubles as a strategic coup.

Oh, and Manny the Butcher shows the Darmody-Capone axis how killing-on-purpose is done — even if his heteronormative assumptions regarding nighttime coupling leads him to mistake the identity of his target.

And so let’s now have a moment for Angela Darmody, who, in being shot alongside her lesbian lover, is this episode’s surprise fatality. It was a surprise both in the sense of editing — along with Manny, most viewers probably assumed it was Jimmy in her shower, given how we’d last seen him taking Angela to bed — but also in the macro scheme of things. Even when haltingly and sometimes strangely used by the show’s writers, this was a valuable character, and one I think it’s fair to say will soon be missed. Angela — and, really, the acting of Alexa Palladino — helped elevate a number of arcs, not least of which was that of Richard Harrow. After realizing that their budding affection led into a practical dead end, he shuffled right up to suicide’s door. That is to say: Doing without Angela can take a lot of doing.

The show left a lot of promising cards on the table when deciding to cash her out. Aside from the suggestion of something more in store with Harrow, there was her incipient feminism and the way it bumped up against elements of the era’s radical culture that Al Capone infrequently encounters. Here’s hoping Angela’s elimination can provoke a renaissance of complexity in the person of her husband Jimmy, a man who often as not seemed outclassed by her company (and who seemed to acknowledge as much in their final, touching scene together before his alma mater road trip).

For now, though, Jimmy is just scrambling: to get control of the racial unrest, to unload the watered-down liquor being quoted at a price well over Nucky’s authentic Irish supply, and to own the role of the New King. Surprisingly, the Commodore can stand (and casually toss around misogynist slurs) again, so Jimmy’s decision-making primacy is newly in question. Capone also seems to be losing patience with Jimmy’s nascent reign.

That leadership vacuum is already creating some strategic problems: As Esther Randolph’s investigation into Nucky leads her back to Sheriff Eli’s show-birthing murder of Mr. Schroeder, Eli responds with typically ignorant brute force. But his ordering up of some thug-swung billy clubs brings Deputy Holloran no more in line than it is able to crush the spirit of the black protesters. By episode’s end, Eli is in the federal slammer — and Jimmy finds out that money alone cannot sate Chalky White’s desires. For now, the Commodore can only stamp his cane and utter the odd objection while his underlings fritter away their advantage.

Nucky, for his part, is only opening himself up to more hurt by taking on additional fatherly duties. By bringing Teddy along on his trip to New York, and by being patient with the boy’s cruelly expressed selfishness, he’s making the day that he learns of Margaret’s affair with Owen that much more painful. The man wants to be a father as much as Jimmy wants to be a son. Not so surprising, of course, but still telling in the way that it exposes how the show’s most compelling psychological threads have so little to do with the business of gangsterism. The thugs on Boardwalk Empire — Manny and Capone, especially — feel about the same, whether they succeed or fail at any show-forwarding objective. This deal goes through or this enemy dies, or it/he doesn’t. But Angela’s departure reveals how, at their best, the writers can make us care about these people, quite aside from any change in the balance of power. The punch line to Angela’s joke — that directive to “take the bath yourself” — doesn’t merely apply to seizing responsibility or initiative, but to living independently of others’ expectations, or else the constraints of the era. The men and women on the show who are driving this season to its close will still live or die by virtue of plotting and escaping. Though, as Jimmy begins to understand when envying a tubby older man’s frittering away of a day at the beach, that jockeying may rarely constitute a persuasive account of the good life all on its own.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO