Boardwalk Empire Recap: Losing Their Religions

BOARDWALK EMPIRE episode 23 (season 2, episode 11): Gretchen Mol, Michael Pitt.
Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Oh, hello, payoff episode. Glad you made it! Some plot strands on this show have been waiting for you to come around for some time now. Let’s address some of your ugly business up front.

So — that whole suggestion-of-improper-affection thing between Jimmy and his mother that’s been going on forever? Turns out those were just aftershocks following a full-on incest-quake that happened one drunken night during a Single Parents’ weekend at Princeton, back in the day. The intercourse is accompanied, outside Jimmy’s dorm-room window, by a remorselessly chugging locomotive barreling its way toward a tunnel, probably, if you catch the know what I mean she said!

Something like this had to happen on the show. There’d been way too much hinting, and awkward-kissing, and “winky” references, for this to not be an official thing that would be addressed. We just didn’t know if it was still to come (sorry) or if it was all in the past.

This is useful information for an audience to know! It retroactively alters a lot of moments. And here’s another consequence of the whole flashback structure of this episode (which felt very Jed Bartlet remembering his boarding school days from that one West Wing episode, to me): I think I cared about Jimmy’s interior head space for the first time in a long time. Last week, I wrote that Angela’s death had better pay off for the show in some way. And now it already has. (It doesn’t hurt that we get to see Angela one more time, either.) As Jimmy recalls the breadth of his initial relationship with Angela (during what turns out to be a heroin-addled lost weekend), we in turn get to know how it was that they came about partnering up without understanding so much about one other. Even though theirs was a dorm-room sneak-around pregnancy, Jimmy ran off to his military service not so much because of Angela’s family-way status, but because he had slept with his mother the same night he found out he was due to become a father.

It also helps, I think, for us to see a bit of what Nucky must have once seen in Darmody. The kid’s plucky intelligence shines forth during his seventeenth-century British lit class up at Princeton. Young Jimmy (whose hair is combed more wussily, or has conditioner in it or something, the better to make us understand he is not yet Mr. Tough) can go blow for explicatory blow with the Ritchie Riches at Princeton while reading John Webster’s The White Devil (I believe?), but still has to be warned by his similarly blue-collar instructor not to be too mouthy in the direction of his social betters. (Yeah, take a seat next to Leander on that one, teacher-guy.) Whatever fellow feeling Jimmy has for his teacher — we see them go affectionately round and round with quotes from Webster that are super appropriate vis à vis “a man’s place in a corrupt world” — totally evaporates, though, once the latter gets all handsy with the Moms.

Jimmy comes upon them while ferrying his pregnant girlfriend around a formal evening event and then throws his scholarly life away by beating the (drunk) instructor with a ferocity that we can see turns his mother on. (One thing I wanted was to see Angela see Gillian’s face at that moment. If she had, she might have run away, had or not had the child on her own, and lived a life of lesbian literary exuberance in either case. Too bad for her.)

Back in the “present” time, Jimmy — in a Jacobean twist foretold by his professor — finally kills off the Commodore (who in turn had attempted to kill Jimmy while he had his hands around Gillian’s neck). Great stuff, all this! Could Gretchen Mol have been any more condescending in talking about the dearly departed? It was almost a striptease and a performance of “don’t you wish the mother of your child was hot like me,” before Jimmy went in for the choke hold.

Anyway, I’m way more interested in the character of Jimmy now that I know a bunch of really important facts about his life, and have a sense of his intellectual and emotional range here at the point of episode 23. Gillian also gets a great line off at the end of the episode, after Richard Harrow has mopped up the Commodore’s blood from the drawing room and Jimmy has reawakened from a post-heroin-binge-and-killing-his-father nap. (Harrow also has an affecting moment with Angela’s blood, right after playing dumb as a “simpleton” for the cops. This guy’s fuckin’ life, I tell ya.)

That thing that you did, Gillian says to her son, “I know you didn’t mean it.” Is she talking about the Night of Incest, his choking of her, or his killing of his father? All three? Of course a shape-shifting character like Gillian isn’t going to come down definitively on one side of an ambiguity. And the nonchalance of her declaration that she’ll be upstairs after putting Jimmy’s son to bed is pretty spookily great. (How thoroughly does she want to take Angela’s place?)

And other stuff happened in this episode — though most of it wasn’t anywhere as intense as all that. Mickey Doyle is very … slowly … getting a spine, and tiring of being treated like a soft touch by Capone and Luciano and Lansky. He reaches out to Van Alden, whom Doyle thinks he can corrupt further by offering him a tip on the payout of their recent big liquor sale. (They all plan to screw the mourning Darmody out of his share.)

Doyle offers Van Alden half of the pot to be amassed in the open — either $200,000 or maybe $300,000 — if he’ll intervene and fake-bust them all. Van Alden, recently lectured to on the status of his good personhood by his infant’s nanny, turns Doyle down cold. This is before he’s discovered as the murderer of his ex-partner down by the prayin’ creek a while back. That little blast of a factoid from more than a few episodes ago comes courtesy of Nucky’s (horribly treated) servant Harlan, who just happened to have been at that baptism. (Points to Nucky’s lawyer, who recognized that the man had something to say when Nucky was just yelling at him to leave the room already.)

Aside from this bit of luck, Nucky’s world is pretty dour and boring, still. Margaret’s only gone further on the train to churchtown; everything that’s bad in her life is being interpreted as a reason to give more money to the church. Or maybe she feels that way because the only sin she can’t confess is that she’s still way into Owen. We learn that he also feels the same way when, as he modifies the brace for polio-stricken Emily, he out and out says he can’t stop thinking of Margaret. Jealous Maid Katy overhears and scurries away down the hall, not to be seen again until making trouble in the season finale, presumably.

I feel bad for Nucky, being stuck with a mush-headed Margaret. After moving on from Lucy, he probably thought he had a no-nonsense gal on his hands — and now look. Maybe he should try for Esther Randolph next. When her deputy Clifford was about to veer into cliché after uttering the word “feminine,” she stepped in and commanded him to not say the word “wiles.” That’s just Nucky’s speed. Too bad she’s still trying to turn Eli into a witness against him.

Did anyone else wonder what was going on with Chalky White’s strike this week? Even as this show keeps killing characters off, it has a bit of a problem giving all of its established narrative strands the appropriate amount of screen time. But there’s still an episode left this season. I actually can’t wait to see what happens next — right about the time that HBO has stopped sending out screeners.

Boardwalk Empire Recap: Losing Their Religions