Boardwalk Empire does a great job of titling its episodes: Think of “Family Limitation,” taken from the name of Margaret’s birth-control pamphlet or, last week, “Belle Femme,” in which Margaret turned the tables on her onetime tormentor, Madame Jeunet, and began to really look at what kind of femme, belle or otherwise, she’s likely to become.
This week’s installment, in a nod to all the recent Frank Baum sightings, is titled “Emerald City,” and it’s all about dreams and shiny destinations, journeys, baptisms, and, yes, even a bar mitzvah. Also, Chalky White pulls two massive guns from beneath his coat. So that was fun.
We start with a full-faced, handsome Richard Harrow, cavorting on a beach with a lovely lady to dulcet music. But no sooner do we wonder where exactly we are — flashback? Dream? Nightmare? — than the woman turns and screams. Cut to: Margaret’s adorable daughter (who, can we say: great actress!) waking the real, disfigured Harrow, sleeping on Margaret’s sofa and frightening her kids.
Is there a better new character on TV this year than Richard Harrow? We’re still haunted by his revelation that he no longer reads fiction because “it occurs to me that the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other,” which he, postwar, can no longer believe is true. It was a chilling sentiment and a bracing meta-moment: The fictional show grappling with the redemptive aspirations, and inherent limits, of fiction. All delivered by a sharpshooter with half a face.
Speaking of people who have trouble with human connections, we find Van Alden increasingly unraveling, as his beloved superior shouts at him, “You’ve bungled this from the start!” Given that Van Alden was pretty unraveled to begin with — though, paradoxically, also incredibly tightly wound — who knows where this downward spiral will take him? Well, into a speakeasy, then into Lucy’s bed. Yes! Lucy! Naked! Again!
So — did you see that coming? We were shocked, frankly, that Nelson didn’t end up strangling Lucy to death — that seemed to be where the scene was headed — and, also frankly, we weren’t totally taken with this turn of events.
The trouble with Van Alden’s descent is that he was already halfway crazy. We’ve never seen him as anything more than a straight-laced, humorless, rule-bending, back-whipping, photo-obsessing-over prude. If this had been, say, Kevin Costner’s upright Eliot Ness, a spiral into perdition would feel devastating, the slow breaking of an honorable man. For Van Alden, it seems inevitable, the obvious other-side-of-the-coin to his grim rectitude.
Michael Shannon is doing a great job with all this — it’s impossible to imagine any other actor playing Van Alden — but we wish the show gave him more to do than pray and grimace and flinch. True, this week we actually got to see a fleeting smile; he cracked not one but two genuine grins while trying to lure Margaret back into the light. But then he was right back to shouting about hell and damnation.
One of the more credible complaints about BE so far is that there’s just too many plotlines, and we tend to agree: We figure you could lose at least two major threads (including Angela the Sapphic Painter) and we’d all be just fine. Case in point: Remember Al Capone? Well, he’s back! And he’s being bar mitzvah-ed! Mazel tov!
Not Capone, precisely — but after a dumb prank (and kind of implausible — who gives their boss an exploding cigarette? Especially when their boss is a mobster?) goes awry, Al heads to the synagogue to get a convenient talking to from a Wise Old Jew, who chides him for wearing the “cap of a boy.” No sooner can you shout “Who wants to be a milliner!” than Al shows up in a spiffy fedora, telling Torrio he’s finally ready to get serious.
So — here’s our problem with this. When you’ve got so many characters to juggle, you inevitably wind up with on-the-nose shorthand subplots like this one: Al needs to grow up; Al meets convenient mentor; Al shows up with new chapeau. Bing-bang-boom. Don’t get us wrong — we love Al Capone (and Steven Graham). Which is why we’d like to see him in more than the occasional simple sequence.
Another, less credible complaint about BE is that Steve Buscemi doesn’t convey the dark menace needed for a crook like Nucky. We will admit he seems much more comfortable conveying the silent pain of an abusive childhood than he does slamming Mickey Doyle against the wall. Luckily, he’s got Jimmy, who’s getting more menacing by the minute. In fact, by episode’s end, he and Chalky — the expertly menacing Michael K. Williams — get into a kind of menace-off. First, a tough-talking D’Alessio spits, “You going to shoot me for mouthing off?” and Jimmy replies, “I wasn’t going to but you kind of talked me into it,” then casually pops him in the head.
Chalky, not to be outdone, simply picks up one of the brothers responsible for the lynching and calmly chokes the life out of him.
Oddly, the character most affected in this scene is Nucky. Just as Margaret had a kind of baptism earlier, giving her crooked endorsement of mayoral hopeful Bader, in this scene Nucky — who, remember, couldn’t even speak the word “murder” as recently as last week — presides over two cold-blooded slays. “You can’t be half a gangster,” a younger Jimmy once told him. This week, he’s gangster all the way.
Let’s see, did we miss anything? Oh yes: Women got the vote. Hooray! Except once Margaret sees the fulmination of all she’s fought for, she turns around and peddles women’s votes as just another commodity on the boardwalk. Belle femme indeed!
The episode’s final shot — Margaret catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, echoing Harrow’s earlier comment that he often no longer recognizes who he is — also seemed a bit too, well, familiar. If this show tends to title its episodes well, it often ends them weakly, or at least thuddingly, with the subtlety of a haymaker: Nucky’s muddy footprints, the bloody dress from last week, now Margaret’s mirror moment. Some viewers have complained that they don’t “get” the show, which is weird, given how hard the show is trying.