Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO
We open with a wild, late-night/early-morning fire on the Thompson premises. By which I mean: Margaret’s hair is down. This can only mean long-pent-up, sensual things to come. Who knows with whom!
What did you think I was talking about? Oh, yes: There’s also an actual fire happening in the family’s greenhouse, first witnessed by Margaret’s little, mysterious tyke of a boy — one that soon attracts the fire department and next-door neighbor Cornelia Predock (she of the women’s-health-pamphlet freelance-editing and fringe presence at parties past).
Owen is already downstairs surveying the damage from the fire, and he is wearing a dashing hat. Which means maybe he likes hats in the cool night air, or maybe he likes to look dashing in front of Margaret and/or Cornelia (who is visibly shaken with desire when Owen first approaches). After the all clear is given near the greenhouse, there’s a debrief session with the young boy, Owen, and Margaret in the kitchen, but it’s all pretense. After the kid goes to bed, Owen indulges in a bit of Irish folklore with Margaret, about the mythic, shapeshiftingly dangerous púka character (which can either be a horse or a rabbit or a goat) and haunts the dreams of little boys listening in upstairs (and also perhaps recent Irish immigrants whose greenhouses were just on fire).
There’s lots of great misdirection in this episode, like how Margaret mistakes her son for an arsonist. Also, how Gyp Rosetti never appears, despite Margaret knowing to ask after his particular danger by name — and despite his threatening to appear during several great suspense-movie-worthy sequences. (Especially when, later in the episode, Margaret is a-totin’ a double-barreled number around the empty house, only to find Owen keeping watch in the soot-covered greenhouse.)
Let’s just skip right to that scene, shall we? So: There’s Margaret impulsively going after Owen in the final seconds — after an episode that opens with Margaret’s neighborhood chum Predock primping for Owen’s early-hours arrival on-scene at the Thompson blaze. (And then Owen’s mentioning of Ms. Predock and her nightgown by name, later, suggesting that he took enough notice of her to at least suggest her to Margaret as a credible rival.)
I liked how all those surprises and keep-you-guessing tricks worked in this episode, especially compared to how the last episode thought suspense was fairly earned by preemptively ending crucial scenes. Also: The way the show moved around between its many points-of-action was pretty masterful.
The opening around-the-horn toss from Atlantic City (and the Thompson House fire) to Tabor Heights (where Eli continued exercising greater and greater authority) to New York (where Mr. Means’s fishbowl was full of fish and water instead of bribes) and then to Washington, D.C. (where Remus and Nucky both traveled to figure out WTF was going on) was really well handled. Sometimes Boardwalk Empire feels herky-jerky when switching between all of its narrative tracks in these different towns (and the cast of ten-plus key characters in each), but that was not the mood of this episode. I also appreciated how the endless political machinations in Washington, D.C. are finally starting to go somewhere that has greater consequence than just mildly annoying Nucky when he sits in his Atlantic City offices. Briefly: The sweaty Jess Smith, observed at a function for Boy Scouts, looks so shaken by the Senate subcommittee’s hearings that Attorney General Daugherty feels compelled to simply indict someone with the least amount of blowback possible. It takes Nucky about fifteen seconds to figure out that that’s going to be him (since apparently targeting the bigger-national-player Remus would directly implicate Team Daugherty).
Nucky threatens Daugherty before heading back to the train station and (he thinks) New York. But Means has been listening secretly in a little hideaway and suggests to Daugherty that he can divert Nucky’s anger. That happens by pinching him for a bottle of booze purchased at the train station and a daylong trip to the local jail. When Nucky finally gets his day in court, it’s ESTHER RANDOLPH doing the night-court duties on behalf of the government. (She is perfectly coiffed at night, natch.) The Über-narrative convenience of this is offset by (1) having Esther Randolph back in the mix and (2) the fact that Nucky figures out the angle of her night-court stint. In short: As an effective, dedicated public servant after justice, she’s been relegated to the fringes of the law, under Daugherty’s reign. Makes total sense. So, after she feverishly tries to have Nucky assigned a year in jail and a hefty fine, Nucky-the-operator realizes she might be able to be turned into the enemy of his enemy.
Again, this is very quick thinking on Nucky’s part. But it helps, audience-plausibility-wise, that he’s seen firsthand how thoroughly unrewarding Esther’s work life is. The judge who flippantly awards Nucky his freedom after levying a pointless $5 fine has a great, Deadwood-quality line that he spits at Esther when she protests. “I sympathize with your desire to bring purpose to your life,” he says, adding that this joke of a courtroom isn’t going to be the place where she’s likely to find it. So, at a greasy-spoon diner at 2 a.m. over a “twenty-cent” breakfast, Nucky extends a hand that putatively offers Remus’s head down the line. Esther asks how Nucky can deliver that, and he says he’s working on it. But at least now he knows he has a buyer for that deal. This is satisfactory plot movement as regards one half of Nucky’s antagonist-universe.
Too bad it means he’s failing all of his ladies during the same span of time. Billie Kent’s show with Eddie Cantor opens on Broadway to at least one positive review, but she’s burned that he wasn’t there to see the triumph that he helped bankroll himself last week. (Yes, commenters, I was remiss in not I.D.-ing the long-used-on-the-show fictional version of Eddie Cantor last week. But in my defense, when these historical figures are trotted out for such little substantive plot purpose beyond the name-drop, it gets a little tiresome. If, next week, a new paperboy appears in Tabor Heights and someone pats him on the head and says, “attaboy, lil’ Bobby Woodward,” I will break something.)
And Nucky’s lack of presence in Atlantic City is what pushes Margaret into her boldest domestic position of the season thus far. Just before she gets her gun and goes and gets her Owen in the greenhouse, she lays down the law with Nucky on the phone — telling him that once he’s back in town, they’ll have to have a talk. If at first we thought Margaret was headed for a dull episode of cheating with the Smarmy Doctor at the Catholic Hospital, it appears that she’s rescued herself from that particular narrative dead end. (We don’t go to the hospital this week, but we do see Margaret poring over the latest edition of “Birth Control Review,” edited by Margaret Sanger — a totally defensible historical name-drop that doesn’t require a guest star.)
She does it by reminding the at-first reluctant Owen that “we both know how to keep a secret,” which is exactly right. And it’s a moment on Boardwalk Empire that feels both true and not telegraphed way beforehand. The action drives us back to Nucky, but not in a way that requires tons of exposition (as the legal dramas tend to do).
Now, however, we should devote a moment to looking at the arc on this episode that did feel pretty extraneous. Gillian, though well acted by Gretchen Mol, is stranded, plot-wise, in a mansion that is only very barely connected to the other characters. (The best excuse we get this episode is that Lucky is still invested in the joint. And that he’s trying to push his heroin there through the “hoo-ahs.”) Her creepy seduction of a stand-in for her lusted-after son — the aw-shucks, job-seeking “Roger” — isn’t gross because of the incest-desire we’d already understood to be the case with Gillian. It’s gross because of lines like “Do you ever dream, Roger?”
This is a character that needs help, and fast, from the writers’ room. There was a potentially promising hint of their allying Gillian with Gyp a few episodes back — but as long as Gyp is out of the picture, licking his wounds (and his dog collar) while looking for his revenge, all Gillian has is a predicable way of hiding from the reality that she’s not especially important to anything that’s happening right now.
Richard Harrow also reappears in this episode, at a veterans’ Drinking and Fighting Club. It looks like he might even have a new potential girlfriend, in the noble daughter of an old codger who goes around picking can’t-win fights with the younger set. This show is the very opposite of one that needs more supporting characters, but such is my desire to see Richard made at least a little bit happy, I’m hoping to see the young woman make a few more guest-star appearances in Harrow’s life.