Monday, September 27, 2010

 

Boardwalk Empire No. 2: The Ivory Tower

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Good news. Ratings for last week's premiere were so good that HBO already has renewed Boardwalk Empire for a second season. This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.


By Edward Copeland
Boardwalk Empire may take its title from the famous walking area in Atlantic City, N.J., but the series' second episode opens in Chicago and a lot of the action, in the first six episodes at least, will take place in the Windy City as in this opening which shows the throngs gathered outside a church on a cold, snowy day for the funeral of slain mob boss Big Jim Colisimo. Among his pallbearers are Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, who disagreed with Colisimo's reluctance to get in on the bootlegging business and stole the load of Canadian Club whisky in Atlantic City that had been intended for Arnold Rothstein. Capone tries to hold off reporters, insisting they have respect for the dead. Place prominently on the back of the casket as it's loaded into the hearse is a large wreath offering condolences from Nucky Thompson.


Back in Atlantic City, the man who sent that wreath is gazing at the photo of his late wife and reading newspaper accounts of Colisimo's death while receiving a shoeshine. Nucky tries to makes small talk with the man kneeling before him, asking if he has any children and learning that he has four sons at home. Soon though, Eddie interrupts to announce that Agent Van Alden is there to see him. Of course, Nucky doesn't recognize the name or even get a chance to tell Eddie to make him wait because by that time Van Alden already has pushed his way into the office, brusquely introducing himself. "You are a hard man to get a hold of," Van Alden complains. "I've been waiting since 9 a.m." "There's your problem," Thompson replies. "I didn't get here until 2:30." The agent suggests that those are odd hours to keeps for the Atlantic County treasurer to which Nucky answers, "Both I and the city of Atlantic City march to the beat of our own drummer." Van Alden gets to the point, questioning him about the massacre in the woods and expressing skepticism at Thompson's story that Hans Schroeder was the culprit, since Schroeder had only one minor run-in with the law, an arrest Nucky himself happened to make in 1912 when he was sheriff. Tiring of the conversation, Nucky finally asks Van Alden if he shouldn't be out raiding stills. As Van Alden rises to leave he tells Thompson, "I suppose I march to he beat of another drummer myself." It's only the second episode, but it's great to finally see Buscemi and Shannon square off in a scene. Arguably the series premier actors, it's a joy to watch them spar and to watch the slick, joking Nucky try to charm his way around the stiff, intractable Van Alden, especially when we will see as the series develops that these two men have more in common than it would appear they do on the surface.

Out on the Boardwalk, a man is openly handing out pamphlets for the Ku Klux Klan as Jimmy strolls along with a large package under his arm. A necklace in a shop window catches his eye and he enters the establishment. With the second episode, directed by Tim Van Patten, Boardwalk Empire finds itself on even firmer footing storywise as the relationships become clearer and the plot strands start becoming clearer.

As Nucky and Eddie are exiting the hotel, a large man waves greetings to him. Nucky has to ask his valet to remind him who he is and what he does. The man is George Baxter (Allen Lewis Rickman) who provides cutlery for most of the city's restaurants. Nucky greets him and meets the young girl Claudia (Megan Ferguson) that Baxter brought up from Baltimore in hopes of romance.

At the hospital, Margaret still recovers from her miscarriage and busies herself reading The Ivory Tower by Henry James. A nurse tells her that Mr. Thompson has come to see her. You can the sense of excitement wash over the widow Schroeder as she tries her best to make herself look presentable and places a ribbon in her hair. To her disappointment, the Mr. Thompson in question turns out to be Eli. He offers his sympathies about her husband's death, but also makes it clear that should anyone ask her questions (i.e. Agent Van Alden) she should tell them that she had seen Hans involved in bootlegging activities. Margaret seems puzzled at first, probably because Eli can't help but bring a slightly threatening tone to anything he says, but she finally understands. Eli also bears a "gift" from his brother: An envelope stuffed full of cash.

Agents Van Alden and Sebso visit their supervisor Elliot to report on their Atlantic City findings. While they had went in pursuit of Arnold Rothstein, their preliminary investigation leads them to believe that Nucky Thompson is the bigger fish. "He is as corrupt as day is long," Van Alden says, describing Thompson's ritzy lifestyle and intricate network of graft where aldermen make collections for him from everyone, yet the voters, especially black voters, remain devoted to him. He owns casinos, whorehouses, booze flows as freely as ever and he even controls wire services for horse race betting. Van Alden compares Nucky's life to that of a pharaoh. At the jail, Nucky lambastes Eli for the way he handled Hans Schroeder. It worked out it in the end, but he wanted to make sure he was identifiable and the fish could have eaten his face off. Eli promises to be more careful next time. However, Nucky has a different mission at the jail. He's there to visit the former Mickey Cusick, now Doyle, who is sawing logs in his cell. His cellmate has to awaken him. Mickey leaps to his feet at the sight of Thompson, wondering where he's been. "You're out," Nucky tells him." A giddy Mickey starts gathering his things to bid the jail goodbye, until Nucky corrects his misconception. He isn't getting out of jail, he's out of the business. The feds know who he is now and he's contagious and he can't afford to be connected to him. Nucky is giving his business to Chalky White.

In New York, Arnold Rothstein amuses himself with some billiards practice when Lucky Luciano arrives with the man who killed Big Jim Colisimo, Frankie Yale (Joseph Riccobene). Rothstein tells Frankie the story of a man who made lots of money betting people that he could swallow any pool ball and bring it up back up out of his throat. One time, Rothstein chose to make that bet. Now, everyone knows that Rothstein does not make stupid bets, as the smooth, cerebral gangster tells the tale, and he'd seen the man do it many times, but the man took the challenge anyway and Rothstein chose the cue ball. What the man did not know and Rothstein did is that the cue ball is 1/16th larger than all the other pool balls. The man swallowed the cue ball, couldn't get it back up and choked to death. He asks Frankie if he realizes the point of his story, but Frankie just says something funny. No, Rothstein corrects him, the point is that if Rothstein would watch a man choke to death simply for his own amusement, what does Frankie think he's prepared to do to the man who killed Colisimo if he doesn't tell him who put him up to it. Stuhlbarg really gives a great turn as Rothstein and it's amazing that I didn't know who he was until last year when he gave his superb performance in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, a character who couldn't be more far removed from Rothstein.

No sooner has Margaret returned home from the hospital than she receives a visit from Agent Van Alden. He apologizes when he realizes where she's been, but it doesn't prevent him from having a seat and asking her questions about her late husband. As Eli had predicted, the questions start coming involving Hans' involvement with alcohol. Margaret, uncertain of what she should do, stammers around, not really giving an answer in the affirmative or the negative. Van Alden explains to her that based on what he knows of her husband's past record, he suspects that he's been set up as a patsy for the murders in the woods and that he doubts that a mere baker's apprentice was the mastermind of the murders and hijacking. Margaret continues to remain vague, thoughts of her abusive dead husband's reputation and Mr. Thompson's generosity competing for loyalty within her.

Jimmy wanders into a rehearsal for an elaborate show that is not going well, when the director calls for a break and all the showgirls go back to their dressing room. Jimmy makes his way backstage to await their return. As the girls start making their way into the area, one lets out a shriek at the sight of Darmody and leaps into his arms. At first, you think perhaps Jimmy has a woman on the side but when he asks his mom to calm down, you realize this is his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who must have been very young when she had him because she still looks great and can still be the star of risque show such as the type in which she appears. She tells Jimmy she thought he was dead, since he never wrote her while she was away at war. Jimmy then brings out a surprise: the necklace he saw in the shop window. It's almost identical to one she had when he was a child but was forced to sell to take care of her family. He'd always promised he'd get it back for her and here it is. Gillian starts hugging her long-lost son again.

Following the mother-and-son reunion, Jimmy returns to Nucky's office. Thompson asks him what he thinks he's doing. Jimmy says he's clocking in. Nucky says their relationship has changed quite a bit in the past 24 hours, would he not agree? Jimmy again tries to explain what went down and starts to take a seat, but Nucky stops him, saying he didn't say he could take a seat. Thompson expresses his anger since Van Alden had already paid him a visit asking him about the incident in the woods. Jimmy tells him that Al got spooked by a deer, having to explain exactly who Capone was. Nucky wants to know if Torrio sanctioned all this action, but Jimmy says he did only after the fact, but again reiterates that they only killed the five men when it went wrong because they couldn't leave any witnesses. Nucky says there were only four bodies, but let's not quibble about that. One thing is for certain: Jimmy no longer works for him. If he wants to be a gangster in Nucky's town, you have to pay him for the privilege. As far as that share he gave him, the way Thompson figures it, he still owes him $3000 and he has 48 hours to come up with it.

Nucky also has plenty of other issues, major and minor to deal with. Arnold Rothstein finally gets him on the phone and because of the shipment he never received, he feels that Nucky owes him $100,000. Additionally, one of the dead men happened to be his sister-in-law's nephew. Nucky disagrees. Rothstein asks if that's how they do business in Atlantic City and Nucky tells him he better not show his face there again or he'll find out. Nucky runs into a frustrated Baxter, the cutlery salesman, on the Boardwalk still frustrated in attempts at getting anywhere with Claudia. Nucky invents the possibility of a beauty pageant with Baxter as a judge in the hopes it will soften Claudia up and get Baxter laid. Jimmy is having even more trouble getting that $3000. He'd spent most of what he had. When he calls Capone and asks him to wire $500, Al acts like they had a bad connection and laughs. Finally, Jimmy is forced to steal back the necklace he gave his mother to hock it for the rest of the cash. Later that night, after midnight, a guilt-ridden Margaret shows up to see Nucky to return his money. She wants to know what it is he wants from her. "I want you to vote Republican," Thompson tells her.

Even later, Jimmy, finally having gathered, the $3000 for Nucky delivers the cash to him on the gaming floor. Thompson asks if he needs to count it. Only if you don't trust me, Jimmy says and Nucky declines to count. However, he does want to make a point to his former protege so he walks with Lucy over to the roulette table and places the entire wad of bills on black. The wheel spins and comes up 23 red. "I guess it's just not my kind of night," Thompson smiles before walking away, leaving Jimmy stunned at the waste.

It's still not a good time for George Baxter, who has finally had it with all the money he's spent on Claudia to no avail so he tells her he's taking he back to Baltimore. "Now?" she says, surprised. "Why not? My car has hood lights." The two hit the road and before long they are on the road. Baxter bitches all the way, getting on Claudia's nerves who finally tells him to pull over, soon after they pass the sign for the blueberry capital of the world. "Do you want to kiss me?" Claudia asks. Baxter gets a kiss and then Claudia tells him to unzip and begins to give him a hand job until she suddenly lets out a scream in which George joins in on as a bloody, large, mustachioed and bearded man appears in their headlights and collapses on the hood of Baxter's car. I guess Jimmy was right about there being five victims, only the fifth one didn't die.


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