Sunday, September 25, 2011
Boardwalk Empire No. 13: 21, Part I
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
The sky above the Atlantic actually wears a hue of blue that's lighter than the ocean itself since daybreak nears and the sun will momentarily break through what remains of the night sky. The darker blue waves that land on the beach carry with them bottles of liquor. A shadowy figure darts by, grabbing the booze as more men in silhouette appear, some carrying rifles, one who even in the dark appears to be Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). As the beachcombing continues, a song begins to play. It's a new version of the Irving Berlin-penned No. 1 1920 hit for Van & Schenk called "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)." A woman who sounds as if she's attempting to sound like Sophie Tucker sings the new cover recorded especially for the second season premiere of Boardwalk Empire. The action moves from the beach to Babette's Supper Club where Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and most of his alderman indulge in their usual round of debauchery of booze and babes. By now, the sun has risen as we see it was indeed Richard and he joins up with Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) as men load a caravan of trucks and Jimmy gives the go sign and they take off down the road. The ladies climb on laps and wiggle at Babette's and all the elected officials look soused. The song goes on as does the montage. Jimmy delivers the liquor to the warehouse of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), who samples a bottle and nods approvingly. A reinvigorated Commodore (Dabney Coleman) practices attack moves with a long spear-like weapon in his living room. Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) looks in the mirror at the scars left from his shooting. Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) arrives at the train station with a bouquet of flowers to give to his wife Rose (Enid Graham) who has come for a visit. Two feet slide off a bed and into slippers as Margaret rises for the day. As Nucky and his men keep going, his faithful manservant Eddie (Anthony Laciura) taps his boss on the shoulder and points to the time on his pocket watch. The music stops.
Chalky's men keep busy unloading the morning's delivery when there is a knock at the door. "Keep your mouths shut and those crates moving," Chalky bellows. When that door opens, the second season of Boardwalk Empire will begin with a start — and, I'm happy to report, beginning with this episode and other new ones I've seen one, a more prominent role for Williams than he had last season. Because this is the premiere, even though it's no longer than a regular episode, I've divided this recap in two so Blogger doesn't knock everything else off the page and because it contains a sequence that's one of the best they've done, so I wanted to make certain I had enough layout room to attempt a visual representation of it.
I've seen several of the new episodes and I have to say I'm quite pleased so far, though Boardwalk Empire has the unenviable position of beginning its new season as the best TV drama, Breaking Bad, has been on a helluva roll in terms of episodes the past few weeks and has three episodes left in its season that promise to provide major developments to hold viewers until whenever its fifth and final season airs. Boardwalk Empire is great but, for the first three weeks at least, it will pale next to the AMC show, which will likely dominate conversations. I can't help but wonder if HBO wouldn't have been better off waiting until Breaking Bad wrapped its season before letting Boardwalk Empire premiere. (On a completely extraneous sidenote, I find it highly offensive that AMC keeps running ads for its Mad Men reruns calling it "the best show on television." It's a great show and it may have won four Emmys in a row, but that doesn't mean it's better than Breaking Bad on the same network. Frasier won five Emmys in a row for comedy while The Larry Sanders Show failed to pick up one in those same five years, so I wouldn't lean on the Emmy as the arbiter of quality.
Creator/executive producer Terence Winter wrote this season's premiere and executive producer and frequent director Tim Van Patten helmed it and both bring their A game to "21." So often it takes returning series a few episodes to get percolating again after time off, but Boardwalk Empire manages to come roaring out of the gate in its second season just as it did in its first. Last year, they had executive producer Martin Scorsese directing the pilot as if it were a mini-feature film, so Van Patten had a hard act to follow but he always provides nice directing touches and does so again on "21," aided by the good material Winter provides Van Patten to work with, writing several solid set pieces for him as well as some juicy monologues for his cast. It's always refreshing to hear a television actor allowed to sink his teeth into worthy words without constant cutting into short segments and bite-size bits streamlined for the ADD generation. The series also requires that you pay attention because you never know if a scene might turn out to be important somewhere down the road.
Back at the warehouse where Chalky runs his operation, one of his men opens the door to the shocking sight of one of the outside guards standing with his throat cut. As he falls away, the space where he stood reveals a group of Klansmen in the bed of a pickup truck with a mounted machine gun which they use to immediately open fire on the man at the door and the building itself as Chalky and the others hit the ground from the barrage of bullets.
Bodies fall, bottles break and after most of the warehouse workers have been hit or taken cover, Chalky continues to crawl stealthily across the floor. Two of the hooded hatemongers carefully enter the building armed with shotguns. One spots Chalky cowering and cornered and places his rifle barrel right in Chalky's face and spouts, "Purity, sobriety and a white Christian Jesus." Before he can fire, a woman pops up on his right and shoots the Klansman in his side. The other armed racist shoots her and helps his wounded colleague back to the truck. Van Patten has directed the entire sequence kinetically with nice use of zooms and immeasurable aid from Kate Sanford's editing. Chalky grabs the abandoned shotgun and goes to the door, but he's deliberate with his aim on the fleeing truck and picks off one of the Klansmen. Chalky's face registers a combination of anger, grief and fear.
After his night of carousing, Nucky comes home to the sound of Margaret yelling at her young son Teddy (Rory and Declan McTigue) to stop misbehaving because he's going to school whether he wants to or not. As the half-tipsy, half-hungover Thompson gets further into the house, he sees that Margaret is leaning under the dining table while daughter Emily (Josie and Lucy Galina) eats her breakfast in silence. Realizing that Teddy has hidden beneath the table, Nucky asks why he is under there. Margaret explains that he doesn't want to go to school. Nucky ducks under the table with the boy's mother. "You want to be a fish monger?" Teddy pauses to consider the question before answering, "Yes." Nucky disagrees with the boy, reminding him that he'd told him before that he'd wanted to be a doctor like Dr. Surran. Margaret shows Nucky the bruises on Teddy's hand that he says one of the nuns gave him. Nucky asks what he did, but Margaret says the boy denies that he did anything, saying the sister just doesn't like him. "When a sister did that to me, I got another beating from my father when I got home," Nucky tells him. Thompson finally rises and gets ready to leave again. Margaret asks where he's going. "To the office — to get some sleep."
Circumstances definitely have taken an upward turn in the life of Jimmy Darmody since we last saw him giving the cold shoulder to his common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and living with her and their son Tommy (Connor and Brady Noon) in a cramped apartment. Now, Jimmy and Angela have tied the knot officially and the family resides in a nice home. When Jimmy walks in that morning, he asks Angela if Nucky called, but she says no, asking if he should have. Also at the Darmodys is Jimmy's mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Jimmy mentions he could go for some ham and eggs, but before Angela can make a move, Gillian steps in. "I know how he likes them." Jimmy asks Tommy if he'd like to go shooting at the creek. The boy enthusiastically likes the idea, but Angela objects — insisting Tommy is too young. Jimmy recalls doing the same thing at his age and Gillian blurts that his father took him, but her son corrects her. "He wasn't around then — Nucky did." Tommy jumps on his father's back and the two boys leave. Angela joins Gillian in the kitchen and chastises her for undercutting her, reminding her that she is his wife and Tommy's mother. Gillian says she didn't mean to, but Jimmy is her son and Tommy her grandson as well. "Boys will be boys," Gillian declares.
The sight that Van Alden sees when he squires his wife to his office displeases him, to say the least. The room now has many agents as opposed to when only Van Alden and the late Agent Sebso occupied it. What sets Van Alden off is finding that two agents had moved furniture aside to practice wrestling moves on the floor. Van Alden shouts at them to put the furniture back. The agents leap to their feet and try to adjust their disheveled appearance. The shorter, clean-shaven one tells Van Alden that they were just about to finish some field reports. "I take almost no comfort in 'about to,'" Van Alden tells them, adding that Mrs. Van Alden is visiting for the weekend and wanted to see where he works. He then introduces Rose to the two grapplers as Agent Sawicki (Joseph Aniska) and Agent Clarkson (Joel Brady). Van Alden makes a point of explaining to Rose that the more ethnic-looking Sawicki comes from "Polish stock and joins us from Mount Olivet" which Sawicki informs her is outside of Pittsburgh. "Yes, they have a large Christian community there," Rose says. Clarkson insists there are decent activities to do in Atlantic City and hands Rose a tour guide he picked up titled "If Jesus Ever Came to Atlantic City." She asks if it lists churches and Clarkson assumes it does, but says he hasn't had time to look inside the guide.
At Deuces, Johnny Torrio's cathouse in Chicago, Al Capone (Stephen Graham), still dressed sharply since his decision to get serious, sits down for a meeting with George Remus (Glenn Fleshler), Torrio's ex-lawyer who has found a lucrative life for himself in Cincinnati. Remus confuses Capone by constantly referring to himself in the third person. Johnny (Greg Antonacci) shows up, nursing an earache. Remus proposes that Torrio start getting his booze from him because of the loopholes he's discovered in the Volstead Act. Remus is another real-life figure. The plan he describes to Torrio and Capone matches what Remus really did: He bought distilleries and pharmacies so he could produce alcohol for medicinal purposes and then hijacked his own trucks so he could sell the booze. As he points out to Torrio, Cincinnati sits a lot closer to Chicago than Atlantic City. "And who really likes Nucky Thompson anyway?" Remus adds. They make a deal. Torrio tells Capone that when he heads east on other business soon, he should drop by Atlantic City and tell Nucky in person that they won't be doing business any longer.
Gathered around a table bearing a large map of New Jersey set up in Nucky's office (in a very nice overhead shot by Van Patten) are Nucky, newly elected Mayor Edward Bader (Kevin O'Rourke), Ward Boss James Neary (Robert Clohessy), Ward Boss Damian Flemming (Victor Verhaeghe) and another man to whom Nucky explains the map's meaning. It seems that it all goes back to those roads that Nucky was eager to land last season before he was double-crossed by Senator Edge. You can't keep a good political grifter down. It seems that Nucky and assorted friends bought up plots of land where the roads will be built so now New Jersey will have to buy the land they need from them at a healthy profit. Neary points out to the other man, who turns out to be an Irishman named Ernie Moran (John Keating), that the parts of the map colored blue have been purchased. Then, when it's time to build the roads, they point to their own master builder ready to construct them in Bader. Bader lets Ernie know that he's accepting bids for gravel now. "For 40 miles of road?" Ernie asks quizzically. "You do the math," Nucky answers. Ernie hands Nucky a wad of bills and says to consider it a down payment. As Nucky walks Moran out, Ernie asks if "we're all set for McGarrigle." Nucky assures him that they are set for dinner at his house Monday night. Ernie seems relieved. "Anything for the cause," Nucky says, presumably referring to the troubles back in Ireland. After Moran and his aldermen have departed, Nucky makes his way to his special closet. He lifts the secret panel and removes the moneybag and adds the cash that Ernie just gave him. Thompson then removes his ledger and begins to make his notation of the payoff when Ernie enters and interrupts him with an emergency. Kessler informs him that a reporter just called seeking comment from him on Chalky White shooting a Klansman. Nucky curses under his breath and tells Eddie to get his brother Eli on the phone, but Eddie tells him that's been taken care of and the sheriff is on his way. Nucky finishes his writing in the ledger and puts it back and closes the closet as he prepares to go out.
Van Alden takes his wife on a tour of the Boardwalk by taking a ride in one of the city's push carts. He attempts to tell her about the famous six-story building shaped like an elephant in the nearby town of Margate and to see if Rose might be interested in taking a drive to see it, but the window where a nurse holds a baby behind the words "BABY INCUBATORS We Save the Lives of Babies" distracts the childless woman. When Nelson gains her attention, she expresses little curiosity about the novelty building. The push cart's operator brings the vehicle near the Ritz Carlton and Van Alden exchanges glares with Nucky as Thompson exits the hotel. Rose inquires as to who the man was, but her husband replies, "No one of any consequence." Mrs. Van Alden opens the guide book Agent Clarkson gave her and drops her jaw in shock. "This guide — it lists the taverns and houses of ill repute," she gasps as she hands it to Nelson. He gives it the once over. "The author's attempt at cynicism. I'm sorry you had to see that dear," he tells his wife. "Maybe it's better that we don't have children," Rose says acidly. "This world."
Michael Kenneth Williams' talents went woefully neglected as Chalky White for most of the first season of Boardwalk Empire, but so far that has been more than remedied in what I've seen of season two. You'll have to wait to see some of what I'm referring to since those scenes occur in upcoming episodes, but it starts off well with this scene in the premiere. Nucky and Eli arrive at Chalky's house and sit in the living room. Before any conversation can take place, they politely listen as his teenage son Lester (Justiin [sic] Davis) plays the piano. Chalky stands with his wife Lenore (Natalie Wachen) in the entryway to the room. When the teen finishes and the guests compliment his skills, Lenore tells them that in two years Lester will be attending Morehouse. She asks Nucky and Eli if she can get them anything to drink, but the brothers decline. Chalky tells his wife that the men will be needing some privacy and takes a seat on the sofa. Once Lenore exits, Nucky leans in and whispers, "What the fuck happened?" Chalky responds coolly, "It don't matter now. I took care of it my own self." Eli mentions that the man he shot, Herman Dacus, was a schoolteacher. "I've got four dead boys in my warehouse and another half-dozen wounded — including a woman," Chalky responds. Nucky tells Chalky that he knows that he'll take care of it. "How do I know that? We supposed to be protected," Chalky says, the anger rising in his voice. "I'm done with this shit. I've got my family. I've got my people." Nucky cocks an eyebrow. "Your people?" Chalky spells it out more explicitly for Nucky. "Ten thousand black folk whom make this city home — busboys, trash collectors, porters." Thompson asks Chalky what meaning he's getting at. "Meaning you gonna school these crackers lest you all find out," Chalky warns. "You do understand that I'm the only thing keeping you from a lynch mob?" Nucky asks him. "You ready for what happens here if I turn up on the end of a rope?" Chalky counters. "If things go that way, your people have a lot more to lose than I do," Nucky cautions. Chalky gets up to leave, pausing to ask if they are going to arrest him. Nucky says they aren't, but he better stay in his house. He tells the brothers they can show themselves out. As Nucky gets up to get his coat and hat, he tells Eli that he thought he had a handle on the Klan situation. Eli doesn't really respond except to say in reference to Chalky, "That's one uppity shine."
Margaret pays a visit to Sister Bernice (Marceline Hugot), the nun at Teddy's school who Teddy claims doesn't like him. "My son came home with bruises on his hand," Margaret says. "From where I struck him with a ruler," Sister Bernice openly admits. "Did he tell you why he was punished?" Margaret tells the nun that Teddy didn't say anything, other than he did nothing wrong. "Then you are raising a liar, Mrs. Schroeder," the nun replies as she removes something from her drawer and places it on the desk. "He was caught playing with matches — in a coat closet — in a school — full of children," the sister informs Margaret, who seems more embarrassed that the book of matches comes from Babette's Supper Club. Margaret ducks her head, admitting she doesn't know what to say. "I understand you're a widow," Sister Bernice says which Margaret confirms. "And you live with Teddy's uncle," the nun adds. Now, Margaret's embarrassment has turned to outrage and she asks if Teddy will be expelled. Sister Bernice tells her no because Father Brennan intervened on his behalf. "Apparently he's close with your Mister Thompson," the nun says accusingly. Margaret thanks her for seeing her and leaves. It's another great example of the show reaching to a past event in an unexpected way. I wondered why the season one recap included the shot of Teddy watching Nucky's childhood home burn after Nucky set it ablaze in a fit of rage at his father. Apparently, those little eyes peering out the back of Nucky's Rolls were mesmerized by the sight of flames.