Sunday, October 09, 2011


Boardwalk Empire No. 15: A Dangerous Maid, Part I

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.

By Edward Copeland
It wasn't until I was writing my recap for this week's episode that it dawned on me that Michael Shannon's Agent Van Alden didn't appear at all last week. Tonight's episode, "A Dangerous Maid," opens with a scene between Van Alden and Lucy and I realized that, though both still reside in Atlantic City, they seem more removed from the main story threads than I fear the Capone Chicago tale will become, even though Al visits A.C. tonight and Stephen Graham gets two very good scenes. It's a shame because Shannon is such a great actor, but I fear Van Alden was written into a corner once he drowned Agent Sebso last season. In this season's premiere, he only seemed to do his job to impress his wife and this episode shows him getting tips from another of the series' most peripheral characters. He's also accomplished something I felt impossible: He's made Lucy sympathetic. In the first season, Paz de la Huerta's Lucy grated on my nerves, but becoming a semi-prisoner to Van Alden has softened those qualities and tonight's episode was the first time I actually thought she performed well. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact that the Van Alden-Lucy storyline doesn't mesh with the rest of the show. With Nucky fighting a real political and legal battle with stronger and more resourceful enemies, Van Alden's Prohibition agent no longer seems either a threat or vital to this tale. On the plus side, this episode offers more fine moments, including a climactic dinner scene at Babette's that lasts nearly five minutes (which made me feel like dividing the recap in half again) and hints of a mystery involving Margaret's past. The title, by the way, has a double meaning.

Tonight's episode was written and directed by two newcomers to Boardwalk Empire, with a teleplay by Itamar Moses, who wrote two episodes of the very underrated Men of a Certain Age, and direction by Susana White, whose long list of credits includes helming four episodes of David Simon's Iraq war miniseries Generation Kill. It seems appropriate that "A Dangerous Maid" was helmed by a woman director since the episode has more than the usual number of scenes that focus on the series' female characters.

The episode opens with a pan through a neighborhood of tiny houses where laundry hangs from lines and through windows people can be seen dancing to Al Jolson. We then see Van Alden from behind, methodically preparing his breakfast and praying before he begins to eat. Lucy enters and tells him, "It was kicking again." Nelson turns and glares. "The baby. The baby was kicking again. You said it." Lucy meekly — not an adverb you'd apply to her in the days Nucky squired her — asks Nelson if she can go out. She says a neighbor lady invited them to dinner. "I asked you not to allow anyone in here," Van Alden replies sternly. "A simple dinner, some conversation. Some music, for God's sake," she says, almost tearfully, mentioning that they don't even have the latest brand of phonograph player. Nelson doesn't know what she's saying until Lucy identifies it as a Victrola. "This is jail, Nelson. I used to be out every night of the week," Lucy wails. "Yes, I'm sure between ordering murders and rigging elections, Nucky Thompson showed you quite the time." Lucy tells him she can't live like this and he tells her that once the child is born, she won't have to, per their agreement. "Say what you will about Nucky, at least he was fun."

Nucky doesn't appear to be having much fun as we see him staring in his covered garden. Steve Buscemi seems to have an endless supply of stares and glares across the entire emotional spectrum and we see most of them in this episode. Right now, Nucky looks quite contemplative, still wearing his robe and silk pajamas rather late in the day when a fully dressed Margaret comes out to see him. Margaret tells Nucky that she had Katy return some of her things to Belle Femme. A puzzled Nucky asks why. She figured that they should try to conserve given the current circumstances. "Under the circumstances, it's more important than ever to appear as if nothing has changed," Nucky insists. "Are you not invested to the limit in your land deal?" Margaret asks. "I heard you on the phone with your lawyer." Nucky tells her he wants to see her in only the finest things and to send Katy back to retrieve the items. As he goes into the house, Margaret sifts through the mail and sees she's received a large letter from a New York detective agency.

Flemming makes his collection stop at Lolly Steinman's casino where he finds Lolly (Danny Burstein) trying to clean the coffee stain out of the felt of one of the gaming tables where a customer spilled it the night before and his new employee Owen Sleater polishes some woodwork to keep himself busy. (If you've forgotten Lolly, his place was the casino Rothstein practically busted the bank in the first episode, beginning the bad blood between Rothstein and Nucky prior to the hijacking.) There's nary a customer in sight. Lolly gives Damian the envelope and says, "I know, it's light." Flemming looks shocked at the cash that Lolly has handed him. "Light — it's a fucking dirigible," Damian declares. "What am I supposed to tell Nucky?" Lolly tells him to ask Nucky why he had to hire this "mick" — referring to Owen, whose official duty is bartender — when he doesn't have any booze to sell. Lolly then decides that it's high time to explain to Nucky's only loyal ward boss how the casino business works. "People gamble. They lose. They get mad, so we give them free drinks so they keep gambling," Steinman begins. "Sometimes they win. They get happy. So we give them more free drinks — then they're drunk. So they gamble even more and eventually lose it all. The next night, they come back and do it all over again. So the whole fuckin' equation depends on what? Alcohol." Again, another great monologue, and this one isn't even given to one of the regulars (though Burstein delivers it brilliantly). Has there ever been a more concise explanation of casino gambling? It's as true now as in 1921, only the booze flows legally now. Flemming tells Lolly that he got a shipment just last month, but Steinman argues that it was shit, the swill — and he's even running low on that. Sleater just keeps busy, but he's listening to everything. "The rollers want the good stuff. If we ain't got it, they play someplace else," Lolly says. "It's hard, Lolly. Nucky's fighting for his life!" Damian shouts indignantly. "We're all fighting for our lives," Lolly replies. "If he wants fat envelopes, I'm gonna need the booze from him — or from somebody else."

While Lolly appeared a few more times in season one, the next scene brings back a character whose main season one appearance was in the premiere — though his clothing has definitely been upgraded since then. Bill McCoy (Pearce Bunting), the captain of the fleet that brings Nucky most of his booze from the Caribbean, has been called to the Commodore's to meet with the old man, Eli and Jimmy. Unlike most players who have seemed to have no problem sticking it to Nucky, McCoy isn't as easy a sell as far as betrayal goes. The Commodore assures him the particulars will be the same: The size and price of the order. Eli adds that it would even be the same crew meeting him on shore. "A passing of the mantle," Jimmy says. McCoy, taking a swig of his scotch, replies, "Sure — a passing it back to the same fellas who already passed it to Nucky." The Commodore chuckles uncomfortably. "I'll be buying my liquor somewhere, Captain, might as well be from Bill McCoy." McCoy holds his glass and squints at the Commodore. "So it's not so much you want to buy it from me as you don't want me to sell it to Nucky." The Commodore tells the captain that Nucky shouldn't concern him. "Ah, but the enemy of my friend…" an inebriated McCoy starts to say until Jimmy tells him he's got the expression wrong and the Commodore asks if he's feeling rather flush. "God bless, Mr. Volstead," McCoy says, raising his glass and drinking some more. "Halibut and motor oil — that's what he used to smell like. Now he's a fuckin' big shot," the Commodore declares. McCoy asks him if that's his attempt to charm. "That's my attempt to talk sense to a jackass," the Commodore replies. "I thought you made a deal — you and Nucky — years ago," McCoy says. "I didn't like the terms," he answers. "So he bested you in the bargain and now you're gonna fuck him over," McCoy announces with distaste. Eli urges everyone to keep it civil. The Commodore tells the sheriff not to get upset — it's just politics. "Or mutiny, depending what business you are in," the captain counters. The Commodore tells McCoy not to forget who built the lighthouse that acts as his beacon. "That scotch in your hand that warms your winter nights — don't you forget who put it there," McCoy retorts as he leaves. As soon as McCoy is gone, the Commodore tells his butler to get Tony Dennehy at the Coast Guard on the phone.

As Nucky makes his way toward his office, Eddie apologizes, "I was watering the plants — he let himself in." Nucky asks who he is talking about as he spies the portly silhouette in the fedora looking out the window behind his desk. Nucky walks in and Al Capone turns around. "Torrio's man," Nucky identifies him. They shake hands and he introduces himself by name. Thompson makes excuses for the shape of his office, still in some disarray from the investigators, saying he hasn't been able to get the maid in recently. "My office is in a cathouse," Capone smiles. Nucky asks what brings him to Atlantic City. "A message from Johnny Torrio. He wanted me to deliver it personally," Al relays. "So he sent you?" Nucky says puzzled. Capone tells him he was coming east anyway to settle his father's affairs. He begins to talk about how his dad was a barber and you can tell he wants to share stories of his father with someone, but Nucky doesn't have the patience. "What's the message?" Nucky asks. "With regret, Chicago will no longer be buying alcohol from Atlantic City," Capone tells him. Nucky assumes they've heard of his legal problems and tells Capone to assure Torrio that no matter what he might have heard, all is fine. Capone has no idea what he's talking about, saying nothing personal is involved. "Torrio's got a new supplier," Nucky guesses. "Did I say that?" Al grins. "Don't get cute. New York? Philly? Is it Waxey Gordon? Unless he's getting out of the liquor business entirely, I'm gonna find out." Nucky tells him. "He ain't," Capone says. "Is he distilling it from Lake Michigan?" Nucky tosses out there. Capone tells him he's getting warmer. "Some Jews across the lake are shipping it directly," Al informs Nucky. "Canada?" "With your pal George Remus in Ohio." Capone removes an envelope from his suit jacket and puts in on Nucky's desk. "He knew you'd be taking a hit. All in goodwill," Capone explains. "What should I tell him?" The ever-proud and stubborn Thompson responds, "Tell him, 'No thanks.' Next time he wants to give me a message personally, do it in person." Capone shrugs and puts the envelope back in a coat. He asks how Jimmy Irish is doing. "If you are referring to James Darmody, you'd have to ask him," Nucky says. Before Capone leaves, Nucky asks how tough the liquor trade is in Chicago. "Lot of dough at stake," Capone replies. "How is Torrio handling the competition?" Nucky asks. Al puts his fedora back on. "We're killin' em."

Lucy gets a surprise and peppy visitor who tries to lift her spirits — Eddie Cantor (Stephen DeRosa). He even brings her a bottle of booze and lights her cigarette — everything a mother-to-be needs. Cantor notices Lucy getting misty eyed. He asks her what's wrong. "Seeing you reminds me of everything I'm missing," she says. Cantor tries to convince her that she isn't missing anything that having a baby is the real ticket. He tells her the papa will be overjoyed, but she admits that he's married and a Prohibition agent she met in a speakeasy. She confesses that after Nucky dumped her, she stopped being careful and that's how it happened. The man promised to pay her good money until the baby is born. "Does Nucky know?" Cantor asks. "He knows everything else — I wouldn't be surprised," she replies. She asks about vaudeville and Cantor pulls out a script that he calls a snoozer but that has a part tailor-made for her. It's about a chorus girl who falls for a rich playboy whose family doesn't approve. Lucy opens up the script and reads the title, "A Dangerous Maid." That was an actual musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin that premiered in Atlantic City in March 21, 1921 and was based on the 1918 play A Dislocated Honeymoon by Charles W. Bell. It was George Gershwin's second book musical and first complete score written with brother Ira as well as one of the few Gershwin shows that never made it to Broadway. The book has been lost, but several of the songs written for it remain.

Jimmy and Richard arrive at Darmody's beachside house to find Angela laughing as Capone plays with Tommy on the floor. Al comes to greet Jimmy but starts roughhousing with him as well. They all take seats around the table while Jimmy stares out at the beach. "All Nucky has to do is step aside," Jimmy tells Al. "Like Colisimo (if your memory is short, he was Torrio's former boss that he whacked in the first episode to take control of his Chicago mob)," Al suggests, pointing a mock gun to his head and firing. "That's not how we work here — it's a political coup. We're taking back the city. My father used to run this place," Jimmy explains. "Fuck the city — what about the booze?" Capone asks. Jimmy tells him it's all locked up with the Coast Guard in their pocket and then Nucky will be in jail by fall. "Jail?" Al says, then he points to Harrow. "Just have Frankenstein drill a hole in his noggin." Richard speaks up, "I won't do that." Al reacts as if Richard works for him. "What do you mean you won't?" Changing the subject, Jimmy asks Al if he's still at Deuces and learns that Torrio gave him a 25% stake in it and the distillery. He was able to buy a house and move his brothers from Brooklyn. "My father passed a few weeks ago. I'm settling his affairs," Capone says. "He was a barber. Had his own shop. Thought I'd be a barber too. Can you see that?" Al laughs. "It's an honest living," Jimmy tells him. "And it worked him to death like a chump, but he was my father," Capone sighs. Angela brings something in and expresses regret that she didn't know he was coming or she would have fixed something. She and Al then speak Italian to one another. "I marry a mick, you marry a dago, we both have sons. What's that about?" Capone inquires. Tommy calls for his dad from the other room, saying he can't get his shoes tied. Jimmy goes and help him. Capone leans in and stares and watching Tommy and Jimmy communicate, you can see the sadness on Al's face that he can't talk with his deaf son that way. Richard picks this moment to ask Capone how Odette is. Al doesn't even hear him at first. When he does, he coldly answers, "She's a whore. That's how she is."

As Eli arrives home, he's attacked by his kids as soon as he gets in the door. His wife June (Nisi Sturgis) says she needs helps with his father Ethan (the late Tom Aldredge in one of his final screen appearances.) She tells Eli that his dad is extremely agitated about something and won't let her change his bed or shave him. When Eli arrives in his father's room, Ethan says, "Look who's here — the big shot" — how he usually referred to Nucky. Eli does his best to try to start changing his father's clothes, which he's had on for days. Ethan points to a newspaper headline about the case against Nucky. "Here — this bullshit — what are they trying to do?" Ethan hollers. Eli takes the paper away and tells his father he shouldn't be reading that. "It's a lot of goddamn bullshit," Ethan declares. "I know," Eli agrees. "Let's get you cleaned up." Ethan keeps squirming and fighting Eli. "I have to get ready. In case he needs me," Ethan insists. "Who?" Eli asks. "Your brother!" Ethan exclaims. "Well, to do that you're gonna need your rest," Eli tells his dad. Ethan leans up and grabs Eli by the collar. "You've got to help him. You can handle things, but Eli — he's got no goddamn idea what he's doing!" Eli looks taken aback as it finally dawns on him that his father thinks he's Nucky.

Margaret lies in bed and opens the letter from the detective agency. It contains old photos of two younger girls and an older boy. She hears Nucky arrive downstairs and puts the letter in a drawer and opens a book. When he enters the bedroom, he informs her that Chalky will make bail and should be home soon. He senses something on her mind and asks what's wrong. Margaret tries to blame the book but then says, "You walk around, the weight of the world on your shoulders, yet you pretend nothing's wrong." Nucky tells her, "I'll do the worrying for both of us." She then admits that the siblings she'd spoken of before apparently are in Brooklyn and gets out the letter and shows him. "There's a phone number. Have you decided what you are going to do?" Nucky asks. "I don't know," she replies. "It wasn't a happy parting of the ways." Nucky suggests that when all this indictment business blows over, they should take a trip, perhaps with the children. He asks if she's been to Paris. Margaret tells him she's quite happy where she is. Nucky says he's glad to hear that but, "It's important to always have something to look forward to."

Ever the dutiful mother (now that her son is in his 20s at least and might be heir to a fortune), Gillian gives Jimmy a manicure in preparation for his dinner with the Commodore and Gov. Edwards. "The whole encounter will be balanced on a razor. Follow your father's lead, but be your own man as well," she tells her son. "So I shouldn't let him cut my meat for me?" he replies sarcastically. "I'm glad you're so cavalier," Gillian says. Gillian emphasizes that it's a dinner with the governor and that his father has worked hard to solidify this relationship. "And you know what they say about first impressions," she reminds him. Jimmy tells his mother a fact that she at first denies — that she used to call the Commodore "the lech." "You did — I had to look it up," Jimmy recalls. Gillian claims that it must have been when she was still angry with him. "What changed?" Jimmy asks his mother. Angela enters the house with laundry from the line. "I grew up. I learned forgiveness. It is a virtue, you know," she tells him. "By that logic, I should forgive Nucky," Jimmy says. "Forgive Nucky what?" a curious Angela asks. "Nothing," Jimmy declares adamantly, giving Angela the hint that she's not welcome in this conversation so she leaves. Gillian tells Jimmy that it means everything that he stood up for her honor. Jimmy mentions the passing of Capone's father and how he was a barber. "Sometimes I think I'd be better suited for a simpler life," Jimmy admits. "Well, that's ridiculous — you're a natural leader," his mother tells him. In somewhat of an echo of the question Rothstein put to Jimmy last week he asks, "And what are you?" "I'm just a woman who loves her family."

Taking a drag on her cigarette, Lucy looks at herself in a mirror and says, "I know what everybody says about me behind my back. That I'm just some flibbertigibbet with cotton wool between the ears. Well, I'm wise to a thing or two. I guess you think I'll fall for any old bean with pomade in his hair and keys to a coupe? And maybe I would've — last month — but now I'm in love with Harry." The camera pulls back and for the first time Lucy has to look at the script. It's pretty impressive that she memorized that much when Cantor just gave the script to her earlier that day. It's also impressive for Paz de la Huerta, because she really did deliver the lines as if she were someone other than Lucy. Perhaps Lucy Danziger, who has been so grating for most of the series so far, does possess some talent. If you recall, last season when she was with Nucky, she said Cantor told her there was a part in a show for her. Nucky encouraged her to do what she wanted, but she opted for the easy life of fine things and partying as Nucky's playthings instead. Lucy continues to run lines, but she has to read from the script. "So what if I don't know how to hit a ball with a stick from a horse or laugh without showing my teeth?" As she goes on, Van Alden enters the house in an ominous shot that frames him in the doorway. He then comes into the room where Lucy is rehearsing and asks her what she is doing. She tries to hide the script and claims she isn't doing anything. "Please," he says, holding his hand out for the script. He begins reading. "What is this?" Lucy answers as if he couldn't be that dense. "What do you think it is? A script." Nelson inquires as to why she was reading it and Lucy admits to Cantor's visit. Nelson acknowledges that he's familiar with the name Eddie Cantor and knows he's a performer. "What did you discuss?" he asks. Lucy tells him about A Dangerous Maid's Atlantic City tryout and how Cantor thought she'd be good for a part in the musical. "Everything written here is what the actors are supposed to say?" Van Alden asks. "Haven't you ever seen a show?" a disbelieving Lucy replies. Nelson leaves the room, taking the script with him and Lucy goes after him, trying to get it back. We do gain some insight to the strange family life that created someone such as Nelson Van Alden. "I was sent by an aunt once to a Christmas pageant in 1894. When my parents found out, they broke off all relations and never spoke to her again." Lucy tells him that he doesn't know what he's missing. "You wish to appear in this spectacle?" "Yes! Yes! I need something! Something — or I'm going to go crazy!" she exclaims. "But you realize that's not possible," Van Alden says predictably. "You're carrying a child. That's a sacred charge from the Lord and a financial agreement between us. So what you might want can't be allowed. I'm sorry."


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