Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Boardwalk Empire No. 24: To the Lost Part I
By Edward Copeland
"I'm not looking for forgiveness." That's what Nucky says before he commits the shocking act toward the end of the second season finale. I've read an interview Hitfix's Alan Sepinwall did with creator/executive producer Terence Winter and, from a storytelling perspective, I can buy Winter's argument for why what happened had to happen, but as good as the past few episodes of Boardwalk Empire have been, they played liked the end to a series instead of the end to a season. A good friend of mine, who always has been very critical of the show, complained that it never seemed to find its voice. I disagreed because what I was watching, I mostly enjoyed. Now, I think he may have been right. Where does it go from here? What mystifies me is how the finale lifted a shroud that must have been cloaking my critical thinking all season long. I've loved most of the show, with far more positive things to say than negative, and the finale followed a run of four episodes where each installment built on the momentum and quality of the one that preceded it. Then in the finale, which was well made — can't argue that it wasn't — Boardwalk Empire rushed to resolve plot strands and did it so haphazardly and with ham-handedness so it could set up its surprise that upends the entire series that it also managed to undermine the season as a whole, revealing cracks and fissures that weren't apparent before. Where does Boardwalk Empire go in season three? What can be one of the most entertaining and enriching hours of television appears after its second season finale, to me at least, to be an unsalvageable mess and part of that feeling stems from that simple line of dialogue: "I'm not looking for forgiveness." This comes with the second week in a row when Nucky tells a character, "Then you never knew me at all." He may have been addressing Margaret and Jimmy onscreen, but he might as well have been speaking to the faithful viewer because the line that he's "not looking for forgiveness" completely contradicts what we've known and seen about Nucky Thompson in the preceding 23 episodes, or at least reveals a completely inconsistent character. That got me thinking about how many of the show's characters behave inconsistently — doing things because the plot requires them to at that moment not because it's in their nature. Last week, I joked that next season's cast could end up having more turnover than Law & Order did in all of its 20 seasons combined, but now that seems neither funny nor out of the realm of possibility. As a result, I feel I need to split this finale recap in half and do a separate season in review just to get these thoughts started out there.
The series’ usually most reliable team handled "To the Lost," with Winter doing the writing and the show's main director and another of its quarter-million executive producers, Tim Van Patten, directing. Things get off to an exciting start as two masked men in a beat-up vehicle who obviously are Jimmy and Richard drive up a country where some Ku Klux Klan members have gathered. When they get out bearing weapons, one of the Klansmen clad in his robes but not his hood (Tim House) asks, “Who are you two jokers?” Jimmy responds by shooting the racist son-of-a-bitch. The other white bigots, if they hadn’t noticed they had visitors, know it now. “Good — we have your attention. Names and addresses of the three men who shot up Chalky White’s warehouse,” Jimmy demands. When none of the organized hatemongers seem forthcoming, Richard steps forward with his shotgun and unloads into another robe-wearing asshole. “Five seconds gentlemen,” Richard croaks. “There’s Herb Crocker — he was one. And Dick Heatherton,” a man wearing normal clothes (Denny Dale Bess) tells them. Behind the line of vehicles, Jimmy and Richard don’t notice someone wearing Klan robes and another man high-tailing it up the road. Jimmy steps closer to the only man talking, keeping his gun aimed straight at his face. “Who else?” A Klansman kneeling on the ground, blood splattered all over his robe, tries to run for it. Jimmy jumps him and the screen goes dark.
In Philadelphia, Manny Horvitz certainly has looked better. He hasn’t shaved, has a cigarette butt dangling from his lips and appears to be in a dark basement somewhere, speaking in a hoarse whisper. “Everyone’s a crook. Little crooks take from who they can. Nobodies stealin’ from nobodies. Then the middle player — how many nobodies does it take to feed him? Seven? Ten? The middle man is always hungry, always worried. From the middle, it’s always easier to fall down than to climb up. But the big crooks — the macher — the big crooks does nothing," Horvitz rambles on about how the biggest crooks take all the perks while the underlings do all the work and we see that he isn't talking to himself but that his meandering address is being given to Mickey, Nucky and Owen. Manny begins to reminisce about his childhood in Odessa in the Ukraine, telling how sometimes he forgets what's going on and imagines that he's 12 again with his whole life ahead of him. "But then I realize I'm in America — that world is gone. You have to make the best of it," he declares. "I understand. We've both had a rough time of it recently," Nucky says just so another voice can be heard. "I sketched it out for him," Mickey tells Manny while fanning himself with his hat, apparently because the basement isn't particularly cool. I think this every time I see Mickey: How the hell has he survived? This is a major part of the inconsistency in Nucky's "I'm not seeking forgiveness" line. Nucky knows that Doyle was involved in the plot against him (He did have Owen blow up his warehouse after all). Mickey screwed him over before with the D'Alessio brothers, but he let him get away with it. Jimmy means so much more to Nucky than Mickey Doyle ever would and when Jimmy attempts genuine reconciliation, he gets no forgiveness but Mickey, who betrays every person he works with, has turned on Nucky twice (and the D'Alessio plot also involved an assassination attempt) yet Thompson lets Mickey live but feels his surrogate son must die? "I must stay away from home for the safety of my family. Close my shop. I'm living like a beggar," Manny explains. "Bit of bad luck — happen to anyone," Sleater comments from the corner. "My bad luck has a name — Waxey Gordon," Manny says. "Let me stop you right there. Whatever your problems, Waxey Gordon is a business partner of mine," Nucky informs Horvitz. "Are you sure about this, Mr. Thompson?" Manny asks as he takes another drink. "Do you know something I don't?" Nucky inquires. "The question answers itself," Manny responds cryptically. "Nucky's a busy fellow, Manny," Mickey says when Nucky gives him a look. "And I have nothing better to do?" Horvitz responds. "You're hiding in the basement of a synagogue. Don't waste his time," Mickey tells him. "Your partner Waxey Gordon is in business with James Darmody. Would you say we have something in common?" Manny asks Nucky. "We might," Nucky admits. "Then let us help each other. You give me Waxey, I give you Darmody and we make business together," Horvitz proposes. "You'll give him to me? In all honesty, you don't look to be in a condition to do anything," Nucky says. "Well, if the boychik's wife could still talk, she'd tell you otherwise," Manny drops into the talk as he pours another drink. Realizing that Manny just admitted to killing Angela pushes Nucky back on his heels somewhat — at least it appears to do so. "Maybe we have less in common than you think, Mr. Horvitz," Nucky changes his tune. "You said he was open to discussion," Manny addresses Mickey. "I said I'd broker the meet," Mickey replies. "So you're too big a crook to be seen with the likes of me," Horvitz accuses. "According to the federal prosecutor, yes, but I will consider your proposition" Nucky answers. Nucky leaves, saying that Mickey knows how to get in touch. "He's heading to jail and this is the look he gives me?" Manny growls to Mickey. "He ain't in jail yet," Mickey replies. "He would be nothing in Odessa," Manny declares as he takes another drink.
Three of Chalky's men stand armed outside a warehouse as some vehicles approach. One of his workers (Donte Bonner) inside watches through slats in the garage door and tells Chalky and Dunn, "They're here." With absolute calm, Chalky says, "Open it on up." The worker slides open the doors and Jimmy drives his beat-up vehicle inside while Richard stays in another with his gun ready. Purnsley snaps his fingers as Jimmy hands Chalky a bag. "There's twenty thousand in cash. Five thousand for the families of each victim," Jimmy says. "I only asked for three," Chalky replies. "I know you did," Jimmy responds. He then walks around to the back of the flatbed and pulls the canvas off three bound, gagged and whimpering men. "The three pieces of shit who shot this place up," Jimmy informs Chalky. "You sure about that?" Chalky asks. "Ask them yourself," Jimmy suggests. "That gonna be my pleasure," Purnsley salivates as he toys with a switchblade. "Governor office dropped my case. You can tell your daddy I'll call off the strike," Chalky declares. "I will. You can do something for me — tell Nucky I want to talk," Jimmy says. Chalky nods in the affirmative. Jimmy leaves the warehouse and Chalky turns his attention to the tied-up Klansmen. "Welcome back fellas," Chalky grins. The Klansmen all moan, "No" as they get pulled off the truck and Chalky and his men proceed to beat on them. Jimmy gets in the car with Richard. "Whatever you do to try to change things, you know he'll never forgive you," Richard tells him. "Let's go to Childs. I feel like a steak," Jimmy says. Would there not be the possibility that Chalky will be pissed off when he finds out that Nucky executed Jimmy? He delivered more money to the families than Chalky asked for and after months of Nucky putting him off, Jimmy actually took it upon himself to off some Klansmen and bring the guilty parties to him, something that Thompson would never have done. The businessmen and the deservedly dead Commodore might have mocked him for urging them to settle the strike and be fair to their workers, but he actually was setting out to be a fairer leader. When Mayor Bader said at the meeting that he thought Jimmy had the right idea, he might have been telling the truth if you read up on what the real Edward Bader was like.
Lillian and Katy help Emily practice walking by trying to lure her a few steps to get to her doll Beatrice when Nucky and Owen return from Philadelphia. Nucky asks where Margaret is and Lillian tells him she left about 20 minutes ago, but didn't say where she was going. Sleater greets everyone, but gives Katy a noticeably cold shoulder.
Margaret's current location happens to be the Post Office where she's about to speak with Esther Randolph — but she didn't come alone. Father Brennan has accompanied her. "She brings a priest? I'm surprised she doesn't have an infant suckling at her breast," Dick Halsey, the clerk, comments. "Bring me back a shaved cherry ice. I'm boiling," Randolph tells him as she enters and introduces herself. "This is Father Brennan," Margaret says. "I'm here for moral support," the priest tells the prosecutor. "I don't think I'll need it," Randolph replies. "She understood that, Father," Margaret keys Brennan in on Esther's wit when the priest clarifies that he meant he's there to support Mrs. Schroeder. "Mrs. Schroeder has left her children — including her sickly daughter — to be here today," Brennan informs Randolph. "What's wrong with her?" she inquires. "Polio," Margaret answers. "I'm terribly sorry," Esther says. "Mrs. Schroeder is a widow and a devoted mother. She is active in the church and ignorant of any charges in this case," Brennan preaches on Margaret's behalf. "I didn't realize they taught law in the seminary. Perhaps we should let Mrs. Schroeder speak for herself," Randolph suggests. "There's nothing she — " Margaret cuts Brennan off. "I'd like to speak with Miss Randolph alone," she says. "I'm not sure — Margaret shuts the priest down in midsentence again. "Thank you, father," Margaret tells him, giving him the hint to take a hike. "Well, I suppose I'll buy some stamps," Father Brennan announces as he leaves. When we first heard mention of Father Brennan, it was in the season's first episode when Sister Bernice informed Margaret that Teddy didn't get expelled over the matches because Brennan was a good friend of Nucky's and intervened. Of late, Nucky hasn't spoken kindly of the priest, but could he have planted him there to keep a watch on what Margaret was saying or is this another example of characters being inconsistent? "Is it difficult to become a lawyer?" Margaret asks Randolph. "Not if you set your mind to it — and don't take no for an answer," she replies. "I doubt it was that simple," Margaret declares. "You're right. I started as a public defender. As you might imagine, my only clients were women," Randolph shares. "What kind of women?" she asks the prosecutor. "The kind who don't have any other choice," Randolph replies. "Are you saying I did?" Margaret asks her. "Why don't you tell me? You cleared the room," Randolph suggests. "My husband beat me. He beat our children. He was a drunkard and a philanderer," Margaret tells her. "And now you've moved up in the world," Randolph states. "Do you hate Mr. Thompson?" Margaret inquires, a curious and lilting tone in her voice. "No, I rather like him. Not that it matters. Do you hate him?" Esther parries. Margaret doesn't answer immediately. "Your feelings are complicated," Randolph guesses. "The truth is complicated as well," Margaret replies. "Then I'd be very interested in hearing what you have to say," Randolph tells her. "Would I have to appear in court?" Margaret inquires. "I'll compel you to testify whether you cooperate with me or not. I can paint you either way on that witness stand. It's really up to you: the helpless widow, unwittingly drawn in by her husband's killer or the shameless gold-digger seduced by money," Randolph lays it out for Margaret. "Does it matter to you that neither one of those is true?" Margaret asks. "It matters that Enoch Thompson goes to jail," Randolph suddenly shouts. Esther lowers her voice and leans across the desk. "What has he given you besides money?" she wants to know. The camera, already close on Margaret, zooms in tighter. "He's never been cruel to me," she answers. "He's been plenty cruel to others," Esther says, almost in a whisper. "I've never seen it," Margaret responds. "But you know it anyway," Randolph accuses Margaret. "I have children," she offers as a defense for willful blindness. "And does their well-being trump everyone else's? The victims' as well as the criminals'?" Esther raises the questioning, hitting Margaret on her already overactive guilt complex. "If you had your own, you'd never ask," Margaret declares. "If I had my own, I couldn't bear knowing their comfort was bought with the blood of others because sooner or later they'll find out themselves and that won't be a happy day," Randolph responds. "If I did what you ask, what becomes of me?" Margaret inquires. "You'd never have to see him again. Set yourself free, Mrs. Schroeder. You'll be amazed how much better you feel," Randolph pledges. I'm probably alone in this, but this might be favorite scene of this episode for a couple of reasons. First, it's the only time in the show's history that I can recall that they had a scene predominantly between two intelligent women. Second, it's another example of one of my favorite aspects of the show — riveting dialogue scenes they let go on, in this case, for nearly four minutes.
"How do you order someone to commit murder? It's fucking ludicrous," Nucky says to Fallon as they meet in his home office. "That's my position," Fallon agrees. "If I ordered them to step in front of a train, would they do that too?" Nucky asks rhetorically. "If they would, your troubles would be over," Fallon replies. "Goddammit! Eddie!" Nucky shouts. Kessler marches in. "Why is this bourbon empty?" Nucky asks. "Someone drank it," Eddie replies dryly. "You're cracking wise now?" Nucky responds. "I will refill it immediately," Eddie promises. "We should discuss your brother. If you could talk to him —" Nucky interrupts Fallon's suggestion. "He's in protective custody," Thompson informs his lawyer. "Get word through his lawyer. Make him some kind of offer," Fallon suggests. "Which is swell except we both know he's not the real problem," Nucky replies. "I suppose there is an elephant in the room," he says. "If you're referring to the woman who sleeps in the bed in which I'm no longer welcome, then yes, there certainly is," Nucky growls. "It's her testimony that'll sink ya," Fallon warns. Thompson insists that Margaret doesn't know anything but his attorney tells him that won't matter as far as the jury is concerned — her presence would be enough to corroborate Eli and Halloran's story. "The bottom line: If your lady friend testifies," Fallon doesn't finish his sentence, he just shakes his head. Eddie reappears to inform Nucky that Chalky is on the phone.
Jimmy sits by an open door in the attic of the beachhouse having a smoke when he hears a car approach. He looks down and spots Nucky's familiar blue Rolls-Royce. Nucky exits the back while Owen, who Jimmy has never met, gets out of the driver's seat and both approach the house. Uncertain of what to expect, Jimmy gets his gun ready and descends the stairs while Nucky and Owen already have entered the dwelling with Nucky calling out, "Hello." Jimmy comes into the dining room where they are and places his gun on the table. "The door was open. This is Owen Sleater," Nucky says. "You could wait outside. It's OK. I used to do your job," Jimmy tells Owen. "You're the reason I'm doin' it now," Sleater replies. Except when facing off against his old Irish foes, Owen always has been portrayed affably, even in fights. Now that they've decided to just toss out the political side of Nucky's life, I guess they decided that Sleater must be portrayed as rough, tough and nasty at all times now, whether he's in a scene with Jimmy or the young maid who was boffing. Of course, last week he still was the old Owen trying to come on to Margaret. Nucky nods to Owen that he can leave and he does. Nucky offers Jimmy his condolences about Angela. "Manny Horvitz. Philadelphia," Jimmy informs Nucky. "Never heard of him," Nucky lies. "He used to work for Waxey Gordon. He came for me. Found her instead," Jimmy explains as he pours drinks. "If I hear anything, I'll let you know," Nucky promises before passing up a drink. Jimmy spills part of the booze onto the floor. "To the lost," he toasts alone. When he finishes the drink, he takes a seat. "My father's dead. I should have killed him the moment he suggested betraying you. I thought about it since I was a kid — killing him. I don't know what stopped me," he confesses to Nucky. "He was your father, James. Nothing looms larger," Nucky tells him. "Last year when he was sick, I went to see him. He looked — pathetic. He was scared and he was trembling. I put my hand on his chest. I looked into his eyes and he said, 'You're a good son.' Knocked the wind out of me. I know there's nothing I can say, Nuck. Maybe there's something I can do," Jimmy offers. "For me? How about telling the truth?" Nucky suggests, a glimmer of spite showing. "I was angry," Jimmy admits. "About what?" Nucky asks, not hiding his anger anymore. "Who I was. Who you are. What I'd been through — over there. The shooting — I never meant for that to happen," Jimmy admits. "Then why did it?" Nucky demands to know. If you really want to get down to it, it's because your driver/bodyguard was busy killing somebody else and then boinking your common-law wife. Your brother, Capone, Lansky and Luciano liked the idea of capping you. Jimmy resisted. Mickey was there and didn't say yea or nay — but he didn't warn you either. Yet, you think that his involvement in TWO attempts on your life isn't enough to warrant his execution, but Jimmy's reluctant participation in one (which he subliminally warned you about) earned him a death sentence. Explain the consistency there. Jimmy gets up and looks out his favorite window at the beach and the ocean. Nucky tosses his hat on the table. "You said you wanted to talk, James, and suddenly you're very quiet," Nucky says. "It was Eli," he finally answers. "And you had nothing to do with it?" Thompson queries. "Let me make things right or as right as they can be. Just tell me how to help you." Sure, everything develops that Jimmy knows that he's going off to his doom, so why go to the trouble of trying to help Nucky first? Richard even tells him that he'll never forgive him. More unforgivingly, since Jimmy says all his goodbyes (They scripted and shot a final scene between him and Capone that they ended up not using), would he in good conscience not figure out a plan for Tommy that didn't result in leaving his rearing in his mother's hands?
Margaret knits a scarf in the kitchen when Nucky asks to speak with her. "We were both raised Catholic, but I suppose it is fair to say that we have fundamental differences in our approach to religion," Nucky says. "You lost your faith," Margaret responds. "If there really is a God, would he have given me this mug? Look, maybe there is some being in the sky who sits in judgment. We'll all find out soon enough. But my relationship to whatever that is, it doesn't need rules," Nucky explains. "So your version of God asks nothing?" Margaret comments. "It asks that I love my family. That I care for them and protect them. There is more God in the love I feel for you and those children than in all the churches in Rome. I know you're in pain and I know how hard it's been, but it will get better. We just need to stick together. I adore you, Margaret. I adore our family. My entire universe — it's within these walls. The rest can disappear," Nucky tells her. "And if I were to believe all that?" Margaret asks. "I need you to marry me," Nucky says. "Need?" she responds quizzically. "So you won't have to testify," he explains. "I want you to marry me." She looks at him suspiciously. "Then why did you not say that?" Nucky musters as sincere a look as possible. "Because I didn't want to insult you by pretending you wouldn't be saving my life. I've done bad things — horrible things — that I convinced myself were justified. I can see how wrong that was. God or no God — no one is sorrier than I am. I'm afraid, Margaret. I don't want to die or spend the rest of my life in jail. I'd never admit that to anyone but you," Nucky declares. Margaret gets up to turn off the whistling teapot. "You are always surprising. I will grant you that," she tells him before leaving the kitchen. The problem with Margaret and Nucky in a scene like this is that Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald are such damn good actors, your instinct is to believe them, but are Nucky and Margaret as good as actors as the performers playing them? Based on what's been going on, it's easy to doubt Nucky in this scene. However, earlier in the season when Nucky expressed his feelings for Margaret and her kids, he seemed heartfelt. Was Nucky lying then or is this just the new Nucky? Margaret — poor Margaret. The character somersaults they have put poor Kelly Macdonald through this season. At the beginning, she was played as a savvy co-conspirator for Nucky who could scheme rationally without reacting emotionally. They even set up the idea that she might have a mysterious past. Instead, we get the low point of the season in "Peg of Old" where we waste time with her visiting her siblings in Brooklyn and trying to play the headstrong lass against her stick-in-the-mud brother. The trip affected her so much that she rushes home and has sex with Owen. Then, Emily develops polio and she not only rediscovers her religion, she becomes convinced it's divine retribution and flies over the cuckoo's nest. Then, her guilt over how she and Nucky got together over her evil husband's corpse gets her to consider testifying against him, but instead she willingly weds him, knowing full well it's a ploy and he's lying to her and part of the old scheming Margaret comes back and signs over the deed to all that land that Nucky has tied up most of his money in to the church. I guess it's Margaret that Nucky never knew at all. Now what I want to know is this: If they're determined to turn Nucky into a full-blown badass gangster, if Margaret had refused to marry him and planned to testify instead, would he have had the balls to kill her? When he finds out about her and Owen (and you know that shoe will drop), will only Owen pay the price or would he be willing to kill a woman?