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'Boardwalk Empire' Season 1, Episode 2 Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 27th 2010 1:15PM

['Boardwalk Empire' - 'The Ivory Tower']

"What do you want from me?" Margaret Schroeder to Nucky Thompson

In its second week, 'Boardwalk Empire' was still in world-building mode, and complications ensued for each character even as we were re-introduced to who they were and where they fit in the grand scheme of things.

We got a healthy chunk of exposition when Agent Van Alden explained to his superior who Nucky was and why the boss of Atlantic City was quite possibly a much juicer target than Arnold Rothstein. Clearly Rothstein is a canny gambler and an important underworld figure. But, as Van Alden explained, Nucky sits atop a giant organization that is riddled with corruption. And thanks to Jimmy's ill-timed shootup in the woods, it's pretty clear that Nucky's engaged in some unsavory activities, with bootlegging newly at the top of the long list of crimes.

Still, the flow of liquor, money and everything else makes Nucky a very dangerous man to cross, which Jimmy learned in this episode. Sure, nobody is stopping Jimmy from grabbing opportunities, but Nucky is teaching him that opportunities often bring unintended consequences. After more or less pulling off that theft with Al Capone, Jimmy's in hock to Nucky, who, once repaid, plays roulette with Jimmy's $3,000 (which is more than $34,000 in 2010 dollars).

Nucky's unspoken point to Jimmy was, "Think through what you do next time, or your quest for money could bring you much more than the crushing feeling you get when your bankroll disappears at the roulette table."

Jimmy can't really catch a break -- his kid doesn't love the vacuum he got his fiance, and Al Capone won't help him out. After feeling temporarily good after the heist, he sinks to a new low: He ends up stealing from his mother to cover the debt.

Truth be told, one of my (few) problems with 'Boardwalk Empire' is that Gretchen Mol, who plays Jimmy's mom Gillian, looks only a few years older than Michael Pitt, who plays Jimmy. I asked the show's creator, Terence Winter, about that here, and he said that the idea is that Gillian got pregnant at age 13. If her IMDb.com birthday is correct, Mol will soon turn 38, which makes it plausible that her character could have a son in his early 20s. Perhaps the problem is more that Pitt looks his real age, which is 29. Ah well.

In any case, the reunion of Gillian and Jimmy involved some intentional misdirection; Gillian's ecstatic reaction to seeing him led to the reasonable assumption that Jimmy might have a lady friend on the side. But no, it was a rather strange mother and child reunion, one that showed how committed Jimmy is to making up for various things -- he wants to replace his mother's long-gone necklace, be a provider for his family, be a better man than his absent father. And of course he still wants Nucky's approval, which he just made much tougher to get.

Speaking of complications, things are still very unsettled in the gangster world. Rothstein masterfully handled the triggerman in the Big Jim Colosimo shooting, telling him, via a chilling anecdote, that he will do anything to find out who had the Chicago boss whacked. It's not clear later, when Rothstein and Nucky speak, that the New York gangster knows who had Big Jim killed, but relations between those two men are at a very low point. Prohibition upset the applecart in a lot of ways and those reverberations are just starting to be felt.

And Nucky is facing the additional complication of Agent Van Alden, who can't be bought off with liquor, money or women. I adore Michael Stuhlbarg's controlled performance on 'Boardwalk Empire' (I find Rothstein very reminiscent of Gus Fring on 'Breaking Bad'), and I'm likewise impressed by the ferocious presence that Michael Shannong brings to Van Alden. I didn't quite get why he instantly became smitten with Mrs. Schroeder, but perhaps he's one of those badge-holders with a rescue complex. Virtuous, penniless Mrs. Schroeder is a victim in his eyes, an innocent who must be saved from brutal husbands and remorseless gangsters.

As for Mrs. Schroeder, she asks the question that is at the heart of 'Boardwalk Empire,' where almost all relationships involve transactions of one kind or another. She's who has the guts to question why he's paying her off; she wants to know exactly what's expected of her.

Steve Buscemi was great in that moment, just before he asked her to vote Republican. The scenes between Kelly Macdonald and Buscemi are one of the best things about 'Boardwalk Empire'; they both create complex characters who you root for but also know are capable of very shrewd thinking. Nucky is finding that there's a lot more than meets the eye to the well-read Mrs. Schroeder.

In Van Alden and Margaret Schroeder, Nucky has found interesting challenges to his unquestioned power. And as Jimmy found out, he's not always nice when his empire is under threat.

A few last thoughts:

- As a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I can attest that asking hard questions on occasion produced a prickly response. Fortunately for me, no one ever kicked my face in as I attempted to do my job. I love progress.

- If the Commodore or the Klan have anything to do with it, there won't be any progress for women or African-Americans. The scene in which the Commodore humiliated his maid proved not only what a horrible man he is, it also showed that Nucky is a different class of person altogether. He not only isn't needlessly cruel like the Commodore, Nucky also knows he must do business with the black community to stay in office. That sort of crude behavior isn't called for or helpful in his world, but Nucky's more thoughtful values are under threat from those who don't feel they need to play by any rules of any kind.

- There was a shot of Nucky coming out of an elevator and looking at his watch; he looked for all the world like a busy executive checking his Blackberry. Fortunately for him, he's not tethered to such an infernal device, and one of the benefits of a period-set drama is that all the things that make life easier (and make in-person meetings and conversations much harder to justify in present-day programs) are not a factor. Nucky finds it most convenient to do business in person -- he even gladhands a salesman he meets on the boardwalk. That beauty contest line must have worked plenty back in the day. That's Nucky, always of service.

'Boardwalk Empire' airs 9PM ET Sundays on HBO.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Regarding Jimmy's age - I actually thought that was pretty accurate. People who've been through the war look a lot older than they are. I was looking through pictures of my grandparents, who got married shortly after WWII - both of them were in their very early 20's, but looked at least 30. My grandfather lost almost all his hair, and both had very serious, very adult facial expressions. And that's true for a lot of people. Look at some post-war pictures, and a lot of people got a lot older, very fast

January 26 2011 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Initial impressions after 2 episodes of BoardWalk Empire.....sure is pretty and that opening is like a Pink Floyd video.

The story? meh

September 29 2010 at 11:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Michael Stuhlbarg (plays Rothstein) makes the show virtually unwatchable as he poorly imitates the late, great Lee Strasberg's portrayal of Hymon Roth in Godfather II. Be your own man Mr. Stuhlbarg. This isn't a Saturday Night Live skit.
Posted less than a minute ago

September 28 2010 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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