“21”

Posted on September 26, 2011

We read Mo Ryan’s take on the first six episodes of the coming season and it makes us kind of sad. Mo, lead critic for AOL TV and someone whose opinions on most shows line up perfectly with our own (because she’s an unrepentant nerdy girl), thinks that this season is, if anything, even slower than the first one. That is SO not good news. We found ourselves loving the atmosphere of last season, but found the storytelling glacial in its pace. We hoped that, much like Mad Men, the steam would build up gradually with each successive season, especially since the end of last season saw quite a bit of movement. Mo would be the very first person to tell us to watch it and form our own opinions and we have every intention of doing so, but we can’t say her take on things fills us with optimism. As slow as Mad Men can be at times, it’s a relatively easy show for us to write about because we already had some knowledge of and interest in mid-Century design, fashion and advertising, as well as a fairly good understanding of the period. With BE, we’re flying blind and we can’t rely on the narrative to give us enough to work with. Fortunately, we have a great cast and more atmosphere than any show should rightly have, along with very tight scripts and memorable dialogue. The story doesn’t ever move as fast as we’d like it to (and you would think a show about ’20s gangsters would be pretty fast-moving), but getting to point B from point A is usually a stylish, moody ride.

There’s always at least one theme per episode with Boardwalk Empire and sometimes those themes are hammered just a little too heavily. If it wasn’t obvious that “fathers and sons” was this week’s, the show helpfully reminds us by closing on the sculpture of a father and son fishing that Nucky gave to Jimmy as a wedding present. Family life in general helped frame this motif as we checked in on virtually all the male characters both at work and coming home to whatever families they’ve constructed for themselves. For Nucky, it’s another case of raising another man’s son, just as he did when he raised Jimmy. He’s obviously not being faithful to Margaret, as the episode opens with him doing the ’20s version of partying his ass off, which, come to think of it, isn’t all that different from the current version of the term. At home, Margaret’s having trouble with Teddy, who suddenly has a fascination with matches and fire that puzzles her but makes Nucky feel guilty, since he basically forced the kid to watch him burn his childhood home down last season. For Jimmy, it’s an uneasy home life with Angela. They’re married, but she’s as reluctant as ever to let Jimmy’s violent tendencies get passed down to her son and continues to be a bit repulsed by her mother-in-law, who has a rather nauseatingly close relationship with him. “I used to kiss his little winky.” Sure, it’s not the worst thing to hear, but in light of their history of long embraces and kisses on the mouth, not to mention the miniscule difference in their ages, it doesn’t paint a particularly wholesome image.

Chalkie White, ironically, has what looks like the most loving, perfect home life anyone could imagine – and a rather stunning home to boot. Unfortunately, Chalkie killed a klan member and the city is threatening to erupt into racial violence over it. Chalkie’s as morally repulsive as just about any other character in this show but it’s thrilling down to the bones to see such a self-assured, angry, powerful African-American man in 1921 who won’t even think of backing down from making threats to powerful white men. His rage is palpable and every time he faces down Nucky, we just want to pump our fists and shout “Fuck yeah!” We fear, however, that he’s going to find out this year just how illusory his own power is. Nucky, ever the politician, is giving speeches to black church groups about the horror of the Klan at roughly the same time he’s giving speeches to white assemblies about the horror of uppity blacks and “the iron fist of justice.” Similar to Chalkie, you’re repulsed by what he’s doing while at the same time marveling at his skill and boldness in doing it. It’s interesting to note just how much leeway our politicians had to lie and contradict themselves in an age where “the media” consisted almost exclusively of daily newspapers and the public was segregated.

Oh, wait. That hasn’t changed at all.

In other news, there is no more hilariously screwed up couple in the entire story than the Van Aldens, who have no children and most likely never will. Apparently, a child and a doting female partner make all the gangsters in the story seem morally superior to the wildly hypocritical Nelson Van Alden. After having good Christian sex with the lights off, he’s back to his boarding room to pay off the pregnant (and ever-nude) Lucy with the money from the bar raid that got his wife all hot and bothered in the first place.

There was more to this episode, of course. Wheeling and dealing in Chicago with the Torrio mob, while at home in AC, Eli, The Commodore, and Jimmy continue their somewhat shaky hidden (but not THAT hidden) alliance against Nucky. It remains to be seen who’s behind Nucky’s arrest, since he has so many people willing and wanting to take him down, but one thing’s for sure: at some point, they’re going to pay a heavy price for it.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking and simultaneously disturbing character in the show remains Richard, who is too embarrassed to eat in front of the Darmodys; who asks Jimmy, “What does it feel like to have everything?” (which is the line that ties the entire episode together) and who tenderly, but also a little creepily, has his own little scrapbook of the idyllic family life he knows he’ll never have. Given his violent tendencies and the hammered-home idea that family life helps to civilize these largely uncivilized men, we’re a bit fearful as to where this character is going to wind up and who he may hurt along the way.

It was a perfectly fine season opener. We didn’t go into it expecting fireworks and we didn’t get them, but we got the lay of the land, a reminder of just who everyone is in this large cast, and some tantalizing hints about where things are going this season. With Lucy’s pregnancy, Nucky’s arrest, the double-crossing schemes of the Chicago mob and the Commodore’s musketeers, and the threat of a race war on the horizon, we’ve got a lot to look forward to, dramatically speaking. We just hope we don’t have to wait until the season finale to see any of these plotlines reach their conclusion.

 

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