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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  • Anonymous

    I just like the clothes.  I have to watch it with the sound off, because the whole show makes me nervous.  I want a cloche hat now.

  • Anonymous

    So happy to see John Huston’s name in the opening credits last night, and I hope his role continues to grow.  Richard’s scrapbooking made me want to cry, but also made me happy that he has something to be excited about in his life. 

  • Jeez, I didn’t think Paz could get more naked than she had been in Boardwalk last season, but in the first episode this season we got the unpleasant combination of her merkin, strap-on pregnancy belly and nipples.

    I suspose the transperant negligee was meant to hide the straps, because I can’t see our Paz wanting to spare us from anything.

  • vmcdanie

    This show has a classy pedigree and looks beautiful but watching it is for me like trying to plow through the greatest novels of the 18th century when all I want to do is read a Scandinavian mystery. It’s just.so.boring. I quit sometime in the first season and your recap is making me think I  was right.

  • Rand Ortega

    TLo said…
    . 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.

    My love for you has just grown exponentially when I thought I couldn’t love you any more than I already do.

  • Leslie Streeter

    I’ve seen the first six comments as well – I’m an entertainment writer for a newspaper – and let’s just say that this is among the slower episodes, but it picks up. And I too love and fear that Chalkie.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the heads up. I was surprised how much I missed watching the characters, but not the story. Glad this season will be more captivating.

  • MilaXX

    Lot’s of creepy characters here. Jimmy’s mother creeps me out beyond words. The “winky” comment certainly didn’t help. Sadly I’ve seen so much of Paz’s off camera creepiness I can’t even see her character. pairing her with equally odd and creepy Nelson doesn’t help. I can’t help but wonder what nelson will do once Paz give birth. Is he going to bring the child home and try to somehow convince his wife that this is an orphan in need of their charity?

    • Yeah, I guess 14 isn’t the best age for developing sane parenting skills.

      However, that “whiskey and milk” combination that she used as a sleep aid on both her toddler grandson and son, is something a friend’s mother used on her baby son in the 1950s. He later became an alcoholic, small surprise.

  • Anonymous

    I love this show BECAUSE of the glacial pace. This violent era could have lent itself to a plot heavy gangster biopic approach, but I would have been way less enthralled had that been the case. Instead we have a painstakingly crafted character study and much like The Sopranos, it’s not so much about the what of the mob wars and such as it is the who and the why. Nucky/Margaret and the Van Aldens are like two different sides of the same tarnished penny. I think the overarching narrative that ties all the main characters together is power- the corruption to be had by gaining it vs. the suffering caused by a lack of it.

    • I love 19th century novels, and those of the early 20th century, so I don’t find Boardwalk’s pace to be glacial.

      Like those novels Boardwalk is a complete world, with dialogue and references that start me off on a Google history search for the background info. Further populating that world, which was my grandparents’.

      (None gangsters, mind you. But it’s fascinating to see their time reconstructed so lovingly.)

  • Anonymous

    So far, it has been the supporting cast that has held the greatest potential for me. Knowing the background of what WWI troops had to suffer, and as a veteran myself, I am drawn to Richard, John Huston’s character, and how skillfully he portrays a man who is hiding deep anguish, shame, and rage at the tatters of his life. I desperately hope that they delve into this character in greater depth.
    Michael K. Williams portrayal of Chalkie White is magnificent, and he and his family are another storyline that I would deeply love to have a greater significance. His beautiful and elegant wife, and handsome talented son are almost too tragic in light of the attitudes of the day, and that is completely disregarding the utterly repellent Que Que Que (I refuse to give their true acronym the chance to show up on a web search)

    As much as I adore Steve Buscemi, he and the rest of the main characters are just providing us the 1920s version of First World problems, highlighted over at whitewhine.com, which are hilarious until it becomes tedious and quickly moves on to contemptible. The glimpse into corruption, cronyism, and hypocrisy during that era is fascinating in a quaintly horrific way, but that isn’t news now and it wasn’t news then. What would be refreshing, emotionally gut-wrenching, and innovative would be to show the direct result of the everyday political machinations on the lower classes.

    I LOVE period pieces from every era, but I am getting bored of the primary focus rarely wavering from the posh upper class. Even Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs are primarily about the aristocracy, and I lap it up.

    Oh and Paz De La Huerta needs to just go away and ply her limited skillset to a more appropriate venue. I hear the pr0n industry is always looking for enthusiastic new recruits.

    • Anonymous

      I suspect de la Huerta fancies herself living out a created character/image & the industry you suggest does not really allow that kind of personal control. So I don’t see her sliding over that line, unless she really deteriorates and has no choices.

      Of course, I may just be romanticizing what’s going on with her. But a lot of her presentation seems very intentional and constructed, to me.


  • Ozski

    No complaints here except I really wished there was more Margaret, whom I think is easily the strongest, most “Peggy Olson” character of the show. Also, Michael Stuhlbarg is intensely frightening as Arnold Rothstein and I hope there’s plenty of him to come in the second season. I’m also loving how the bobbed hair and flapper looks are slowly starting to present themselves..

  • George Remus told me that George Remus thought it was a good episode.

    Richard, on the other hand, never ceases to terrify me and break my heart.  He was going to latch on to the first person who showed him any kindness and that person was Jimmy.  I read an article in the SF Gate that gives away some of his storyline and he’ll continue to be the Richard we’ve come to love and fear.

    And kudos to Jack Huston for basically creating Richard out of whole cloth, because according to the article Huston had Richard down cold even for the audition, which he submitted without a mask but altering his own face and voice to approximate what Richard would be like. 

  • Totally minor nitpick: it’s CHALKY White, not Chalkie.  I agree that his home was incredibly lovely, and his family seemed wonderful.  This scares me, as I fear it will be taken away from him.  I also felt a tidal wave of pity for Richard.  What could be sadder than having a “family scrapbook” the way some kids have a “Christmas wish” scrapbook? 

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the correction 😀 I even looked it up, and still typed it wrong. The thing about the scrapbook that I found the most poignant was that it looked like it was a bible, into which he was gluing those pictures.

      Talk about reams of subtext in that act!

      Oh, and Michael K. Williams is such an awesome actor that he is almost completely unrecognizable as the new biology teacher in “Community.”

      • MilaXX

        I have to admit Michael K Williams was a big part of what got me to watch this show in the first place. I’m always happy to see The Wire actors getting work.

    • Anonymous

      Oh yeah. One reason I can’t really watch this is that I just know he’s (Chalky) going to watch his family suffer and/or be destroyed. He is not going to just have a clean, though violent, end.

      • I am so scared for his lovely son, who is going to Morehouse.  I can’t stand the thought that he might be lynched. I am glad Michael K. Williams is getting work on this show and Community.  He was transformative as Omar on The Wire.

  • So glad you came back to blogging BE. I just love the show.
    I was struck by the wave of domesticity, with Jimmy actually married, Chalky’s family, and Nelson thrilling his wife with a pious tour of town. Fashion-wise, it wasn’t that great, but a nice range from Mrs. Nelson in her hat and coat which she never unbuttoned at all (I loved that coat though), Margaret “ravishable” at breakfast and trying to decide if the nun thought she was a floozy, and pregnant Lucy in her diaphanous negligee.
    I missed the first bit so I stayed up and watched the replay at 10, and was amazed at how much HAD happened towards the end of the previous season–shootings, subornings, the arson, Lucy pregnant. When it was all boiled down to 5 minutes of reminders of the threads this episode was taking up, it was impressive.
    Poor Nucky, with his folded bills that don’t even satisfy a 7-year-old. Well, not poor Nucky, but going on tragic Nucky.

  • Is Teddy played by a different kid this year? I remember him being a lot younger, and having brown hair last season.
    And I’m not sure if Nucky feels guilty about getting the kid obsessed with fire, but is more moved by the fact that his father used to beat him too.

  • Joshau Norton

    There’s “slow” and then there’s “slow”. BE tells an interesting and watchable story along the way. Whereas The Killing was just “oh dear lord make it stop”.