“Ourselves Alone”

Posted on October 03, 2011

As per usual with the theme-heavy scripts of Boardwalk Empire, stray bits of dialogue reveal the larger story. As Eli says to Nucky when it becomes clear that the noose is tightening and he’s holding the other end, “Nobody takes power. Somebody else has to give it to them. Look around, big brother. What do you got?” And earlier, as Al Rothstein asks Jimmy, “Who are you, Mr. Darmody?” This episode is about both the nature of power (and how it’s both elusive and illusory) but it’s also about the characters asking themselves who they really are in this world of shifting power.

Nucky and Chalky both wind up in a jail cell together, a situation devised to humiliate the former since a white man of his social standing would never normally share a cell with a black man. Both men know this and both men are furious about it for different reasons. Nucky has the kind of power (economic, political, and most importantly, social) that gets him out of that jail cell fairly quickly. Chalky on the other hand, has a far more, you’ll forgive the term, tribal power; one that may not manifest itself in social standing or even in literacy, but that allows him to call upon his brothers to fight his battles simply by mentioning their names. It’s an awesome and frightening power that leaves his tormenter broken and bleeding on the floor without him having to do much more than raise an eyebrow. Even in a jail cell, Chalky is a force to be reckoned with.

But Nucky is less of one and he feels that power slipping away. His wisecracking ways with the press fail him and they turn on him, which leaves him flustered and frustrated. Most of his associates, the people he says he spent his life keeping “satisfied,” aren’t satisfied at all, he finds out, and don’t feel like paying the piper anymore. The ward bosses and the Commodore turning on him he can handle. It’s almost expected in a lot of ways. But having Eli and Jimmy switch sides is deeply painful to him, not just because of the betrayal, but because he has to destroy them both for making the attempt. “I will help you if you tell me now,” he says to Eli, “Because in a minute it will be too late.” Even with his power slipping away from him, we have no doubt he will follow up on that threat.

Mr McGarrigle of Sinn Fein is also seeking power. Back home, he already has the political kind of power; the kind that allows him to move large groups of people in the direction he wants them to go, but he’s in America seeking out a more prosaic form of it: guns and money to continue the fight against his English oppressors. Nucky’s political power might be fading, but that’s still something he can dole out without thinking about it too much. McGarrigle knows who he is and exactly what he wants. In fact, his rigidity and self-knowledge tends to set him apart from all of these Americans who don’t seem to know who they are or what they want. He’s befuddled and annoyed with the country and wants to get out as soon as possible; to get back to the world where he doesn’t have to question himself because he’s absolutely sure of the rightness of his cause. The only person who manages to gain a little respect from him is Margaret, who cuts him off from insulting her by telling him firmly “I know where I came from and I know who I am.” She’s not the meek Irish girl, the little “colleen” that both McGarrigle and his man Slater first assume she is.

And to illustrate this point rather brilliantly, Margaret borrows clothes from her maid and shows up at Nucky’s office looking like… well just like she did last year when she first went to Nucky for help. It’s an amazingly self-aware moment, and a somewhat frightening demonstration of just how smart she is and how dangerous she can be when she applies that intelligence. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the people in this tale most self-assured and thus, most secure in their power, are the ones who are, for lack of a better word, downtrodden and fighting against their oppressors: Chalky, Margaret, and McGarrigle.

As for Jimmy, he’s the loose cannon in this tale. Ostensibly on the side of the Commodore, it’s more accurate to say he has an allegiance to only one person: himself. Neither Nucky nor the Commodore totally trust him and with good reason. While the two father figures in his life battle it out, he’s off making his own deals with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, signaling a younger generation of gangsters that will be far cruder and leave a far bloodier trail in their wakes than the ward bosses and politics methods of their parent figures. If Jimmy doesn’t know who he is yet it’s because he can’t quite admit it. He can put on the cravat but he’ll always be the “brigand in the woods,” the supremely talented killing machine always trying to walk away from an ever-growing pile of bodies.

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  • MilaXX

    I know one thing, whenever Jimmy is around, somebody’s thought is getting cut.  That jail scene where Purn tries to goad Chalky into a fight  and ends up getting beat up instead was fairly intense, but the most impressive scene was at the end when you find out why Margaret borrowed the maids clothes and  went to Nucky’s office.

    • AC

      I had a feeling that what Margaret was going to do as soon as she asked to use the bathroom. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire jail sequence, not for the violence, but for what seems to be a very accurate portrayal of the way black men spoke and interacted during that time period.

  • Broken and bleeding?  No, that bitch dead.

  • Anonymous

    Although I don’t watch Boardwalk Empire, PBS is currently airing the three-night Ken Burns’ film Prohibition which may be an effective complementary show to BE. I watched the first two hours last evening; it was compelling and full of fascinating history of the era.

    • MilaXX

      I wanted to check that out, thanks for the reminder.

  • Interesting that Chalky can depend on those black brothers who he has helped (with as little as the gift of a turkey), but Nucky can’t depend on those white men for whom he has made fortunes.

    Perhaps it was that white men of the period were so soaked in priviledge that they took it for granted — power, money, and status — simply because their skin is pale and they sport a penis.That they can resent slights.

    Women and blacks were excluded from positions and earning wealtth on the basis of gender and color alone.

    Chalky and Margaret may be the only allies Nucky has, but they may be clever enough to beat that possee of self-assured white guys.

    • I meant to write, “self-absorbed, arrogant white men.”

    • I think Chalky and Nucky inspire different degrees of loyalty because they are different men. Nucky makes people feel his superiority–he treats them as inferiors if he feels they are inferior, and he feels that way about a lot of the men he associates with–Eli, for one. Remember how he treated Jimmy in Chicago? He really expects to buy people and have them stay bought. The sand doesn’t stick to his shoes. Chalky is I think closer to the people he patronizes. He is a violent man with a scarred face. He knows that when the Klan lynches or shoots one of his people, they are really after him. It’s a much more intimate and even two-way relationship. They know that he values them, whereas Nucky is not good at making the people he “owns” feel valued.
      Margaret’s ploy was particularly brilliant because she now has Nucky’s attention–he knows that he owes her something. And Nucky seems to value Chalky White, too, maybe because no matter what Nucky can do for Chalky, what Chalky does for Nucky is really invaluable. Nobody else could deliver that particular segment of the vote.
      Every time the Commodore bosses Eli around I recall the Commodore telling Nucky to dump Eli.

  • I read the Chalky/Nucky scene in jail completely differently.  I assumed that both Chalky and Nucky were getting preferential treatment.  Chalky because Eli arrested him and put him in a private cell at Nucky’s request and Nucky because he’s a former sheriff and the brother of the current one.  If Nucky wants to be in a holding cell with Chalky to talk about who betrayed Nucky, they’ll put him in a cell with Chalky.

    And I thought having that guy from Baltimore in the communal cell harassing Chalky drove home just how narrow and precarious Chalky’s power actually is.  He can get a few goons to beat up some nobody from Baltimore, but he’s still sitting in jail for his own protection while Nucky was in and out of jail in a matter of hours.

    That Nucky immediately thought to question Chalky’s loyalty (not a bad assumption on Nucky’s part since Chalky might be interested in getting out of AC and would strike a deal to turn state’s witness) was just another chip in Chalky’s armor.  He has power mostly because of Nucky and with Nucky being brought low, Chalky’s seeing just how shifting the foundation is beneath him.  Even Lenore was disappointed with Chalky.

  • I was initially just expecting your recaps to be all about the clothes, but I’m enjoying your analysis of plot. It’s really enhancing my enjoyment of the show. 

    Now I’m wondering if our new Irish friend is going to become a temptation for Margaret. She knows she’s gotten everything she has now from Nucky, but he’s no spring chicken. And the new guy was certainly making eyes at her last night.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, when McGarrigle told Nucky that his man would be staying and Nucky said “Why?”, I said “To turn your relationship into a triangle.”  Out loud.  I can’t imagine he’s been introduced for any other reason.

    • Anonymous

      I agree – love the plot analysis; I often realize I’ve missed something and have to go back!  But your post made me realize that this season is much less “costumey” than last – not as many grand dresses and such – and I think that’s all to the good. Not that I didn’t love some of the outfits last season, but the characters are settling in and as things get serious the clothes should too.  

      I loved the little moment when Slater was leaving and flashed a smile towards Margaret – then she turns and sees the maid!

  • Anonymous

    I LOVED the moment when Margaret gave Nucky the items that concerned him, proving her power and value to him. LOVED IT. 

    Sometimes this show is much of a muchness but it does deliver small powerful moments and this was one of them. It made the episode worth watching. 

  • I can’t seem to find evidence anywhere, but I have seen a theory that Chalky is illiterate and that his wife/son don’t know it.  If true, that prison cell scene resonates through a lot louder.  It would make sense why he thought the book was Tom Sawyer and not David Copperfield, why the page ripped out was that of an illustration, his resistance to read the book out loud in front of his associates, and why he had somebody else read it to him after the man from Baltimore lay bleeding on the ground.  Looking back as well, it really makes Chalky’s line from last season, “I ain’t building no book case” hit home hard. 

    • The evidence is simple: His wife hands Chalky the book his son sent him. They both believe this is an appropriate thing to do, though perhaps she is lying to herself.
      Good call on “I ain’t building no book case.”

    • Chalky can read, at least he was reading the words “Liquor Kills” scratched on his car.

  • The scene of Chalky calling to his men in the cell reminds me so much of that scene in “Game of Thrones” when Catelyn Stark has her men surround Tyrion Lannister (I watch too much HBO, apparently.)

    And I hope that Charlie Cox (Slater) is going to have a recurring role!

  • are we not getting a re-cap this week? i miss it! 🙂

  • Where are the “BE” posts?  Have T-Lo bailed on it?  I sure hope not.

  • Anonymous

    What gives?  Where are the insightful musings from my poodles?

  • The theme we have noticed is if Tim Van Patten is directing… there WILL be blood. And lots of it…

  • caroline miles

    Wow, i really hope TLo hasn’t bailed on this program, which i really love and look forward to.

    Please! Return with your recaps!



  • John Stilley

    Where are the newer episodes?? I’ve been dying to read your take on it

  • Lucy Dunbar

    Have you guys stopped watching this?