And so, we arrive at the difficult second episode. The budget is tighter, the action less plentiful, and Martin Scorsese has disappeared, replaced for the time being by The Sopranos and The Wire veteran Tim Van Patten. All factors that would suggest an underwhelming second outing for Nucky, Jimmy and (et) Al, but, in reality, The Ivory Tower is a more consistently satisfying bit of television than the more bombastic and eventful pilot.
Taking a step back from the understandably plot-heavy first episode, The Ivory Tower sits back and lets us hang out with the characters for a while, as they deal with the ramifications of the events of the pilot. In doing that, we get to understand their motives that little bit more, and they prove to be not quite as clear as first appraisals may have suggested.
Take supposedly incorruptible Agent Van Alden, a man so hideously repressed that, in a lovely detail, his love letters to his estranged wife include instructions to remember to run the faucets regularly so the pipes don’t crack.
Van Alden persuades his bosses at the FBI to switch their focus from New York mobster Arnold Rothstein to Nucky in Atlantic City, as he represents the real problem. But is this because Nucky genuinely represents a greater criminal threat than the more obviously dangerous Rothstein, or because his playboy lifestyle (“He lives like a pharaoh!”) contrasts so completely with Van Alden’s own, rigidly puritan existence?
Rothstein himself shares the FBI man’s steely determinism. One of the highlights of the episode is a coldly-delivered monologue that he relays in order to intimidate a mob henchman, detailing how he once tricked a man into choking himself to death in a bar ‘for his own amusement’. The Rothstein character is certainly one of the most interesting presented to us so far, and it will be interesting to see how he and his volatile brother clash with Nucky’s gang over the coming weeks.
Nucky the raconteur, however, appears to just want to have fun, telling jokes at a dinner club, lying to an impressionable young girl (also seemingly for his own amusement), and setting up a vertically-challenged acquaintance on the boardwalk for a joke that you can tell by the delivery has been exchanged many times before. This is a genuinely funny moment, one of many in the episode. The punchline to the episode in particular is darkly hilarious.
This is something that bodes well for the series as a whole. If writer and show runner Terrance Winter can inform the show with the same jet black humour that he brought to The Sopranos, then the more pulpy and clichéd moments (which are, in my opinion, unavoidable. This is yet another take on the gangster myth, after all) will be offset nicely.
This episode also features the first real attempt by the writing staff to address and comment on the attitudes of the time. In a painful scene, Nucky’s aging predecessor and mentor humiliates a black maid for her lack of political knowledge in front of a clearly uncomfortable Nucky, after he raises the issue of women’s suffrage. It will be interesting to see if the social commentary in Boardwalk Empire matches the standard set by fellow period pieces Mad Men and Deadwood.
But underneath his jocular, everyman exterior, Nucky reveals a genuinely steely side in this episode. He refuses to bail chief bootlegger Mickey Doyle out of jail in order to remove all links between himself and the FBI raid, he asserts his authority over Rothstein by berating him in a phone conversation, and most pointedly of all, forces Jimmy to give him a bigger cut from the truck heist, one that he knows that he won’t be able to afford.
Jimmy has spent ill-gotten gains to provide for his family, a vacuum and a beautiful necklace for his wife, but the noise from the vacuum scares his young son and he doesn’t get the rapturous reception he clearly expects. His success and new mobster status even gives him the courage to ask for sex ‘the French way’ from his beautiful wife, but again it ends with his son coming in and breaking up an extremely intimate moment.
As an aside, just how irritating is this kid? In the first episode he whines through a scene and refuses to eat properly, then lamely bursts into tears at the sound of a vacuum cleaner being switched on, and then he casually wanders in and interrupts a blowjob? Thumbs down, little boy. Thumbs down.
The episode also features one of the strangest and confusing bits of casting since Paul Dano’s ‘are they twins?/are they the same person?’ role in There Will Be Blood: Jimmy’s mother, a burlesque showgirl, is played by Gretchen Mol, aged 37. Michael Pitt, who plays Jimmy, is 29. The impossible age gap is made even more confusing as the first scene between the two takes place immediately after the failed sexual interlude between Jimmy and his wife. Therefore, you are immediately led to believe that this new girl is Jimmy’s mistress. Why? It just seems like a cheap twist shoehorned into the show for the hell of it.
Jimmy’s last words to Nucky in the pilot were to implore him to either be a gangster or not, and avoid making half measures. Near the end of The Ivory Tower, in a great scene, Nucky takes this advice and throws it back in the face of his protégé, instantly gambling (and losing) the £3000 that Jimmy has stolen from his mother in order to pay off his debt to Nucky. “The world turns,” he shrugs wistfully in front of the dumbstruck Jimmy, and judging by the shocking revelation at the end of the episode, the reality of gangster life is going to plague Nucky and Jimmy for a while to come.
Read our review of the series premiere here.
Follow Paul Martinovic on twitter: @paulmartinovic.