Boardwalk Empire episode 5 review: Nights In Ballygran

Paul continues to enjoy watching Boardwalk Empire. But do the episodes dim slightly on reflection?

5. Nights In Ballygran

This week’s Boardwalk Empire in a nutshell appears to be one long attempt to reinforce the old maxim, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Then again, perhaps the moral of the episode is “Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen”? Although maybe the ultimate truism demonstrated by Nights In Ballygran is the old adage, ‘If you’re a young hothead in an American crime drama, you will eventually become addicted to heroin.’

This week’s episode focused mainly on the strange relationship developing between Nucky and Margaret, after their pointed, stolen dance together at Nucky’s birthday party in the previous episode.

This courtship at its most basic level was as traditional as pulling a crush’s hair in the playground, a succession of minor jabs and petty insults, designed to mask their insecurity over their true feelings for each other.

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Margaret bakes Nucky some soda bread for St Patrick’s Day, Nucky casually brushes her off and tells her to pass it along to his assistant. Margaret angrily throws the bread in the bin, before later testing Nucky by asking him if he enjoyed it. When he absent-mindedly says he did, she fumes and rejoins the Women’s Temperance League, venting her frustrations about a group of bootleggers outside her home who she suspects are connected to Nucky.

Now, I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t think that there are enough bread-based storylines in today’s TV shows. Gone are the halcyon days of yore, before multi-channel TV when the three channels would be filled with quality, bread-centered dramas such as ‘Rye and Prejudice’, ‘I, Hovis’, and ‘A Bagel’s Party’that would command upwards of 40 million viewers each.. Nowadays, if there isn’t any lesbian nudity or crack violence within five minutes, people switch off. Kudos to Boardwalk Empire for ignoring the naysayers who say the pace has been funereal in this first crop of episodes, and instead choosing to embrace the old-fashioned approach.

Okay, I’m being unfair. The Nucky-Margaret scenes in this episode were deftly written and genuinely engaging, and their tit for tat niggling did escalate into genuine drama, as Margaret found herself deliberately shopping one of Nucky’s trusted stooges to Agent Van Alden in a fit of pique, a man who remains psychotically driven in his pursuit to bring Nucky down.

In a climactic scene, a St Patrick’s Day party among city elders is broken up by Van Alden and a succession of powerful, drunk Irishmen are muscled out of the building in front of a sober, horrified Nucky, who spots Margaret in the Women’s Temperance League choir that have been invited (presumably by Van Alden) to soundtrack the raid.

Realising that he has underestimated Margaret, Nucky visits her in the night, tells her he doesn’t have time for games, and they embrace passionately. End of episode.

As I previously mentioned, the Nucky and Margaret scenes in the episode were excellently staged and written, but it will remain to be seen whether they have consummated the relationship too early and therefore robbed the show of initially one of its more intriguing hooks.

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Also, the subplot involving Nucky’s jealous brother was interesting and developed nicely. Eli attempts to emulate Nucky’s natural charisma by giving a speech to the Irish elders at the St Patrick’s Day party, but it goes horribly wrong and culminates with a fight almost breaking out when Eli fluffs the name of an Irish folk hero. Nucky has to step in and save the day with a few of his patented one-liners, intensifying Eli’s envy until he lashes out at Nucky in a drunken stupor. It’s another layer of pressure that Nucky could do without at the moment. If his own family are taking potshots at him, what chance does he have against the rest of the world?

As always, though, the Jimmy story left me cold and uninterested. Pearl’s suicide wasn’t so much telegraphed as projected onto the surface of the moon, and the final few shots of Jimmy finally taking his ex-lover’s advice and heading down the ol’ opium den to smoke a bowl was so unbelievably trite that it literally made me EROL (eye roll out loud) which is both difficult and painful.

I’m utterly sick of heroin use being used as dramatic shorthand for inner turmoil in TV and film. As I’ve mentioned in previous recaps, the need for Boardwalk Empire to steer away from cliché is even greater than for other shows of its ilk, as its dramatic lineage (Deadwood, The Godfather, Scorsese) is so famous and familiar to almost everyone watching.

And, as for Gretchen Mol, the only interest I have in her character is once more getting the answer to this question: just how did you give birth when you were nine years old?

Again, I find myself in a weird position reviewing Boardwalk Empire. On the whole, I really enjoy the shows as I watch them, but when it comes time to discuss my thoughts on them, I find that they diminish in the memory almost instantly.

The problem is lack of consistency. We are teased with a great scene from Rothstein or Chalky White one week, only to have them not appear at all the next. The second most important character (Jimmy) is played by an actor without much natural charisma, but, to be fair to him, it’s hard to care about his storyline when it has almost no relation to the main thrust of the story.

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There is still so much to like about Boardwalk Empire, but it desperately needs a storyline, or a character to grab it by the throat and hoist it up to the level of can’t miss, must watch TV.

Read our review of episode 4, Anastasia, here.

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic.