Last week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire was a good step in the right direction for the show, with a nice mix of action (the hotel shootout) and plot development (the exploration of Nucky and Margaret’s burgeoning relationship).
While last week was plot and incident heavy, this week finds the characters and, by extension, the show runners, in a more reflective mood, and I’m pleased to say that Home matches, and in many places, exceeds the quality of the previous episode.
While there are some huge plot developments in Home, they are confined to literally a few scenes and a couple of minutes of screen time. The real meat of the episode is in Nucky, Margaret and Jimmy’s individual character studies.
These stories don’t do much to drive us forward into the next episode, which in a way is a slight problem as one of the biggest issues with Boardwalk Empire in its first season has been a sense that it is sometimes lacking in momentum.
However, it’s my opinion that the hallmark of a really great show is when the slower, more character-focused episodes become just as, if not more engaging than the cog-turning, mythology laden ones.
The Sopranos was the master and forefather of this kind of approach, taking time out from the season story arc to dedicate entire episodes to elaborate dream sequences, or, as in the legendary Pine Barrens episode, whisking two characters away from their normal surroundings to present us with a the equivalent of a Waiting For Godot-esque, two-man existential play. Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the most acclaimed dramas of recent years, have also done similar things to fantastic effect
I’m not saying for a second that Home is up to the level of a Pine Barrens. For a start, it’s not a standalone episode, just one without much in the way of plot development.
But it’s a testament to the characters now that we’re willing to sit back and explore their psyches and neuroses for a while, in a way that we perhaps weren’t a couple of weeks ago.
Perhaps it’s just taken a while to settle into the rhythm of Boardwalk Empire. As I’ve mentioned many times before, the unimpeachable pedigree of the creators has created stratospherically high expectations that probably could never have been met.
Now that the show and this viewer at least are beginning to understand each other a little better, there’s so much to enjoy in this episode. First on the list is the introduction of a fantastic new character in Richard Harrow, a former sniper in the war whom Jimmy meets in hospital when receiving treatment for an old war wound.
Richard’s tin mask is instantly memorable and incredibly creepy, looking like a hideous cross between the Phantom of the Opera and greatly missed alternative Frank Sidebottom.
There is an obvious parallel between Richard’s facial scarring and Pearl’s, who, of course Jimmy was unable to save from a grisly fate. When Richard plaintively asks Jimmy, “Have you ever made love to a woman?” however, Jimmy sees someone he can really help out. The reaction shot of the courtesan Jimmy employs to tend to Richard when she sees his mask was a wonderful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of acting.
Margaret’s story remains interesting and engaging, as she wrangles with the morality of her relationship with Nucky. She is using her sexuality to get what she wants out of Nucky. On the one hand, that’s providing a future for her children, but on the other, it’s providing her with the exciting and luxurious lifestyle she’s always craved. Is she empowering herself with this arrangement, or exploiting herself? It’s a conclusion that the character and the show never quite reaches, and this ambiguity continues to make her character such a fascinating one.
Nucky, meanwhile, has taken over his ill father’s derelict house, and plans to renovate it and gift it to one of his associates, who is in the process of raising a young family. As he works on bringing the house back into a reputable state, however, memories of his father’s abuse begin to flood back.
In a nice dovetailing of the episode’s themes, Nucky’s need to purge his feelings about the house and his father compels him to burn it down as soon as it is fully restored, as his associate stands in front of the house, aghast. “Find a better place to live,” advises Nucky, handing a huge wad of bills to his friend, which is so often Nucky’s solution to the problems in his life.
In a similar vein, Jimmy tracks down the hood who scarred Pearl for the Irish, and tells him a long story about a German soldier trapped in barbed wire, who clung to life even though the agony was arguably a fate worse than death. He then warns the man to get out of town, before departing. Just as the man is regaining his composure, he is sniped in the head from a building two blocks away by Richard. Jimmy flirts with compassion, but his own need for justice and revenge results once more in another man’s death.
Nucky, Jimmy, and Margaret all attempt to act altruistically in Home, by helping out a friend, sparing an enemy, and providing for a family, respectively. Ultimately, for Nucky and Jimmy at least, the exorcism of their own personal demons takes precedence over doing ‘the right thing’.
In a couple of short scenes we saw some big developments. Rothstein and Luciano are now bankrolling the Italians, who have been thieving from Nucky, and are now even giving strategic advice, suggesting that they hit one of Nucky’s top casinos. Also, Agent Van Alden now has a witness who is willing to testify that Jimmy was responsible for the truck heist seen in the very first episode.
Add this to the fact that Chalky White is becoming suspicious and paranoid about Nucky’s motives, after a visit from a man working with Luciano, Rothstein and the Italians, and you really get the sense that the noose is beginning to tighten around Nucky, Jimmy, and Atlantic City as a whole.
It’s nice, therefore, that we had a relatively slow episode this week to hang out with the characters and learn a bit more about them, because it looks like things are about to get very ugly, very quickly.
Read our review of episode 6, Family Limitation, here.