Boardwalk Empire episode 9 review: Belle Femme

Is Boardwalk Empire a terrific new drama, or the most disappointing show of the season? As Paul discovers with his latest review, it might be a bit of both...

9. Belle Femme

It seems like now the battle lines are officially drawn for Boardwalk Empire. After a pilot that nearly everyone could agree was a hugely impressive opening salvo, one that demonstrated an enormous amount of potential, the viewers who have stuck around have divided down the middle into two camps. There are those who think it’s evolved into the best drama in years, and those who think it’s a turgid incident-free bore.

You would think that the second camp would have departed the good ship Boardwalk by now. It’s been pretty clear for a while now that the show is massively different in tone and pace to The Sopranos, and while some people (I include myself in this category) found it difficult to adjust their expectations, it seems to have settled into a good niche in recent weeks, with a run of very high-quality episodes.

That hasn’t stopped the influential Gawker blog from running an article last week declaring that Boardwalk Empire is ‘officially a let down,’, or Entertainment Weekly publishing a pointed Venn diagram that suggests the show is just a cynical amalgamation of all of HBO’s previous big hits.

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All of the criticisms levelled at Boardwalk Empire in these pieces are certainly reasonable, and many of them are concerns that I’ve raised  myself in previous reviews. Too slow-paced, not enough focus on the best characters, derivative, a little heavy-handed with the symbolism, and so forth.

The thing is, I can’t really argue that all of these things are still affecting the show, even at this late stage in its first season. But I still find myself in the position of wanting to defend it against its detractors – only I’m not entirely sure why.

As befits a episode setting up the season’s final episodes, this week saw things get worse for everyone. Jimmy returned to Atlantic City to assist in the war against the Italians, and he had barely had time to comb his impeccably greasy hair before being arrested by Van Alden for the murders of Rothstein’s men in the pilot. Initially cocky, Jimmy begins to panic once it becomes clear Van Alden has managed to turn one of Jimmy’s cohorts into a state witness.

Before he was so rudely snatched away, however, Jimmy did accomplish a couple of things. Firstly, he managed to confront Luciano, confirming in the process that Lucky, Rohstein and the Italians are all working in cahoots in the war against Nucky.

Secondly, his arrival unwittingly broke up a threesome between his estranged wife and the fancy photographer couple she’s been hanging around, in the process breaking their hearts, and the hearts of horny, nudity-loving viewers everywhere.

Without question, one of the criticisms of Boardwalk Empire that does ring true is that there are far too many characters, and often the characters that are being focused on aren’t that interesting. This week, for example, had the aforementioned sublot of Jimmy’s wife and her unrequited ménage-a-trois. Adolescent intrigue aside, there’s really no reason for this story to be occupying screen time at this stage of proceedings. I don’t think I’m rocking many boats when I say that the most immediately interesting and intriguing characters are Al, Chalky White and Richard Harrow, and none of them appear in Belle Femme.

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Chalky hasn’t put in an appearance for several episodes, and given that he was featured prominently in the early publicity materials for Boardwalk Empire, it would appear to lend credence to suggestions that his role was made out to be much more significant than it is, in order to rope in fans of The Wire. Either that or he will be wheeled in to function as a deus ex machina in the last few episodes, and that’s equally unappealing.

On the flip side, however, when looking back at my early reviews of the show I can see that two of my biggest problems were with the characters of Margaret and Jimmy, as I wrote them off as being annoying and underdeveloped respectively. Now I have to give credit to writers for having developed them into fully-rounded individuals, with character arcs that are unpredictable yet plausible.

Margaret’s story is probably the most successful of the whole series to date. The very definition of milquetoast in the pilot, she has made the transition to gangster’s moll in the space of only nine episodes, but crucially, there has never been a moment where this about turn has seemed unlikely or forced.

In this episode, she finagles a $450 dress out of her previously abusive employer Mdme Jeunet, partly to demonstrate her increasing political power, partly as revenge, and partly because a genuine, new-found desire to be the most glamorous girl on the boardwalk. As a viewer, it’s becoming increasingly harder to suss out what she’s going to do next, which is testament to the writing. In a genre that is often guilty of marginalising and stereotyping its female characters, it’s nice to see that this is at least one area that Boardwalk Empire gets absolutely right.

Margaret’s evolution is emblematic of what the show is about (or at least, what my interpretation of the show is): the presentation of a group of characters, as they attempt to navigate their way through a huge sea change in the culture of politics, and criminality.

As a result, I can’t really criticise the show for not being wall-to-wall gangster action, as it is quite clearly the story of people who are in the process of becoming gangsters, rather than entering as fully formed hoods right from the off. I think, in hindsight, the action-filled pilot was a bit of a red herring for the eventual tone and content of the show.

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Some people would argue that the ‘evolution of a sociopath’ story can still be exciting and action-packed, as demonstrated by something like Breaking Bad, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. But Boardwalk Empire is attempting to blend this story with historical fact, within a microcosm of 1920s American society. It’s insanely ambitious, and I truly believe that this is the genesis of most of Boardwalk Empire’s flaws, including the excessive cast list and slow pace. It’s just trying too hard to be the best television show you’ve ever seen.

I can’t be too hard on a show that’s clearly aiming for the stars, and I can certainly forgive it for occasional missteps when it throws up a scene as intense and unsettling as the moment this week where Val Alden’s deputy murders the witnesss tying Jimmy to the bank heist in cold blood, then smashes himself in the head with a rock.

So… back to these two camps. Is Boardwalk Empire deeply flawed, or is it essential appointment television? Obviously, it’s both. Now let’s all kiss and make up in time for the finale – now with extra Chalky White…!

Read our review of episode 8, Hold Me In Paradise, here.

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic.

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