Boardwalk Empire season 2 episode 1 review: 21

Boardwalk Empire returns. And while 21 isn't the show firing on all cylinders, it's still good to have it back. Here's our review of the start of season two...

This review contains spoilers.

2.1 21The last time we were in Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City we heard newly elected president Warren G. Harding promise a “return to normalcy”. As the new season begins, we could be forgiven for thinking that his words have prevailed.

It is now 1921, and it all looks like business as usual for the bootleggers and rumrunners of Prohibition America. The beaches, stills and warehouses are awash with booze, Jimmy and Richard are busy at work, and even the Commodore is back on fighting form. For Chalky White, business looks swell, and the rum he’s importing doesn’t even seem that bad.

This cannot last.

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Too right it can’t. Within minutes, we’re in the middle of what passes for a drive-by shooting in the twenties, a flatbed truck with a crew of KKK and a machine gun. It seems they’re after a certain person who may have cut off the finger of one of their number.

Chalky manages to despatch them but only narrowly, and not without significant losses on his side. Chalky means war, as do the KKK, and it will take all of Nucky’s skills at politicking to keep them from it. “You know I’ll take care of it” he assures Chalky, but when even his brother Eli cannot help but pour disdain on the ‘uppity shine’, it may be beyond even his grasp to achieve it.

He does, however, get to work immediately. We see him giving two speeches, one to a black congregation, the other to the KKK, to each vowing his support against the other. As a means of showing us Nucky’s playing of every side, it feels a little heavy handed. We already know how good he is at this sort of thing. The question though, is how good? Atlantic City isn’t that big, surely even he cannot sustain his all-things-to-all-men act forever, especially with tensions rocketing skywards.

Racial segregation is a necessary feature of any honest portrayal of the 1920s, and with the absence of any chance of resolution, it looks set to be a key theme of this season. It is notable for its confused pervasiveness. After hearing Chalky’s son, Lester, give a wonderful piano recital of Clair de Lune, we learn that he’ll be attending college. It is the predominantly black Morehouse College. Lester’s life will be subject to racial division, but it will be a privileged segregation.

His mother tells Nucky of her son’s college ambitions with no small amount of pride, and it is this parental theme, rather than the racial element, that is this episode’s chief focus. In particular, it is the relationship between sons and their fathers, or father figures at any rate.

Jimmy, fully installed in a family home, now seems to be bonding better with his son than he did before, and apparently oblivious to the conflict this causes between his wife and his mother, mothers of sons both. He is still secretly allied with the Commodore, who is making a belated attempt at schooling his son, offering macho anecdotes of hunting bears in lieu of genuine fatherly support, and continuing the shared pursuit of Jimmy’s erstwhile ‘father’, Nucky.

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In Chicago, Capone is still struggling for the acceptance of his own father figure, Johnny Torrio, and failing. Meanwhile, the show’s third violent lost boy, Richard Harrow, explores his own agonising envy of ordinary family life.

They are not the only ones struggling to balance their responsibilities. The ever-weird Van Alden, brings his wife for a tour of ‘Sodom by the sea’, in an apparent attempt to convince her to keep away from it. It is a successful gambit. After noting the houses of ill-repute, and sitting through her husband’s raid of a seemingly respectable restaurant, Mrs Van Alden, as much a religious nut as her husband, seems unlikely to ever return. This is just as well. Nelson is now supporting the pregnant Lucy Danziger, who is now in circumstances much reduced from those she enjoyed with Nucky.

Thompson himself continues to live well. Installed in a palatial home with Margaret, he’s closer to domestic bliss than we’ve ever seen him. Well, as close as he can be when ‘business’ keeps him out until 8am.

Having lost two sons, his natural one and now the bitter Jimmy, Nucky seems to be making a better attempt with Margaret’s wayward boy, Teddy. The youngster has been getting into trouble at school, and facing a traditional brand of punishment, alleviated only by Nucky’s influence. Nucky, apparently uniquely, tries to cure with kindness. It seems to be working until an inconvenient arrest for election fraud keeps him from a planned family visit to the cinema. His empty seat and Teddy’s hopeful gaze towards the door provide the most poignant moment of the episode. The theme is given a particularly stark period underlining when it is revealed that the family are at a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.

There may yet be a chance for reconciliation between Nucky and Teddy. Nucky and Jimmy seem to be more problematic. At Margaret’s prompting, Nucky finally buys the newlywed Darmodys a belated wedding gift. A diorama of a father and son over a slain deer, it is another example of sledgehammer symbolism, and its probably for the best that Jimmy hides it away.  

All in all, not a bad opening to the new season. The KKK attack and restaurant raid apart, it was a fairly quiet episode, more concerned with character than action and, appropriately for an opener, making more promises than resolutions. We’ve yet to catch up with Rothstein and Luciano, while Capone’s imminent embassy to Atlantic City should set more than one cat amongst the pigeons. Any normalcy will most likely be short lived.

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