Boardwalk Empire season 2 episode 2 review: Ourselves Alone

Ourselves Alone sees Boardwalk Empire at the peak of its powers. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

2.2 Ourselves Alone

Anyone who has been paying even the most cursory attention to this show will be under no illusion that the 1920s were anything but a confused decade. The disastrous social experiment that is the purported focus of Boardwalk Empire wasn’t even half of it. Thanks to men like Nucky Thompson, life carried on like it had before in that respect.

No, the central challenge of the 1920s was what to do with men like Jimmy Darmody. His was a generation that had come of age in the shadows, and who, in the words of the most famous of their number had ‘grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken’.

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It is this emergent ‘lost generation’ that is the focus of episode two, Ourselves Alone. As Meyer Lansky tells Jimmy, “Charlie and I have learned a lot from Mr Rothstein as I’m sure you have from Mr Thompson, but nobody wants to be in school forever”. It is time to grow up. There’s a world to be seized.

Jimmy, for one, seems to have been learning. He approaches Arnold Rothstein with a business proposal. Rothstein is not interested in business, but Jimmy impresses him. Calm, considered and eloquent, he has come a long way from the hoodlum we knew when first we descended upon Atlantic City.

Rothstein may not have been interested, but Lansky and Lucky certainly are. They’ve “been thinking about moving into heroin”, and want Jimmy on side. Seeing the three of them together was the most tantalising scene in the episode. A problem with any historical drama with real figures is that some of the tension is lost by hindsight. We know, for example, that Al Capone will go on to face Eliot Ness and a little difficulty with the taxman. Instead, the drama must come from elsewhere. Here it comes from watching these notorious gangsters rise from violent youth to more, erm, exalted positions. It is exquisite viewing.

The Lost Generation is nevertheless still getting its act together. For the time being, the territory is still divided among their elders. The Commodore is more determined than ever. Freshly clipped, cropped and dyed, he’s keen to demonstrate his youthful prowess, lifting an elephant tusk over his head in a comical show of strength.

For all this, he’s still labouring under the illusion that power comes from age and experience. Still trying to keep Eli on side, he introduces him to “the men who built this city” and opens the door onto a party of besuited codgers. If they built the city, it must have been an age ago when things were very different indeed. The contrast between the staid old men and the dynamic young thrusters is stark. I hope that the old fellas enjoyed the city while they could, it won’t be theirs for long, and an ocean of Just For Men won’t bring the Commodore back from the wrong side of history. We’re in a different century now. 

Still, for the moment, it is Nucky who is on the brink of losing it all. His enemies are gathering in strength and number and even his vaunted charm has deserted him. Trying, and failing, to win over a phalanx of reporters, he seems a fraction of the man he used to be. 

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Later on, he reels off the numbers now ranged against him as he collapses numbly into his armchair. It would all be lost, but for Margaret who now takes charge, burning his incriminating ledger book and telling him, sorry, instructing him that things would be better off committed to memory in future. Margaret is now inhabiting her new territory like a native, cunningly rescuing Nucky from further danger and holding her own as the lady of the house. There is real steel in her manner now, like the other young characters, she is showing an elder generation just how the game will now be played. At best, she and Nucky are a team, facing their trials together, but as it stands, it is Margaret who is the senior partner.

The distance that Margaret has travelled to stand beside Nucky is thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of Irishmen John McGarrigal and Owen Slater, tapping him up for a donation for “the cause”. It is a rare intrusion of wider historical events into the episode, but is perfectly pitched, illustrating not only the distance between Margaret and her homeland, but also that for all his local difficulties, Nucky is still a very plugged-in guy. He may be down in this episode, but he can still come back.

Nevertheless, the future still seems to belong to others. Chalky White ends the episode as he started it, in jail, but not without demonstrating his power and reach, ordering the beating of a belligerent cellmate without even speaking a word of command. Chalky’s every scene in this episode is a mini-masterpiece of economic writing and performance. He was a little underused last season, leading to a suspicion on the part of this reviewer that he was simply there as an excuse to get ‘Omar’ on the cast list. All doubts have now flown, Chalky is one to watch and Michael K Williams’ performance is among the best of even this talented roster.

This was one of the best episodes of Boardwalk Empire yet screened. It is a more slowly paced episode than the season opener and, barring two exceptions, free from the brutal violence that is so necessary a part of the bootlegging business.

Instead, it was an episode that was free to focus on character and plot. Individual scenes were beautifully shot and written, carefully adding shade and texture to the aspects lit up last week. It is, in so many ways, an establishing episode, carefully setting up the threads of the story for later on. The alliances and allegiances are changing and every faction is moving into position. The season is now fully under way, and on the evidence of Ourselves Alone, it is going to be an eventful one. 

Review our review of episode one, 21, here.

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