This review contains spoilers.
2.3 A Difficult Maid
This week sees Boardwalk Empire slip nicely into gear. It is the second stately episode in a row, and a real sign that the writers have found their groove. Despite the best efforts of Sky Atlantic’s trailers to indicate otherwise, this is becoming a considered and mature drama, sitting comfortably alongside the very best of HBO’s output.
This growth is shown in the confidence it now has to take its time. A corollary of this maturity is the maintenance of multiple plot strands and character arcs in the work, that it doesn’t feel the need to cram everything in at once. A delicate balance is found, and consequently, we find ourselves, at this stage of the season, not needing to see everybody at once, and A Difficult Maid is an episode without Chalky, while last week’s absentee, Van Alden, is back.
The episode opens with Van Alden looking like a figure from an Edward Hopper painting in the safe house, in which he has sequestered Lucy. It is an exquisite shot, juxtaposed with the happy family opposite, and serving to underline just how isolated he is. The biggest hypocrite in a show full of liars and fakers, it is startling just how much sympathy it draws.
It is little deserved. We are quickly reminded of Lucy’s plight, who may or may not be a prisoner in the ordinary sense of the word, but who is certainly a prisoner of circumstance. The precise details of her ‘arrangement’ with Van Alden are emerging slowly, but inexorably towards a painful conclusion. The seeds of this conflict are being sown, not least when Lucy reaches out to her old life, inviting Eddie Cantor over for a taste of how things used to be. Eddie is a great cameo figure, speaking in his Vaudevillian sing-song, even when he’s not on stage. He is sweet and reassuring, giving the distraught mother-to-be a new script, A Dangerous Maid.
Later, when Van Alden buys Lucy a gramophone, it seems he may be trying to mollify her, but it’s just as likely that he too, seeks to become more like that happy family across the yard.
Our moment with Lucy seems as good a place as any to comment on the relative absence of sex and nudity this season. During the first season, Lucy was naked almost as much as she was (expensively) clothed. In addition, Gillian, Angela, a body-doubled Margaret and Lucky Luciano also disrobed, as did several extras. It was rather difficult to claim that this was anything other than an HBO dividend, offering nothing but titillation.
If we’re being generous, we could argue that Lucy went nude to show her brazenness, her disdain for Eddie Kessler and for Margaret. However, her nude scene here is genuinely illuminating, showing her stripped of everything, the model’s body, the expensive wardrobe, that she once used as a weapon.
She is not the only one in reduced circumstances. Nucky’s binds are becoming ever tighter. A visit from Al Capone reveals that Johnny Torrio has a new booze supply for Chicago, from nearby Canada. Nucky is enraged, but at this point powerless. The ease with which he once commanded his situation is no more, and it will take a lot of work to get it back. In the meantime, the divisions at the top are causing problems for those at the coalface, leading to a standoff between Richard Harrow and the equally handy Owen Sleater. I doubt that this is the last we will see of this particular argument.
We are learning more about the mutuality of Nucky’s relationship with Margaret. In the previous episode it was she who took the lead, preserving presence of mind in the middle of Nucky’s most acute crisis. Here, it is Nucky who takes charge. Margaret spends a charming moment drinking with the domestics before Nucky comes to take her out. It is a lesson for her, showing her the importance of maintaining appearances. Her relationship with Katie seems restored to mistress/servant by the end of the episode. She is learning that appearances count, especially when the chips are down.
It was a dramatic lesson. When Nucky and Margaret arrive for dinner, the Commodore is already there, dining with the Governor and Jimmy, whom he is taking greater steps to mentor. The arrival of Nucky’s party creates a moment of high tension, only broken when Nucky is faced with the sheer effrontery of the Commodore eating the last of the lobster.
The ensuing argument may have been caused by the Commodore’s manipulation of Nucky’s supply, but it is also in part an argument over Jimmy. When Angela later asks him about his father, he responds, “which one”. This is the drama’s key thread: Jimmy’s destination is crucial to so much else that is going on, but for now, it remains a mystery, even to him.
Read our review of episode two, Ourselves Alone, here.