Boardwalk Empire season 2 episode 4 review: What Does The Bee Do?

Boardwalk Empire shows us glimpses of one or two of its characters that we're not usually allowed. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

2.4 What Does The Bee Do?

Last week, with specific reference to Nelson Van Alden, I described Boardwalk Empire as ‘a show full of liars and fakers’. Among the deadly milieu of criminals, ruthless politicians and damaged souls, a little falsity can be a lifesaver. It is interesting this week, then, that we are given an opportunity to peer behind the curtains to catch a glimpse of some of these characters in their unvarnished state.

For one character at least, this comes as welcome intrusion. Richard Harrow, who has spent most of his scenes this season looking wistfully at images of family life, finally gets to open up.

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As Angela Darmody draws him, he slips his mask, literally and figuratively, and lets us see the real him. The story of his self-estrangement from his sister is heartbreaking, particularly so as it is punctuated by close ups of his broken face. His experiences may have robbed him of the ability to love, but we’re watching him get it back. When he takes off his tin mask for Angela it is a significant moment for both characters, he finally lets somebody see the real him, while Angela gets to find a genuine connection. For now, however, they remain the loneliest man and woman in Atlantic City.

Chalky is also finding belonging difficult. In the aftermath of the KKK attack and while in jail he insisted that things were fine, that he had everything under control. He protested too much. He may have bested Dun Pernsley from Baltimore, but his barbs stuck. The wounds were worsened during his confrontation with the congregation last week and we now see the final insult. The careful, mannered dinner with his daughter’s suitor is too much for him. His well to-do family are, to him, insufficiently black, while his college-bound son is unrecognisable to him.

Dinner passes appallingly, Chalky plays up throughout, peppering his speech with African American vernacular and rubbing his family’s face in his hyper-conscious racial identity. He is last seen alone outside, whittling a stick while the rest of his family gather around Lester’s piano. Chalky is estranged with all his pretentions to white middle class respectability now banished to a former self.

Domestic life is becoming a little strained for Nucky and Margaret too. Nucky is determined to act as though everything is fine, and that he is free to indulge his customary largesse, offering the staff a payrise. Margaret is having none of it, and it transpires that she has been hoarding cash.

But to what end? Is it with Nucky’s interests in mind, or a means by which she can leave him? She still likes to appear supportive and devoted, but this is increasingly looking like mere pretence. She is clearly discomfited by Nucky’s association with pimps and prostitutes and the storyline about her family has yet to unravel in full, and it is clear that Margaret’s waters run even deeper than we have seen so far.

Van Alden has more to hide than most, so it is ironic that he does the best to preserve his façade in this episode. His furtive actions and demeanour arouse the suspicions of his fellow agents, who no doubt despise him. However, their attempt to uncover the truth is derailed explosively thanks to the ongoing dispute between Jimmy and the Commodore and with a little help from resident IRA man Owen Sleater.

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On a lighter note, we see Arnold Rothstein practicing his speaking voice prior to taking a call from Nucky. It is a funny moment, albeit one that is delivered dry and straight, but it is revealing. Even in the midst of the most pressing crisis, Rothstein has always exuded poise, control and restraint. Seeing him rehearse goes some way to humanising him.

Human is not a word we have come to associate with the Commodore, who sheds the most in this episode. He begins the episode in full cantankerous old letch mode, watching Gillian dancing for him while admonishing her for dancing for other men. Their relationship is naturally a curious one, but over recent weeks it seems to have become a closer one. Bereft of humanity, this can only be a pretence on his part; one more element in his youthful armoury alongside his hair dye.

He is a disgusting character, the least sympathetic of all the show’s rogues and villains, absent of any redeeming feature or pity. When he suffers a massively debilitating stroke it perversely removes all hope of punishment for him. Gillian responds immediately and with genuine force, taking charge of the situation. She reverts to calling him Louis, first out of compassion, but later in contempt. As she rains slaps on him, his face frightened and confused, it feels like an empty revenge, a last opportunistic throw at a man rendered as helpless as a baby. He is not destroyed because of the things he has done, but in a separate act of fate. For people accustomed to classical, and indeed Hollywood tragedy, it feels like an opportunity denied. It is heartbreaking, but it is real.

Plot-wise, it removes the Commodore from contention, as we slip into the season’s second half, Jimmy will be forced to choose between his ‘other father’, and himself. He is growing more and more capable, managing the Philly connection with real aplomb, and when Eli was busy losing his head this week, Jimmy (and Gillian) kept his. He has little need for his father’s empty words of advice, the future is his for the taking. Just so long as he doesn’t fake it.Read our review of episode three, here.Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here. And be our Facebook chum here.