Boardwalk Empire season 2 episode 9 review: Battle Of The Century

It's the detail that pays off in Boardwalk Empire. Here's Michael's take on Battle Of The Century...

This review contains spoilers.

2.9 Battle Of The Century

Boardwalk Empire has drawn deserved praise for its historical accuracy and attention to period detail. The effect of this is to make the show look and feel right, with the proper clothes on the characters’ backs and the proper words in their mouths. It adds to the feeling of verisimilitude and plausibility that makes it possible, on a superficial level at least, for the audience to give a damn.

However, there is a richer seam of history for the show to mine: that of its setting.

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The story takes place in a very precise time in history, and is pegged to a peculiar event, America’s thirteen-year experiment at Prohibition. The show has always done well at establishing the setting, and of supplementing its fictional characters with historical figures. It is a delicate blend, but one that works, and in this episode, Battle Of The Century, the relationships of these people to the wider events of their period takes centre stage.

Much of the period flavour is generated by those things that, at first thought, jar with our 21st century perspective, Deputy Halloran’s dumb surprise at meeting ‘a girl lawyer’, the broadcasting of the Carpentier/Dempsey fight by radio and Katie’s wonderment at Nucky’s rapid crossing of the Atlantic. However, these are all innovations of the period that helped to form the world with which we are more familiar. It is the characters, not the viewers, who should be most jarred.

In depicting the Irish War, the show has pitched right into one of the larger and more painful events of the era. It has been hinted at, with increasing intensity, not least through the character of Owen Sleater.

This week, we follow him and Nucky on a jaunt to Belfast, with the ostensible task of burying the late Mr Thompson Senior. The coffin, however, contains a more lucrative cargo, twenty-five Thompson rifles.

The use of the coffin as an alibi is a move full of Nucky’s trademark brio and inventiveness, while the bringing of the rifles reveals his inventiveness. With restrictions on his cashflow, Nucky spots his main chance at turning whatever asset he has to hand into currency. He has the guns that the Irish need; the Irish have the whiskey that he needs. His only problem is convincing his potential customers to trade.

In dealing with John McGarrigle’s pious objections, Nucky points out that ‘in time of war, men like you will always turn to men like me’. This self-identification is precise and accurate. It is men like Nucky who are best able to navigate the tides of history. McGarrigle, a stuffy and desiccated Jesuit cannot see the parlous state his side has stumbled into. Grieving the loss of his son, he lacks the pragmatic instinct to know that the English offer of a truce is not as generous as he wants to believe. Nucky, who has no dog in this fight, sees through it straight away. Nucky leaves for America with his consignment of whiskey, McGarrigle is shot for his obstructions. The lesson is plain, but too many remain heedless.

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Sadly, Jimmy Darmody remains of the uneducated type. His relationship with Manny Horvitz has continued to sour. Jimmy refuses to pay Manny the five thousand dollars he owes him, and for what? Arrogance? Disrespect? Perhaps he disdains paying his seniors since Nucky gave him the runaround over a debt in season one. Maybe he can’t recall that far back, but he must remember the failed attempt on Nucky’s life. He doesn’t act like it. The second doomed assassin of the season thus makes an attempt on Manny’s life and earns a meat cleaver to the head for his trouble. When Manny finds an Atlantic City matchbox in his would-be killer’s pocket, Jimmy’s prospects take a swift tumble.

Also down on her luck is Margaret. Her daughter’s cough has escalated into polio, and we are treated to a gruesome scene in which she is given a diagnostic spinal tap. This is a personal tragedy, but again connected to the era. Polio vaccines would not be available for thirty years, while 1921 was the year in which Franklin Roosevelt contracted the illness, suspected to be polio, which would paralyse him. When the news reaches Nucky, via telegram, it seems to paralyse him. For all his skill at scheming, he cannot escape the reality of his times.

Read our review of the last episode, here.