A review of tonight's "Boardwalk Empire" coming up just as soon as I write the Vatican...
"You have power you do not suspect." -Madame Jeunet
This first season of "Boardwalk Empire" has been the story of Nucky Thompson realizing he can't be half a gangster anymore, but it's also the story of how Margaret Schroeder realizes she's a gangster's woman - and exactly how she can exploit that.
In another strong episode of what's so far looking like a great finishing kick for season one, Nucky welcomes prodigal son Jimmy back to help in the war against the Italians, and Jimmy forces Nucky to come right out and say that he wants the Dilessio brothers dead. It's not that Nucky hasn't arranged murders before - he did it to Mr. Schroeder way back in the series premiere, after all - but it's always been something understood, not overt. Jimmy wants Nucky to say the word "Yes" not only because he wants his former mentor to accept the new world order, but because he's tired of the sense of moral superiority that Nucky's held over him since the ambush in the woods.
(Left unsaid, in part because they don't quite realize yet that Rothstein is their true enemy, is that most of this is Jimmy's fault. It's entirely possible that Rothstein would have looked to muscle Nucky out down the road, but when Rothstein gave the Dilessios his lecture about how reputations are built over years and destroyed in seconds, all I could think of was how quickly Jimmy ruined Nucky's rep in Rothstein's eyes.)
Jimmy's return isn't the triumph either he or Nucky hoped for. Angela doesn't want him back (and doesn't appreciate Jimmy's requests for another child, when she doesn't particularly want the one she has). He almost immediately winds up in jail courtesy of Agent Van Alden, and his future only seems safe because Van Alden's partner Agent Sepso turns out to be on the take and kills the witness. And with Jimmy locked up for the time being, it's down to Eddie to protect Nucky when the Dilessios try a hit, though the usually comic relief manservant proves to be a surprisingly adept bodyguard.
(Or maybe it's not so surprising; Eddie's usually much more effective than Nucky gives him credit for.)
And where it's Jimmy holding Nucky's head up to the light and forcing him to look around, Margaret's own Come to Jesus moment comes from an unlikely source: Madame Jeunet, who had so little use for Margaret when Nucky first sent her to the shop, but who here needs an advocate against the crippling tax Nucky's machine has begun charging her. Margaret's not without her ability to manipulate Nucky - see her actions in the episode that ended with their first kiss - but before it felt like some kind of haphazard plan at best, an accident more likely. (In that episode, she wasn't sure how Nucky would react, but was lashing out after she felt snubbed by him post-birthday dance.)
Here, though, she knows what she's trying to do. The direct approach doesn't work, because as much as Nucky admires her intellect he doesn't want to be interrogated by it, and Margaret ultimately realizes that what Madame Jeunet meant was the power of her femininity. She plays the vulnerable woman, knowing Nucky will want to do anything he can to protect her, and he falls for it and eases the burden on Belle Femme. And then Margaret shows she's not a sap by exacting a higher commission (the fancy blue dress, rather than the less expensive gifts for her daughter) than Madame Jeunet was prepared to give.
Everyone keeps underestimating Margaret, but the women's vote is coming. Her power will never be what it would be for a comparable woman in 2010 (or even that of, say, Peggy on "Mad Men" circa 1965), but like the skinny but calculating man she loves - and, for that matter, Eddie - she's much tougher than she looks, and seems ready for the season's final challenges.
Some other thoughts:
• Gillian and Jimmy's relationship again proves to be a bit different than your average mom and son, as she continues to sleep with Lucky Luciano on her boy's behalf, then sets up Jimmy to get the drop on Lucky. The scene where Van Alden inadvertently saves Lucky's life, though, illustrates one of the pitfalls of intermingling real and fictional characters, as anyone who knows anything about Luciano knows Jimmy's not going to be successful in killing him, and then it just becomes a question of what will save him.
• And in the same episode where we see Jimmy with his mom for the first time in a while, Jimmy and Nucky have a very curious exchange in jail, where Jimmy asks Nucky to go see his dad. It's not followed up on - or is it? Could it be that the Commodore is Jimmy's father? If nothing else, it might give Dabney Coleman more to do than his sporadic, brief appearances so far.
• I was so pleased to hear Jimmy include Richard Harrow's employment as one of his conditions. In only two episodes (one of them a very brief appearance last week), Richard's already become one of my favorite characters on this show, and I missed him this week.
• Van Alden's clearly losing it in this one. He's still obsessing on Margaret's immigration photograph, his interrogation of Jimmy is all over the map (and again dwells too much on Margaret), and he's now convinced himself that getting rid of Nucky will somehow clean up the Sodom of Atlantic City, when we have ample evidence it will not - that Rothstein or one of a dozen other gangsters would step in and keep the liquor flowing.
• I thought it was a nice touch that Margaret's kids are being read to from "The Road to Oz," the fifth book in the series, rather than the original. The first book is obviously most famous to us because of the Judy Garland film, but there was a time when the series as a whole was very popular indeed. I actually read them all as a kid, but don't remember if there are specific parallels from its plot to this episode.
What did everybody else think?
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