A review of tonight's "Boardwalk Empire" coming up just as soon as I fall into the shoe polish...
"You know the funny thing? Nobody takes power. Somebody else has to give it to them. Look around, big brother. What do you got?" -Eli
This season of "Boardwalk Empire" is one large power struggle between Nucky and the various men trying to bring him down, and "Ourselves Alone" features one display of power after another - some effective, some not.
The Commodore tries to show off his youthful vigor by not only dying his hair a ridiculous jet black, but lifting the elephant tusk when the much younger Damian couldn't. Margaret demonstrates her strength to both Nucky (by rescuing the ledger from the state cops) and the IRA fund-raiser (who, like so many men on this show, is surprised to hear a woman speak so plainly and smartly). Jimmy tries to partner up with Arnold Rothstein, initially not realizing that Meyer and Lucky may be the ascendant powers here, and he in turn gets to show his personal strength in baiting the two wiseguys who were hassling Meyer into a fight Jimmy knows he'll win. Nucky tries to bully Eli into coming back over to his side, but Eli knows how much of a bluff it is.
And in perhaps the most impressive display, Chalky gets to show the obnoxious Dunn Purnsley that true power means not even having to lift a hand against an opponent.
Chalky's tenure in jail was definitely the highlight of the episode for me. We start with him sharing a cell with Nucky - in what we'll later be reminded is an unusual circumstance for black and white men at the time (and no doubt a sop to Nucky) - discussing strategy as if they're equals. (Or, at least, as if Nucky recognizes that Chalky is one of the few parts of the machine he can still trust.) And when he gets moved into a cell with the other black prisoners, and has to endure Purnsley's harassment, he just takes it. He lies about the book he's reading, recognizing that Purnsley likely can't read or tell the difference between "Mark Twain" and "David Copperfield," and when the badgering eventually reaches the point where action has to be taken, Chalky isn't foolish or impulsive enough to do it himself and risk spending more time in jail. Instead, he lets Purnsley know just how much better and more powerful he is by inviting all of their cellmates to show their loyalty to him, then administer the beatdown on his behalf.
It's also a terrific episode for Margaret. I loved seeing her undercover visit to Nucky's office, dressed similarly to how she appeared when she first came there at the start of the series to plead for money. Then, it was sincere; now, it's just an act (down to the fake pregnancy belly), because we know how savvy Margaret is and how well she's adjusted to her new circumstances as the kept woman of the rich and powerful Nucky Thompson.
Jimmy's still learning how to navigate the corridors of power. His hand-to-hand fighting skills are never in question - and here he puts them to use solving a problem for potential new allies Meyer and Lucky without them even knowing he's doing it - and the Commodore introduces him to the elderly power brokers of Atlantic City, but there's always a sense that he's tentative about all these backroom negotiations, where he'd be much more comfortable facing other problems that can be solved with his trench knife.
Not that Nucky's on particularly solid ground, either. He gets bailed out of jail, but he has to work out of his actual office at City Hall while the state cops have taken over his suite at the Ritz, the mayor is the only one of his political allies to answer his call (and only because he seems to be beneath the Commodore's notice), and then Eli makes the particulars of this coup known by calling his brother to taunt him about the betrayal. And though Nucky certainly has the grit and brains to eventually get the promised revenge on Eli, Eli knows just how weak he is at this moment - as does Nucky. (Just note how weak and concerned he looks as the camera pushes in on Steve Buscemi after the call ends.)
After Chalky's friends have taken care of the Dunn Purnsley problem, Chalky invites one of the men to entertain him and the rest of the cell with a reading from "David Copperfield," including the opening passage that asks, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else." In that moment, Chalky is very much the hero of of his own life, in control of his world as much as he can be while behind bars. But even though Nucky's free, his control seems to be slipping away, bit by bit.
Some other thoughts:
• We've known all along that Nucky's real name is Enoch, and that Lucky's is Charlie. Now we hear that Chalky's given name is Albert.
• Note that one of the men who's gone over to Team Commodore - and who's testifying against Nucky in the election fraud case - is Patty Ryan, whose promotion to that job is what caused the schism between Jimmy and Nucky back in the pilot. If Jimmy gets to take over that ward, things would be very different: no Nucky/Rothstein feud, no time in Chicago, probably no Jimmy/Commodore alliance, etc.
• From my notes, during the scene where Jimmy stands in the doorway, getting ready to fight the wiseguys who saw him rake in the dough at the card game: "The camera LOVES Michael Pitt." He's a great visual subject for a show like this, on top of being a hell of an actor.
• Also from my notes (and in this case I will not say one way or the other whether this prediction proved to be accurate over the later episodes I've seen), right after Margaret said goodbye to handsome IRA man Owen Slater, "Oh, she likes him."
• Meyer and Lucky have a young associate named Benny, who has a habit of acting/talking crazy. Any chance this isn't supposed to be the young Bugsy Siegel, played in various movies by the likes of Warren Beatty and Richard Grieco?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com