A review of tonight's "Boardwalk Empire" coming up just as soon as I send you a book with a horse in it...

"There's no one here who knows you." -Eamoinn

Detractors of "Boardwalk Empire" often suggest that the show is just an impressive Tinker Toy set, beautifully to look at but ultimately empty. I disagree, obviously - I feel very connected to many of these characters - but I can also see where that criticism comes from. Even in a strong episode like "Peg of Old," I couldn't help pausing during Margaret's arrival in her family's Brooklyn neighborhood to think of what a great job production did on that setting (and also on how much it evoked some of the Little Italy flashback scenes from "The Godfather Part II") rather than focusing on what Margaret was going through in that moment.

But what "Peg of Old" showed through its two central characters - one of them among the series' most consistently interesting and empathetic, one arguably its most problematic - is that it can do the human stuff just as well as the spectacle, maybe even better.

Let's start with the episode's best moment, and one wrapped around the guy I complained about so much last week: Nelson Van Alden. For much of his tenure on the show, Van Alden's been almost a caricature of a religious zealot, so weird and creepy that his utter hypocrisy seems not the least bit surprising. But the Van Alden of "Peg of Old" is a broken man. His attempt to keep Lucy's pregnancy a secret from his wife has failed, Lucy has figured out that he's been playing her all along with his promised $3,000 payoff, and his sad little office has become even sadder with the arrival of federal prosecutor Esther Randolph, who takes over his desk and makes it clear she has little use for the office's former top man. Lucy unsurprisingly goes to Nucky for cash and tells him who the father is, and Nucky not only blackmails Van Alden to keep it a secret, but reveals that he's given Lucy some money, further fueling Van Alden's jealousy of him.

In that moment, I thought for sure that Nucky had once again solved his legal problem and would soon be on the offensive against Jimmy's cabal. Instead, Van Alden goes home, finds out that Lucy has run off (and made her opinion of him clear by leaving a dirty diaper and the cover of the "Dangerous Maid" script on top of the Victorla he bought her) and winds up having to hold his still-unnamed baby daughter for a spell. And the look on Michael Shannon's face after the baby coos in response to the name Abigail is extraordinary, and yet very familiar. Most parents, whether they were eager to have children or not, have a moment where they realize their life is no longer entirely their own: that there's another human being they are responsible for protecting and shaping, and they need to start making choices with that in mind. In that moment, Van Alden seems incredibly human and vulnerable, and his decision to risk his own professional standing to fight back against Nucky flows naturally, even admirably, out of that. He doesn't want this baby to have a crooked cop for a father, and while I imagine many of his more irritating qualities will return in time - he's still the man who drowned Agent Sebso, who practiced self-flagellation, who kept Lucy as a virtual prisoner as part of a half-baked scheme to give his wife the baby she wanted without getting in trouble - I couldn't help smiling when he dropped that huge folder on Miss Randolph's desk. As I said last week, Van Alden either needed to be put back on Nucky's trail or taken off the show, and I'm perfectly fine with the former route if the execution can be this good.

When he sits in that chair with his daughter, Van Alden realizes she's going to know him as few people ever will, and he wants her to know him as a (relatively) good, law-abiding person. And that theme of who truly knows us runs throughout the rest of this strong episode.

Jimmy finally gets pressured by the rest of his gang to call a hit on Nucky - I loved Eli's "Jesus Christ, just kill him" cutting through all the talk about coups and the culture of Atlantic City - and we begin to realize that he hasn't avoided that choice until now because he thinks it would be bad politically, but because he doesn't hate Nucky that much. He and Nucky had a lot of good times together, and Nucky was more of a father to him than the Commodore ever was - and arguably a better (or at least less narcissistic) parent to him than Gillian. Jimmy knows Nucky, and Nucky knows Jimmy, and whatever problems the two have with each other aren't enough for Jimmy to want the guy to cease to exist on this world. But he's pushed into it by his partners, and convinced by Gillian that he'd look weak for calling it off - even as he finally starts to realize just how inappropriate Gillian is with him(*) - and the best he can do is say a cryptic farewell to Nucky before the hitman steps forward. (And, in the process, perhaps he gives Nucky enough cause to flinch when the Chicago hitter approaches so that he's wounded rather than killed, followed by Esther Randolph's investigator stepping in to take out the assassin.)

(*) Letting him keep his eyes open while she's in her underwear and then closing them for the dress? Oy. Oy, a thousand times oy. It was at least reassuring to see Jimmy flinch after she whispered seductively in his ear about how proud she is of him. I wonder if he'll recognize that she probably views Lucky as a surrogate for him. 

Margaret, of course, spends much of the episode trying to reconnect with the people she thinks knows her best, but only one of her sisters really remembers her, and her brother Eamoinn is still cold and judgmental about the trouble she got into that led to her arrival in America. Margaret is strong enough to turn the judgment right back on him, but you can tell how much she needs to make this connection even before she says she wants to be "among those who know me." Instead, Eamoinn turns her away, Margaret goes home and finds Owen Sleater there, with the maids, the kids and Nucky all conveniently away (Nucky possibly bleeding to death, not that they have any clue in this primitive telecom age), with Owen's blood hot from the deadly fight he just had, and with Margaret desperate to be with someone who knows something of Ireland, if not exactly who and what she was before she got pregnant. So she gives in to her simmering attraction to Owen, Owen enjoys her company(**), and the look on Kelly Macdonald's face as they have sex is unlike anything we've seen Margaret feel with Nucky.

(**) And drops one of my favorite lines of the series to date, when he tells her, "I thought you wanted me after Mr. Thompson." Just a fantastically clever double entendre, given the idiom of the time and their current circumstance.

Nucky's been a good man to her - if not always faithful (and note that he was eyeing an attractive brunette before Jimmy popped into his line of sight) - taking care of her material needs, allowing her a degree of independence and partnership in his enterprises practically unheard of in this day and cultural sphere, and he's opened up to her as much as he has to anyone. Margaret may be desperate for someone who knows her, but at least Nucky has her to know him. And now he's been shot, and she's been with the man who should have been protecting him, and I imagine things are about to get just as complicated for Nucky on the domestic front as they are in terms of his battles with both Jimmy and the government.

Terrific episode. One of my favorites of the season, which would have surprised me going in given how prominent Van Alden is.

Some other thoughts:

• That was a terrific fight scene between Owen and the man he was there to kill, and his farewell line made clear that he's still very much a part of the cause, and has only been hanging around Nucky while looking for this guy. I wonder what that bodes for his future employment, especially since he just happened to be absent when his boss got shot.

• We looked at Nucky's dinner on the eve of Prohibition in the pilot episode as the birthplace of modern American organized crime, but given what we know about Meyer, Lucky and Capone, maybe the real birthplace is that meeting at the Commodore's house, where the young turks talk about overthrowing their aging masters.

• That's Julianne Nicholson (from "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," among many other things) as Esther Randolph, who's modeled on Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant Attorney General for most of the 20s and a crusader against violators of the Volstead Act.

• For an episode in which he's almost assassinated, Nucky's not in this one very much, but he gets the episode's two funniest moments: first when he sees Lucy with a baby and immediately recites the exact date they last had sex to try to foil any attempted paternity rap, then when he offers Van Alden a drink and wryly says, "If there was ever a time..."

• Has anyone actually read "The Girl, a Horse and a Dog" and can say whether the horse survives?

• Been a while since we've seen one of Atlantic City's little boxers, here turning up to comically spar with Jack Dempsey. I have to admit that I always, always laugh at characters dressed in that stereotypically French striped shirt and beret, but that may just be because it's the costume of Jean de Baton-Baton from the comic book "Hitman," who fights evil with the power of Frenchness.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com