Boardwalk Empire: “21”

As everyone has noted, and as many have complained, Boardwalk Empire is a show that takes its sweet time. Within a scene, an episode, an arc, or a season, the show’s pace often evokes a circa-1920s Model T puttering down the modern thoroughfare of TV drama. This tendency turned off a lot of viewers during its first season, and I understand the criticism completely. I happen to disagree with it just as completely; for me, it created a rich and interesting world in which I was happy to spend an hour a week, nursing a sloe gin.

Embracing that measured (some would say lackadaisical) pace, season two kicks off with a gunfire-riddled action set-piece in a way that feels designed to get the climax out of the way as soon as possible. It’s as vital as it is exciting, drawing us back into the time and the place (nothing says “1920s” like the Ku Klux Klan assaulting a bootlegging operation with Tommy guns) and setting into motion the internecine warfare that was prologued at the end of last season. The target of the attack is Nucky’s ally, Chalky White—and the men who ordered the attack are Nucky’s former allies, who he doesn’t yet know are now enemies.

Still, once the burst of gangland violence is over, “21” quickly settles back into reintroducing us to Atlantic City’s various power players. It’s no surprise that the bulk of the hour is occupied by table setting, because Boardwalk Empireis one gigantic table with a multitude of place settings and decorations.

Boardwalk Empire: "21" - Steve Buscemi

Which means that nothing added up to a genuine narrative in the episode, but more of a lengthy prologue. Only Agent Van Alden had a storyline with any sort of complete arc, and that was mostly present to reflect the uneasy détente he’s declared with himself. He seems to have found a balance between his two badly damaged halves—god-fearing ascetic and sin-indulging masochist—at least enough to carry on a pleasant weekend with his wife. Pulling off the surprise restaurant raid was some straight Rex Banner shit too, in a scene directed with appropriate crackerjack precision and punctuated by a very funny fake-out smash cut.

Even the parts of “21” that served mostly to set up future developments left me eager to see them unfurl. In particular, Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky and Dabney Colemen as the Commodore should get a lot more to do this season than last, and that can only mean good things.

There’s no denying that Boardwalk Empire is a deliberate program. Like Nucky Thompson himself, it’s a clinical observer and manipulator of human behavior, preferring to cold-bloodedly maneuver characters around a chessboard rather than nurture emotional attachments. That isn’t to everyone’s taste. But the performances and the style are enough to hit several of my pleasure centers, and I hope to cover the show regularly, and in more depth, in the next twelve weeks.

Other notes: 

  • The juxtaposition of Nucky’s speeches to the black and white communities was effectively jarring, and a nice reminder of both Nucky’s protean nature and the very different environment under which politics operated in the 1920s (no modern politician could pull off double-dealingthat nakedly in an era of recording devices). It also underscores the horror of contemporary race relations: one of the most reliable allies the black community of Atlantic City has is a man whose best tactic is to publically sell them out in an attempt to control, rather than quash, the boiling race hatred.
  • There’s something a little strange about Al Capone serving as regular comic relief on this show, but I was highly amused at his befuddlement in the face of George Remus constantly referring to himself in the third person.
  • “Do you wanna grow up to be a fishmonger?” “Yes.”
  • “I used to kiss his little winky.” Yes, the Jimmy/Gillian relationship needed to get *creepier*
  • “Draw a circle 300 miles around. Know what you get?” “300 miles of cow shit.”
  • “You’ll be judged by what you succeed at, boy. Not what you attempt.”
  • “Awful waste of a lot of good tablecloths.” “The laundry bills alone.”
  • “How’s it feel, to have everything?”
  • “Should I be concerned that there’s blood on some of these crates?” “Not unless it’s your own.” Once again, Michael Pitt gets the rejoinder of the week.

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Sept. 28, 2011

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