“Boardwalk Empire”: Everyone is currency

Nucky moves in on the fair widow Schroeder, while Lucky Luciano and creepy Agent Van Alden show their stripes

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"Boardwalk Empire": Everyone is currencyKelly Macdonald in "Boardwalk Empire"

There’s a scene in this week’s episode, titled “Broadway Limited,” that speaks volumes about where “Boardwalk Empire” is headed, and why it’s a good thing HBO has already renewed the show for a second season. The scene isn’t important in itself, at least not yet: Lucky Luciano visits his doctor, who administers an arduous treatment for gonorrhea (I don’t like to think about where that metal hook has been) and confesses the occasional bout with sexual impotence. But the fact that it exists at all reveals just how big a canvas Terence Winter and his writers are working from. My first thought at seeing Luciano unaccompanied by Arnold Rothstein, to whom he’s thus far served as a glorified flunky, was “Lucky gets a scene?” Nucky may be the show’s central character — he’s certainly the only one who’s been in the same room with all the others. But he’s not a conventional protagonist, one whose experience serves as the prism through which all other events are viewed. “Boardwalk Empire’s” story so far is one about a place, and only secondarily about the people in it.

Last week, the surviving witness to Jimmy and Al’s massacre turned up screaming in the woods with a hole the size of a grapefruit in his stomach. This week, the aforementioned bleeder is relocated to an Atlantic City hospital, just long enough for Sheriff Eli to smother him with a pillow. Or rather, attempt to, since Agent Van Alden and his men push their way past Deputy No-Neck (Adam Mucci) and take the massacre’s only surviving witness for a ride.

Van Alden, played by the never-not-creepy Michael Shannon, is revealed as more of a twisted figure with each passing episode. Last week, he swiped the widow Schroeder’s hair ribbon and twisted it tightly around his fist, inhaling her scent after writing a passionless letter to his wife. This week, he stuffs the dying witness into the back of a car and heads for New York, despite the likelihood that the man will die en route. As it turns out, they have to make an unscheduled stop in Raritan, where they eject a young boy from a dentist’s chair. (That peanut brittle will rot your teeth, son.) The dentist helpfully administers a few shots of cocaine — “It’s an anesthetic” — to the patient’s gums, which is enough to revive him but not enough to secure his cooperation. Instead of revealing anything about the men who shot him, the witness lets loose a string of Yiddish profanity that one of Van Alden’s cohorts helpfully translates. Van Alden, who can’t stand evildoers — and, one imagines, is none too fond of Jews, either — responds by jamming his hand into the man’s wound, squeezing his lacerated organs until he gives up Jimmy’s name. Deputy No-Neck barges in the door, but it’s too late. The witness has died, and Van Alden is busy unleashing a torrent of scriptural damnation, condemning the recently demised gangster to an eternity in the hot place.

Meanwhile, Back in A.C., Nucky is transferring his bootlegging operation from chortling Mickey Doyle to Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, better known as Omar from “The Wire”), an African-American whose flamboyant style makes even Nucky seem like a shrinking violet. You might expect a black man to get the short end in matters of business, but Nucky offers him the same deal Doyle got, or at least so he says: 20 percent, which Chalky swiftly doubles. “What happened to 30,” asks an incredulous Nucky. “I charge you 10 percent extra for thinking I’d take the same deal as Mickey,” Chalky replies.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Mickey’s in hock to some Italian gangsters, whom he can’t pay off due to his abrupt termination. That, presumably, is why one of Chalky’s men ends up dead by episode’s end, hung from a lamppost with the words “Liquor Kills” scratched into a nearby Packard. Chalky is anguished and enraged, but he salves the wound slightly by upping his percentage to an even 50.

Nucky continues to minister to the widow Schroeder from afar, this time arranging a job at an upscale dress shop on the first floor of the Ritz, where another floor serves as Nucky’s personal residence. The French proprietress takes an immediate dislike to Margaret, scoffing at her monolingualism and sternly instructing her to bathe at least once a week.

It hasn’t escaped the notice of Lucy, Nucky’s mistress, that he’s been devoting a good chunk of his time to safeguarding another woman’s well-being. She’s too canny a creature to say anything to him directly, although she makes an abrupt attempt to compete with the sympathetic mother of two by asking Nucky if he’d like to have children. (A few minutes earlier, she was begging him for an introduction to the visiting Flo Ziegfeld, eager to resume her career as a showgirl.) When that doesn’t fly, she takes it out on Margaret, whisking into the shop and asking Margaret to help her try on some lacy lingerie. We’ve already seen Margaret in her underthings — knee-length bloomers and a bra that covers half her stomach — which only increases the contrast when Lucy steps out of her dress and stands utterly naked, flaunting a body unblemished by childbirth or hard labor. (Paz de la Huerta, who plays Lucy, has a habit of dropping her drawers in nearly every role. Her part in Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control” was called simply “Nude.”) Although the two women aren’t far off in age, it feels as if they’re from different generations, if not different worlds altogether, a description you could apply to many of the episode’s two-character scenes.

From the top of the world, Jimmy has been laid low. His maiden foray into gangsterhood ended in slaughter and humiliation, and now he begins to suspect his wife was unfaithful to him while he was off fighting the Kaiser. In fact, we find out, she’s not even his wife, a piece of information he lets drop to the boardwalk photographer whose saucy shots of his wife draw Jimmy’s ire. As if that marital spat weren’t enough drama, Nucky summons Jimmy and informs him he needs to skip town now that Van Alden is on his tail. He hands Jimmy a wad of cash, and that would seem to be that. We close with Jimmy on the episode’s titular train, headed for Chicago and (presumably) Al Capone.

The title of “Broadway Limited” suggests a connection between places, as well as, punning on the second word, the boundaries of that connection. Atlantic City is a place where the desire for money pushes through boundaries of race and class, but the tensions still remain, ready to surface, as in the case of the mounting Chalky-Mickey feud, the instant the profits falter. Everything and everyone is currency, which means that no one is invaluable. Loyalty, lifelong bonds, promises, like the one alluded to between Nucky and Jimmy’s mother, all are fungible, worth something until the instant they’re not.


Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.

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