"Boardwalk Empire" recap: Old wounds reopen

As Nucky's Atlantic City empire faces a new threat, Jimmy ramps up the violence in Chicago

Published November 1, 2010 5:01AM (EDT)

Steve Buscemi in "Boardwalk Empire"
Steve Buscemi in "Boardwalk Empire"

The titles of Boardwalk Empire's episodes, often taken from minor details like a song lyric or a book title that might otherwise pass unnoticed, have been heavy with portent. (More to come, too: "The Emerald City" is only a few weeks away.) But this week's ep is called simply "Home."

After a brief prelude in which one of Al Capone's buddies tracks down the member of the late Sheridan's gang who slashed the face of Jimmy's girlfriend Pearl, now also deceased, the show throws us for a loop, cutting to the exterior of an isolated, rotting house in the woods. The setting is so alien to the world of the show it's as if we've slipped back in time, which in effect we have. The old man threatening stray cats with a fireplace poker in the house's filthy kitchen turns out to be Nucky and Eli's father, glimpsed briefly in "Nights in Ballygran." He's a surly, mean-spirited old coot, but his body is no longer up to the demands of his temper; as he spits venom at the invading pusses, he slips and falls, presumably breaking his hip, and requiring Nucky to grudgingly come to his rescue. As "Ballygran" hinted, Nucky is none too fond of his old man, and now we find out why: He was an abusive bully, scarring young Nucky's hand with the same fireplace poker for daring to reach for food before his old man had helped himself, and forcing him into a physical confrontation with four older boys who had stolen his prize catcher's mitt -- a battle that put Nucky in the hospital for nearly two weeks. It's no wonder he's learned to fend for himself, and to use cunning instead of force wherever possible. (The real Nucky, as I've mentioned before, was a physically imposing specimen, not someone you could imagine getting bullied.)

I hesitate to describe the look on Nucky's, or rather Steve Buscemi's, face as he wrestles with what to do with his father's house, which has effectively fallen into his possession. Irritation mixes with anger, anxiety and a barely buried sadness. His first impulse is to give it to an associate with a 5-month-old child, to "let someone make something good of it." But the deal lasts only long enough for Nucky's friend to add some sweat equity, and for Nucky to show his old man that every trace of his existence has been removed. Then Nucky puts it to the torch, and the now-homeless father watches his dream go up in flames, and Margaret Schroeder's son watches wide-eyed from the back of Nucky's departing car.

The end of "Home," co-written Tim Van Patten and "Newsradio" showrunner Paul Simms, and directed by Allen Coulter -- like Van Patten, a "Sopranos" alumnus -- recalls the "Sopranos" fourth-season finale "Whitecaps," in which Tony vents the frustration of his marriage falling apart by blasting Dean Martin from his yacht at a bourgeois married couple, planting the seeds of dissension within their marriage as well. Nucky isn't an elemental force the way Tony was; he doesn't create destruction so much as channel it to his own advantage. (Torching the house may be the most physical thing we've seen him do so far.) That means his control is limited, as is the scope of his knowledge. He knows enough to make people fear he knows everything, but he doesn't.

Sometimes, Nucky's miscalculations are benign, but the repercussions are unpredictable. Wrongly accusing Lucky Luciano of ripping off his bagman was no big deal -- it would have been hard for the two men to dislike each other more -- but Nucky's misstep tipped Luciano to the presence of an opposing power in Atlantic City. Granted, even with nearly a dozen brothers, the D'Alessio mob is small potatoes, but they're a toehold for Lucky, Arnold Rothstein and the newly arrived Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), whose first act in town is attempting to buy off Chalky White. Chalky turns him down, assuming he's been sent by Nucky to test his loyalty, but when he mentions as much to Nucky, he gets a confused stare in response. Rather than looking at Chalky as if he's nuts, Nucky might have seized on an early warning of trouble afoot. The home he's made for himself is more secure than the one he was raised in.

Throughout "Boardwalk's" season so far, we've watched characters attempt to redefine themselves, in line with America's self-made mythology. But as they keep learning, it often doesn't take. Margaret quit her job in hopes of being Nucky's paramour, only to learn she's just the latest in a line of kept woman, and Jimmy has ended up back in the trenches, with a war wound that persists in its dull, maddening ache. (His estranged "wife" Angela is taking a shot as well, having an affair with a woman who promises to show her paintings to a Greenwich Village art dealer.) While he's having his leg injury looked at, Jimmy meets another, more visibly wounded veteran, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who wears a painted mask to cover the half of his face that has been blown away. (His voice a gravelly rasp, his speech interrupted by periodic clicks from the back of his throat, Richard can't hide his wounds, and that appeals to Jimmy, especially in contrast with Al's manufactured war stories. The disfigurement makes him a mirror image of Al, and links him with Pearl as well, who couldn't bear the weight of her scars. There's something unnerving and magnetic about Huston's performance -- and yes, he is one of those Hustons -- and I'm delighted to see he'll be around for several more episodes.

Perhaps it's just because Michael Pitt is growing into the character, but his scenes in "Home" are among the series' strongest so far, and among the best of his career. In movies like "The Dreamers" and "Last Days," he's been used for his protean, androgynous qualities, but he's showing a whole different side of himself here. He's the character who's changed the most since the first episode, and I still find him the most intriguing, although I wish the writers would get him back to Atlantic City, already.

You can't imagine the Jimmy who went off half-cocked in the woods arranging an operation like last week's massacre of Sheridan's gang, or this week's climactic killing of the thug who slashed Pearl. Jimmy confronts him in a bar, taking chilly satisfaction from the fear that spreads across his face, and then lets him live -- for an instant. No sooner does Jimmy walk out the door than a bullet pierces the window and hits the thug right below the eye -- the trademark shot of Richard, who was a sniper in the Great War. It's a smart move, absolving Jimmy from any public connection to the crime, and a coldly sadistic one as well. If I have a persistent criticism of "Boardwalk Empire" -- and many of those had before are falling away as the show finds its feet -- it's that the show has so many characters to keep track of that we haven't had much opportunity to see them change.

Even Nucky now is basically Nucky in the pilot, although his relationship with Margaret and the business with his father are opening up old wounds and giving us some insight as to how he got where he is. Jimmy, however, never ends an episode quite where he started. Although it's Nucky dipping his shoes in the surf in the opening credits, it feels as if it's as much Jimmy's show as his.

By Sam Adams

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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