Tim Van Patten had a thankless job directing the second episode of Boardwalk Empire. The pilot was helmed by Martin Scorsese, and it did all the great things pilot episodes can do: It laid out a sprawling world, hinted at the series' potentially epic scope, and established the basic workings of this version of Prohibition-era Atlantic City with plenty of flash, sizzle, and blood. Plus, well, it was Scorsese, and it had style to spare. Van Patten was the one steering the ship for "The Ivory Tower," and though the episode had a good deal less punch than the pilot, that doesn't mean it was bad. It was, in fact, quite good. It's just that Van Patten had to in essence slow things down and say: This is where we are going, and this is how we're going to get there. The series is every bit as riveting as when it started out, it's just beginning to feel like a series and not a 75-minute open-ended film.
The episode's themes -- written in big neon letters -- were about the perils of wealth and how possessing it tends to have more problems than needing it. Jimmy Darmody blows most of his cash from last week's heist and winds up short on what Nucky Thompson insists he's owed for letting Jimmy operate, so Jimmy winds up stealing back the necklace he bought for his mother just to make the payment. Then, in a cruel display that shows just how brutal Nucky can be, Nucky gambled the whole wad on roulette and promptly lost it, with Jimmy watching the whole time.
At the same time, Nucky and Rothstein traded pissy messages about who owes money to whom, and Van Alden came to the realization that Nucky's a much bigger criminal mastermind than his original target Rothstein. Rothstein's still a major player, but Nucky's the most dangerous kind of criminal: he's the legit businessman, the elected official with his hand in a thousand pockets who grows more untouchable every day he continues to do what looks like real trade. He's the Clay Davis of Atlantic City.
The only one able to resist the call of the dirty money is Margaret Schroeder, who spends half the episode in the hospital recovering from the blows that put her there and killed her unborn child. She knows her husband was a rotten man, and doesn't pretend otherwise when she's visited by Nucky's brother, Eli, the sheriff. But, probably in part because she was reading Henry James' The Ivory Tower while recuperating, she's unwilling to accept the hush money Eli gives her to coax her cooperation in the story that her husband was a bootlegger. Her suspicions are confirmed when Van Alden tells her that her husband was a patsy for a bigger criminal, and as a result, she returns the money to Nucky. She doesn't want the charity, and she certainly doesn't want to be sucked into a life of avarice.
This week's episode, like the pilot, was written by creator Terence Winter, whose track record on The Sopranos proves his ability to work with well-defined dramas. He's blessed with a stellar cast, though, particularly in Steve Buscemi as Nucky and Michael Shannon as Van Alden. Those men bring something special to everything they do, and getting to see them play off each other is a genuine treat. We're also enjoying Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein, in part because it's such a radical departure from his performance in A Serious Man. We forget it's the same person.
Overall, a solid episode from a creative team that had to accomplish a very specific task (keep people hooked) and do it with minimum resistance and maximum return for viewers. The series has already been renewed for a second season, too. Things will only get deeper from here.
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• That's Gretchen Mol as Jimmy's mother, a burlesque dancer, though at first I thought he was having an affair because of the affectionate way she greeted him. Turns out they just have a creepy relationship.
• We're scared to look up any of the characters' real-life counterparts on Wikipedia for fear of learning how they'll die, and when. We'd like to be surprised.
• Nucky tells Mickey that he's out of the business and that Chalky White's taking over for him. That means we'll get to see more of Michael K. Williams. This is always a good thing.