Boardwalk Empire: The Emerald City

Last night's Boardwalk Empire found its central characters dealing with change in drastically different ways as they wrestled with who they wanted to be. The series has always been about the tension between desire and responsibility, and how more power always comes with a higher cost of doing business, and this week's episode found some very different people struggling to reconcile themselves to the fact that their lives aren't going quite the way they'd planned, and further, that these missteps are their own doing.

Al Capone's was the most direct: He's a man who's finally decided to stop acting like a boy. It was a nice touch to have him realize how immature he's been acting by having a moment of clarity at the bar mitzvah, though the script from Lawrence Konner laid it on a bit too thick later when Torrio advised him again that he "could learn something from these Jews." That was already pretty clear, actually, what with Al's heart-to-heart with a rabbi about the nature of personal responsibility. Still, it was nice to see him begin the transition to the ruthless man he's destined to become, trading in the newsboy cap for a proper lid and swearing to Torrio that his days of goofing off are over.

Similarly, Angela's on edge after watching Jimmy beat the tar out of Robert, the guy from the photo shop. (Young Tommy's indictment of Angela's "kissing friend" in a portrait was a horrible and tragic misunderstanding, since he'd been pointing at Mary, Robert's wife.) Angela's been honest with herself about being a lesbian, but only to a degree: Mary's request that they run away together still comes as a rightful shock, since to do so would mean making a clean break from Jimmy and everything else in her old life. I wouldn't quite miss her, though: she's felt slightly extraneous from the beginning, and having her run off to Paris would let her be happy while also tightening the show's narrative, so it's a win-win.

Nelson Van Alden, meanwhile, doesn't know how he feels about the man he's becoming. His attempt to "save" Margaret was predictably disastrous -- no one does creepy quite as well as Michael Shannon, whose smile when trying to win Margaret's respect or affection was just eerie -- and it finally pushed him to embrace the acts for which he ritualistically beats himself. He went to a speakeasy, got drunk, and had forceful sex with Lucy Danziger. He hated himself pretty much the entire time, and wound up writhing on the bed afterward in a state of confusion born of his hard-wired, dogmatic self-loathing. He's growing increasingly uncomfortable in his own skin, egged on by his frustration at not being able to make the criminal case against Nucky Thompson he knows is true, and as a result he's slipping further down into an angry depression.

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Yet it was once again Margaret who held the middle ground. She's always been smarter than Nucky's realized, but up till now she's been able to delude herself that her actions weren't bad and bore no negative consequence. Van Alden's visit, spook though it was, got through to her, and her queasiness at shilling for Nucky and pushing his choice for mayor on the newly anointed female voters only grew worse when she talked with Richard Harrow, who's been living with her as a bodyguard. His confession of his own sense of displacement was sad enough, and he capped it by saying, "I stare sometimes at my face and I can't recall who I was before." It was finally what Margaret needed to hear, and what allowed her to realize that she's responsible for her own actions. She's been lying to herself about who Nucky is and what he can do, but just like Al and Nelson, she's beginning to reach a point where she has to change what she's doing or accept it. My money says she'll keep playing ball with Nucky, if only for a while. Power's an intoxicating thing.

Scattered thoughts:

• Jack Huston continues to crush it as Richard Harrow. His dream, which opened the episode, was a wrenching way to underscore just how mutated and wrong he feels he's become, and the way he genuinely apologized for frightening Margaret's children was heartbreaking. He's a beaten dog, a wounded animal, and he glides through his scenes with a sad dignity that's just riveting.

• Every time I see Al Capone on this series, I think of Tommy and "ze Germans."

• With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and the convening of a grand jury to investigate the World Series scandal, we're solidly in the fall of 1920. It's a little stunning to think this season began in January of that year, and that the ten episodes aired so far have moved through more than eight months in just a few hours.

• "After a while you can get up there and sell snake oil." Nucky genuinely seemed to not understand Margaret's trepidation about giving a speech for a mayoral candidate she didn't believe in, attributing her moral reluctance to nerves. That's gonna come back and hurt him. She's a whole lot tougher than anyone knows.

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