Boardwalk Empire: It's No Fraud

Halfway through last night's Boardwalk Empire, I was blown away by the monologue in which Chalky White talks about his murdered father to a Klansman who's been detained as a possible suspect in the hanging death of Chalky's driver. The moment was wonderfully crafted by writers Lawrence Konner and Margaret Nagle and director Jeremy Podeswa, and phenomenally delivered by Michael Kenneth Williams, standing out as one of the most powerful moments of the series so far.

But the deceptive thing about the show is that it's all good, and it's so consistently good that it becomes easy to take for granted that the disparate story lines will continue to weave together effortlessly and that any given character's emotional journey will be externally manifested in the culture around them. It's so far and away the best new drama of the year that, almost counterintuitively, the really great moments can wake you up to the rest of the very good ones.

Last night's episode, "Anastasia," was about people feeling like frauds and trying to reconcile their desired lives with their real ones. Jimmy, kicked out of Atlantic City, heads to Chicago to try and make things work in a partnership with Al Capone, but it's a rough fit from the start. Capone is only interested in taking over the liquor trade hard and fast, despite Jimmy's (wise) counsel that it might be better to slowly negotiate with existing kingpins for territory before branching out. Jimmy's pretending to be Nucky for a while, trying to work angles but butting up against a hothead. He winds up paying for Capone's brashness, as well: One of the men Capone's trying to muscle pays a visit to Jimmy's new girlfriend, a prostitute, and slashes her face.

Back in Atlantic City, Nucky and Margaret are doing their own pretending. Nucky has to throw his own surprise birthday party, and he tries to use anger to mask his embarrassment when his aide catches him rehearsing his "You shouldn't have!" speech. He's also starting to get fed up with Lucy, who can't do anything but coo at him in a high-pitched voice and call him daddy, which torpedoes his argument in front of some other politicians about the wisdom of suffrage. But when Margaret shows up at the party to deliver a dress for Lucy, she goes toe to toe with the thick-headed politicians and makes her case for the right to vote. She and Nucky share a legitimately sweet dance, despite their tangled and uncomfortable personal history -- he is, after all, the guy who had her abusive husband killed -- and for both of them, it's the first moment in a long time when they've been able to let themselves get carried away into feeling accepted.

Margaret spends the episode warming up to Nucky and his attendant lifestyle, egged on by headlines claiming that Duchess Anastasia might have escaped to America. When she learns that the woman purporting to be the princess was a fraud, she realizes how much she's been pretending to be something she's not. That's what drives her to steal what looked like lingerie from her own store: If she's going to play make-believe, she might as well get on with it and take what she wants.

Even the supporting players got in on it: Gillian and Lucky Luciano are apparently going to hook up, which is pretty much the last thing anyone would have expected. But the world of Boardwalk Empire is all about becoming what you want. From top to bottom, a great episode.

Scattered thoughts:

• I buy Gretchen Mol and Michael Pitt in their roles when they're not sharing the screen, but when asked to believe they're mother and son, I balk. I know they're not playing their actual ages (Mol's 37, Pitt's 29), but even aged up and down with make-up, they don't look like they could be related this way.

• Nucky's dismissal of the racist cop with a simple "You can wait in the hall" was a great example of how his power plays are almost always restrained. He's not exactly an enlightened guy -- his primacy concern isn't to find justice for Chalky, but to placate him and continue to secure the black vote -- but he's also not a cretin.

• It was nice to see Jimmy and Nucky share traits a bit. While Jimmy cautioned Al to take it slow and examine all his options before moving in on someone else's turf, Nucky wasted no time busting his rival's chops to make a grab for the road development money he needs to boost Atlantic City's commerce and tourism. I hope they get to team up again.

• The show's credits remain the one aspect that doesn't mix with the rest. They feel like the kind of stereotypical HBO-ish credits that would fit with one of their modern pop dramas, not a sweeping gangster-era epic. Plus, by highlighting Nucky, they act as if he's the center of the show, when it's becoming clearer each week that it's an ensemble piece.

• Margaret won't have to wait much longer to get her wish, at least when it comes to suffrage: the story is currently in the early weeks of 1920, and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that August.

• Seriously, Michael Williams' speech was like the second coming of Omar Little. You come at the king, you best not miss.

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