The most alluring aspect of period dramas is the way their eras can be romanticized by modern storytellers and audiences. Yet one of the things that makes Boardwalk Empire so fantastic is its stubborn resistance to glamorize a period in American life that was just as teeming with lawlessness and duplicity as any other. Last night's "Broadway Limited" almost felt like a modern gang story, revolving as it did around turf wars, revenge killings, and the practice of cutting the strength of a narcotic to boost the total saleable amount. The whole point is there's nothing at all new, and if you think things are dicey now, you should see how they got started.
The episode also explored the meaning of another proverb, the one about how only fools talk about the old days like they were better than the current ones. Jimmy remained a man without a country, unable to find work with Nucky or happiness at home. He just doesn't fit in anywhere, which is why it almost felt like a blessing when Nucky told him to leave Atlantic City for good, forcing Jimmy to pack up and strike out for Chicago. He's presumably heading there to find Al Capone and likely take him to task for using Jimmy's name during their heist, a careless act that wound up turning the feds onto Jimmy after Van Alden absconded with the barely surviving victim from the shooting. Van Alden's methods of interrogation were, let's say, pretty extreme: sticking his hand into the man's wound and torquing his intestines got the job done, but even for the network of True Blood, that was a pretty hardcore moment.
Equally adrift was Margaret, who gets a job in a dress shop thanks to Nucky's intercession but who finds that working for a cruel boss and demeaning customers is a higher price to pay than she'd anticipated. The scene in which Nucky's casually evil girlfriend used Margaret to help her get dressed was fantastically done, relying on Margaret's palpable discomfort and the other woman's clear joy in treating Margaret like a servant. The exchange communicated the woman's dislike with far more potency and nuance than if she'd just maligned Margaret's Irish heritage or something. Great writing from Margaret Nagle and direction from Tim van Patten.
The business side is starting to get nicely heated, as well. Chalky White, in for Mickey Doyle, clearly isn't one to be pushed around, even by the likes of Nucky Thompson. But Doyle's not out, either: The Italians backing him aren't about to let their operation go, so they bailed him out and set to moving back in on their territory, starting with the killing of one of Chalky's drivers. It's also no accident that they hanged the kid: this is 1920, just over 50 years after the end of the Civil War and only five years after the Klan was refounded, thanks in part to their unifying support of Prohibition. Race, pride, and perverted versions of nationalism are going to come to an ugly head in ways that won't be unfamiliar to anyone who's watched footage of protestors in the past few years.
All in all, it was a rock-solid episode that continued the series' energetic but controlled pace. This show is shaping up to be HBO's next great novel for television.
• The series is not without a sense of humor, dark and erratic though it may be. The funniest moment of last night was Van Alden's partner slapping the dying man and bluntly asking, "Who shot you?"
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• The dying man, who survived three days after Jimmy's heist thanks to his girth, was Rothstein's sister-in-law's nephew. Rothstein would go to the mattresses over any employee, but one that can be tied to his family, however tangentially, is only going to make him more upset. Of course, he sent Lucky to find Jimmy, not knowing Jimmy lit out for Chicago. Who knows where and when they'll run into each other, but it'll be interesting when they do.
• Rothstein and his poker buddies seem to favor string raises. This is bad form, albeit a tactic that gets used a lot in movies and TV for precisely the reason it's banned from real games: The first half of the raise lets you potentially read your opponent before announcing the full amount. Of course, Rothstein also made a guy swallow a cue ball and choke to death just for grins, so he's probably not big on sportsmanship in general.
• The book Jimmy used to store his son's photo was Sinclair Lewis' Free Air, a road novel about a woman who travels from New York City to the Pacific Northwest to find love with a blue-collar guy and turn her back on the snooty establishment of her family. Nice detail touch.
• Lucky Luciano apparently has gonorrhea and impotence issues. Drag. I looked away from the screen while the doc was shoving something into his business to treat the STD. I can watch a cop squeeze a victim's guts through a wound no problem, but the last thing I want to see before bed is a medical device inserted into a crotch. I definitely needed a cute chaser afterward.