Boardwalk Empire: The Cost of Indulgence

I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: Boardwalk Empire is so much better than every other drama currently airing that the discrepancy is jarring if you think about it for too long. The biggest hits on TV are consistently the broadest and least challenging, but Boardwalk Empire continues in the great tradition of smart cable shows of aiming for and achieving a higher level of quality in the writing, acting, directing, and everything else. Last night's "Family Limitation" was a gripping episode that once again reaped amazing rewards from seeds planted weeks ago, with characters now rubbing against each other's lives in utterly real and organic ways. The conflicts, confrontations, and little human moments are honestly earned and feel completely unforced.

Last night's episode was all about the cost of indulgences and the way plans always seem to go awry, no matter how carefully they're laid. The most predictable of these stories was Margaret's, which has only grown more complicated since she and Nucky decided to officially get involved. He wants to bankroll her and put her up in a swanky hotel, and she believes this is the best thing for her to do, especially considering how Nucky's treated her as they've grown closer. But, inevitably, her dream life turns out to have jagged edges when she learns she's sharing real estate with other mistresses, many with children, who view their home and their place in the world with a breeziness Margaret finds horrifying. (The way her face falls when a new neighbor refers to their collective group as "the concubines" is shattering.)

That's not to say Nucky's plans don't blow up, either. He's scrambling hard for a road to Atlantic City, so much so that his night out with Jersey City's mayor means he has to blow off Margaret and hit a whorehouse. He seems to care for Margaret in his way, though he was also sleeping with Lucy right before Margaret moved on up to the east side and seems to have no trouble using her like a chess piece. He's got a moral code, but it's a murky one.

But for the second week in a row, the most compelling action came with Jimmy's story out in Chicago. He and Capone are beginning to seriously butt heads as only they could, with their relationship meeting at some hellish crossroads of gangster and business partner. (When Al suggests they're pals, Jimmy replies that he merely considers them "accomplices.") I couldn't help but think of Stringer and Avon from The Wire watching Jimmy and Al compete for control of Jimmy Torrio's crime ring, with Al itching to launch a war and Jimmy advocating a strategic one-two punch of negotiations and treacherous murder. These men are both smart, but they're total opposites. Al busted Jimmy's chops when he was getting praise for masterminding the Sheridan assassinations, but Jimmy fired right back and called out Al for lying about his service in the war. Yet they also shared some genuinely tender moments when Al learned his son was deaf, a discovery that led to him tearfully telling Jimmy that his son can touch Al's throat and hear him singing but never understand what's happening. Capone's a stone-cold killer and borderline sociopath, but also, well, a dad. Nothing ever plays easy in the world of Boardwalk Empire.

This was the sixth episode of the 11 that will fill out the first season, and it's not hard to feel like we're at a turning point: various couples, from lovers to gangsters, are beginning to face some serious challenges that will only lead to more heartache and bloodshed. This show barrels like a freight train, and shows no signs of stopping.

Scattered thoughts:

• Margaret's fellow member of the Temperance Union spoke of being one state short of ratification for suffrage. That's Tennessee, which ratified the action in the summer of 1920, just a few months away from where the characters currently stand.

• Nucky's girlfriend Lucy is howl-at-the-moon crazy, but she's also deadly. Even though Margaret got the last word in their dressing room showdown, I wouldn't be surprised if she returns to do some real damage.

• The use of Lysol as a post-coital douche and birth control method was something I had no idea about before last night's episode. Thanks, Wikipedia!

• Jimmy's double-crossing of the Sheridan gang was a thing of beauty: having a coat girl on the inside slip them weapons was a genius play. It also led to one of the show's more violent massacres, and even as Jimmy blew Sheridan's brains out, I couldn't help but think of actor Michael Pitt's role in the American version of Funny Games, which argued that the audience is always implicated in such scenes and is indeed responsible for the kind of content they typically protest. Still: heart-stopping moment.

• Another character plan that went sideways: Lucky thought he was sleeping with Jimmy's wife, which he viewed as a perk and possible main objective of his task to track Jimmy down. But he finds out from Rothstein that Gillian is actually Jimmy's mom, making him the last to know.

• Van Alden has some serious issues: His obsession with Margaret clearly isn't the first time he's felt sexual desire and decided to punish himself via self-flagellation by belt. He's a dedicated guy and the closest thing this show has to a sort of hero, but true to form, he's more complicated and wounded than you'd think.

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