Boardwalk Empire: The Evolving Regime

Splitsider recently published a cute but accurate article in which 30 Rock and Dollar Sign Hashtag Asterisk Exclamation Point My Dad Says were compared in a vaguely scientific manner to determine which was funnier. (Not-really-a-spoiler alert: 30 Rock crushed it.) One part of the methodology they used was the extent to which each series demonstrated overlapping story lines, since a greater degree of overlap makes for more narrative complexity and potentially much greater payoff. That's something I kept coming back to as I watched Boardwalk Empire last night. Every one of the plots is tied to the other, and the bonds only grow tighter over time. Each story doesn't just run parallel with the others, but actually influences it, so Jimmy's relationship with Nucky bleeds over into Nucky's relationship with Margaret, and Van Alden's pursuit of Jimmy affects Jimmy's pursuit of the D'Alessio brothers, and on and on. What sets the series apart from so many other dramas is that in place of ease and comfort it offers challenge and reward, and those smart enough to stick with it are treated to something that feels novelistic, cinematic, and totally above just about every other show out there. This is becoming one to rank with the best of the decade; it's just that riveting.

Part of the evolution of these characters -- particularly Jimmy and Margaret -- is the degree to which they're willing to use other people as means to an end. Jimmy returned to Atlantic City not just stronger but colder, willing to carry out a hit for Nucky but also unwilling to do any business without getting to dictate the terms. Only someone that thick-headed could waltz into his old home and expect his wife to greet him with kisses (even if said wife wasn't a closeted lesbian and budding artist). As he becomes more like Nucky, he grows more comfortable calling the shots in any situation, and Michael Pitt has played this transformation wonderfully.

Margaret's becoming just as conniving, and it's more than a little heartbreaking to see her lose that sense of innocence that first drew Nucky to her. She managed to keep the dress shop open by playing coy with Nucky and pretending she didn't want to lose her sole fashion outlet, and she was later able to push her old boss into coughing up some nice threads as a gift by refusing to back down. She's learning how to see people as tools to apply to a situation, and with the election coming up, who knows how far she'll take that.

The episode also offered some smart twists on the established regime, with Halloran gunning for Eli's job and Van Alden's partner, Agent Sebso, turning out to be crooked. Brad Anderson did a great job directing the scene in which Sebso, transporting the witness who'll testify against Jimmy, calmly shoots the young man and then bludgeons his own head with a stone to bolster the lie he'll tell about being jumped by the criminal. I didn't know if the transport would get ambushed or if Sebso would turn out to be on the take, but it's a lot more interesting to know he's criminally connected. How long has he been that way? What information has he passed along to Nucky? How has he gummed up Van Alden's work? The whole moment was a great reveal that drastically shifted the balance of power, and it underscored just how much everyone in this little world is roped to everyone else.

Scattered thoughts:

• I feel bad for Angela. Gay, unhappy, and unable to pursue her dreams with any real freedom. Plus it was clear that Jimmy's return soured the horny swingers from the photo studio on hanging out with her. Damn swingers.

• "Everybody knows, Eli. It just never made the paper before." I love the constant reminder that most of these crooked leaders didn't try to hide their actions so much as just control the spread of the reporting about them. Harding's people all seem pretty upfront about Nan Britton (who herself is wildly deluded about getting to play first lady/girlfriend), they just want to keep it out of the papers.

• "Everyone in Paris is doing it." Thank you, George Costanza.

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