Boardwalk Empire: Winding the Bunny

A screenwriter I used to know once talked about "winding the bunny": Basically, a storyteller's job is to wind up the mechanical bunny with enough force that it will walk the rest of the journey under its own power. The best stories always pack enough information and character and potential into the front end that they seem to barrel ahead like trains as they head for the conclusion, and Boardwalk Empire is definitely among the best. Last night's "Paris Green," the penultimate episode of the first season, was loaded with so many payoffs that have been building effortlessly for weeks that the hour was one of the strongest in an already stellar year. The disparate threads are being pulled tighter by the minute, and the way some of the major arcs began to connect this week was pleasing in the way that only comes from well-made and solidly constructed television.

In an episode packed with stunning confrontations, Nucky and Margaret's lengthy fight was the most emotional. Margaret's growing exhaustion with pimping Nucky's shady friends reached its limit with her speech lauding his choice for mayor, but the veil really came off when she saw Nucky getting friendly with Annabelle after the other woman came looking for money once she learned Harry Prince had gone broke. (In a nice twist showing that people 100 years ago were as desperate and cruel as they are today, Prince lost his money in a Ponzi scheme to the original Charles Ponzi.) Their inevitable fight took the resentment and mutual manipulation that had been fueling their relationship for months and turned it inside out. It was gratifying in a way to see Margaret finally admit how much she knows about what Nucky does, but it was even more gripping to see Nucky return fire by scorning her holier-than-thou attitude. "A good person wouldn't be here right now," he tells her, and he was right: days later, she took the kids and split. Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald were fantastic throughout.

The Darmody clan had their own Tennessee Williams play going on, too. Angela's attempt to flee fell flat, but she foolishly didn't go home to collect the Dear John letter she'd penned to Jimmy, and when she returned to find him home and the note gone, it was clear that he'd decided that he'd eventually be the one to leave her, and with their son as his own. On top of that, it turns out that the Commodore is Jimmy's father, having sired him by molesting (there's no other way to say it) Gillian when she was just 13. Yet his illness is being aggravated by Gillian's attempts to slowly poison him in a bid for the money she's likely always felt was rightfully hers.

In an episode full of schemes and recriminations, Nelson Van Alden's was the harshest and strangest. When he and Sesbo stumble across the group of worshippers down by the river, it's an awkward but workable scene that touches on Van Alden's continual battle between what he perceives to be a higher calling and his more earthbound desires. Yet his revenge on Sesbo later was maniacal: dragging the man back out there, forcing him to confess and repent, and then drowning him when he refused. Even for a character clearly as tormented as Van Alden -- and using a perverted form of baptism as a murder weapon was a great choice from writer Howard Korder -- the moment felt a bit overheated: Surely he has to know there will be fallout from the death of a fellow agent, or at the very least trouble. The only thing saving Van Alden is the fact that he's played by Michael Shannon with such bug-eyed ferocity and utter commitment that he's consistently watchable, even if he sometimes becomes unbelievable. Yet part of this might also be the creative team's genuine struggle to find a balance between a real exploration of the character's religious insanity and a cartoonish depiction of the same.

So this is where we are: Jimmy on the brink of becoming a major player, even as he questions his direction; Nucky deciding to get back to his old cold self by replacing his brother with Halloran for sheriff; Nelson on the warpath for anyone and everyone; Margaret too unhappy to stay; Angela unable to leave; and a whole mess of gangsters getting ready to go to the mattresses. No stopping now.

Scattered thoughts:

• Nelson's slightly tortured manner of speaking is always a joy. Discussing a suspect's "need to micturate" ranked with his casual dismissal of Chinese food: "The thought of what ingredients might constitute this filth repulses me." Such a beautiful formality to his emotional distance.

• Richard Harrow grows ever more terrifying. His casual offer to slaughter the D'Alessio women and children to drive the main brothers into the open was shocking, even for Jimmy.

• One of the great things about Jimmy is his insistence on creating and adhering to a warped morality, one in which murder and abuse are tolerated but in which loyalty and parenting count for something. As with all great characters, it's this devotion to a murky sense of right and wrong that makes him so compelling. After all, a man must have a code.

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