Putting on an Act
The sun seldom shines in the Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire. Above the stretches of sand, the winter skies are dismal and overcast, creating the perfect backdrop for the shady dealings that take place in the city’s distilleries, backrooms, and speakeasies.
In the new season’s premiere episode, “21,” a plot against Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is afoot, orchestrated by his closest confidantes who hunger for his sizable piece of the action. At the same time, crooked officials and gangsters in Atlantic City, Chicago, and New York quietly broker alliances, only to subvert them, a few scenes later, with former enemies.
Amid these plots, Nucky remains a shrewd politician and the smartest person in any room, as Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) assures him at the end of the second episode, “Ourselves Alone.” His talent for assessing the angles more quickly than everyone else makes him an exceedingly clever man, but also an impatient one, and he is not above browbeating or deceiving those slower than he is.
And so the vendettas against Nucky aren’t about business alone, as his enemies seethe with resentment over real and perceived humiliations. These include his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) , as well as the Commodore (Dabney Coleman) and his son Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Eli and the Commodore feel that Nucky has usurped their power, while Jimmy, whom Nucky helped to raise, yearns to overthrow him. The Oedipal quagmire only enhances the political treachery.
Notorious for being able to play both sides of the fence, Nucky appeals to the congregants of a black church in one scene and to a gathering of Ku Klux Klan members in the next. But in a town teeming with secrets, Nucky isn’t the only one putting on an act; everyone performs in one way or another. During an outing with his wife Rose (Enid Graham), Nelson Van Alden, a repressed and righteous Prohibition Agent (a brilliant Michael Shannon), stages a restaurant raid, taking instant command of the scene. As he orders his officers to empty the registers and uncover stashes of alcohol, a camera swoops to follow them, beautifully illustrating how Nelson is directing the action as well as starring in it. When the scene ends, he turns to Rose for her appraisal. The prim and God-fearing woman is alive with excitement.
As much as the men attempt to please their wives, lovers, and mothers, it is apparent they underestimate them too. The women are much stronger and savvier than their men assume and will masquerade as “damsels in distress” if it serves their purposes. By the end of “Ourselves Alone,” Margaret reveals how strategic and crafty she can be, leaving Nucky stunned as he becomes aware of her machinations. And like Nelson’s wife, he is also enthralled by what he sees.
Such calculated performances complicate our comprehension of the brutal violence that regularly punctuates Boardwalk Empire. We see that power isn’t just about muscle and money; it’s about the friends you keep and the favors you grant. Nucky has his bootlegging partner Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) sent to jail to protect him from bloodthirsty Klan members. Chalky finds himself locked in a cell with a group of men, including a proud and sinister Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), who tries to provoke him with insults about his wife, his “uppity” attitude, and his clothes. Harvey is electrifying, his every word and gesture vibrating with menace. But as dangerous as Purnsley may be, his adversary is more so: Chalky White has friends everywhere, all with debts to repay.
If the violence can be shocking, it is also framed by a mordant humor. At a funeral for a KKK member, Jimmy observes the caped men and remarks, “Seems like a waste of perfectly good tablecloths.” Nucky replies, “The laundry bills alone…” Jimmy’s sense of his surroundings emerges again in “21.” Seated at a breakfast table with his right-hand man, Richard (Jack Huston), Jimmy sees him pushing eggs and potatoes around his plate. A WWI veteran, Richard covers half his face with a mask to conceal an empty eye socket and a gaping wound in his jaw. Jimmy intuits the problem. “You don’t have to be ashamed to eat around us, Richard,” he says. “Take some biscuits with you for later.” As Jimmy’s kind and beautiful wife, Angela (Aleksa Pallidino), fills their cups with coffee fresh off the boil, Richard turns to his boss and quietly asks, “What does it feel like, having everything?”
Jimmy hears him, but does he understand? When a gift from Nucky arrives, celebrating a sentimental memory from their past, Jimmy hides it in a closet, “putting away childish things” now that he believes he has become a man. Right now, he is unsatisfied, a striver, out for more money, more power, and more respect. But like Richard, we realize that Jimmy—despite his strength, smarts, and charisma—still has a lot to left to learn about life.