Both my editor and I, here at TOH, are fans of the episode-by-episode commentary that critic Tim Appelo wrote for indieWIRE last year, during the first season of Terence Winter’s sprawling, ambitious period gangster chronicle Boardwalk Empire. Not myself a fan quite as deep-dyed as Tim, I’ve elected to try a variation on his dive-right-in approach to covering the series week by week. Leaving aside overarching issues of theme and character, I’ll be writing simply and only about the scenes and lines and encounters and details in each episode that I’ve actually really liked.
Here’s this week’s list of some of the good things in BE – the high points, more or less in chronological viewing order.
The theme song. Not an obscure old Stones tune, as I once guessed, it’s actually not even a whole song or a sustained instrumental but only the introductory section (possibly looped a couple of times) of the “Straight Up and Down” by a “neo-psychedelic” quartet The Brian Jonestown Massacre, which does eventually get around to having vocals. I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been more of an outcry about using such an egregiously anachronistic tune to set the mood for a show set in the 1920s, rather than some of the jazz in which the period was awash. Perhaps it’s been accepted as a piece of aural irony, or as an indication that the attitudes of the show are going to be de-mystifyingly contemporary -- in the sense of no heroes, everyone’s corrupt, and the one guy who’s trying to do good (Michael Shannon’s tightly wound prohibition agent Van Alden) is an obvious tool, a religious nut-case hypocrite. And so on.
Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White. Just for having played Omar, the implacable gay assassin on The Wire, Williams will have a place in our hardboiled pantheon forever. In this episode he’s the centerpiece of a sustained jailhouse suspense sequence that showcases the ability of both actor and character to project menace without brandishing a weapon, or even raising his voice. The posturing blowhard who takes him on (Erik LaRay Harvey’s Dunn Purnsley) doesn’t stand a chance. All that wasted energy. “Purnsly be done.”
A gorgeous CG recreation of Manhattan in the '20s. It’s not just for SF and fantasy anymore. Resurrecting a long-past and achingly nostalgic aspect of the real world feels way more magical.
Margaret Schroeder’s resourcefulness. Dressing up in a servant’s clothes and padding her belly in order to sneak into Nucky’s suite as “with child” in order to rescue his secret stash – a wad of bills and, even more importantly, The Ledger Book, the Necronomicon of his black money machinations. The look that passes between them later, when she produces it, and a flood of relief sweeps over him that’s so euphoric it’s like a drug and just about knocks him out – this is a virtuoso duet for Macdonald and Buscemi.
The Commodore’s glaringly unconvincing black hair. “He fell into the shoe polish.”
The manic Woody Woodpecker-esque needling of a young up-and-comer identified only as “Benny” (Michael Zegan) – who will not be widely referred to as “Bugsy” (it says here) until the 1930s.
Sinn Fein gets short shrift. The show revels in its 20-20 hindsight, here. We meet two representatives of the radical wing of the Irish republican movement and both of them are skeezy and self-serving. The young advance man, Owen Slater (Charlie Cox) is a gosh-and-begora Colin Farrell-y seducer, while John McGarrigle (Ted Rooney) is a sanctimonious stuffed shirt, agent Van Alden’s evil Catholic twin. Nucky has too much sense and too much pride to afford McGarrigle anything more than a bare minimum of respect. As a kingpin of the Irish-American community Nucky has to be seen to support Republicanism. But he doesn’t have to pretend to like its messenger.
Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody. The show’s secret weapon. With the way his short-sided swept-back hair’s been cut and the way his clothes fit, and with that profile, and the way he holds a cigarette, he looks like he’s stepped out of a men’s clothing ad in a 1920s magazine. Playing what amounts to the Jimmy Cagney role he’s also the only performer who seems to have adapted his posture and diction to the style of the period. Pitt has a couple of especially good bits in this episode, looking like a classic noir hero lounging in a dark, doorway illuminated only by the flare of a match, then with frightening speed perforating a couple of erstwhile poker buddies who turn out to be bad losers. I’m not saying I would cast Michael Pitt tomorrow as Sam Spade in a re-make of The Maltese Falcon, but it might be worth thinking about. Watch this episode with your eyes open and see if you don’t agree.