Boardwalk Empire haters, quit yer bitchin.’ Like the train Jimmy hops in the last scene, the story builds up steam and gets rolling in Ep. 3, “Broadway Limited” (penned by Margaret Nagle with the period verve that earned her HBO FDR show Warm Springs 16 Emmy noms and 5 wins). It helps that the episode’s scariest, most lawless place isn’t some back alley or speakeasy -- it’s the doc’s office. First, the gangster too fat to die from bullets in the premiere Scorsese episode’s massacre scene gets smothered in hospital by a pillow wielded by Eli (Shea Whigham), the sheriff brother of top mobster Nucky (Steve Buscemi). Nobody wants the fat man to finger Jimmy (Michael Pitt) for the shootout.
Except top Proby cop Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who interrupts Eli in mid-murder. Next scene, a urologist cures Lucky Luciano’s gonorrhea by shoving a tire-iron-like device up his penis and zapping it with zinc sulfate. Luciano confesses he’s sometimes impotent, then almost kills the doc to keep it secret.
Eli gets rid of Van Alden. But the lawman comes back with a phoney “writ of searchey-arrari from the Federal Magistrate of Philadelphia,” cons the cop guarding the gut-shot gangster, and loads the fat man into a car for interrogation. Up to now, Van Alden’s been a straight arrow. OK, he’s got a stalkery kink about Nucky’s charity case Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), but he’s a moral crusader: about booze, taking the Lord’s name in vain, anything unchristian. Only he’s willing to break “about a dozen laws” to get his man. There’s no law in Atlantic City, he says – and then gets his own gangsta on by breaking into a dentist’s office, flinging the child patient out of the chair, flopping the shot fat man into it and forcing the dentist to wake him up with a cocaine syringe in the gums.
Shannon’s Van Alden reminds me of Karl Malden, a tough snubnose saint. He bends a rule or two to save Eli’s victim. But when the fat man sasses Van Alden, he gets as mad as Malden the day Sinatra almost stole the priest role in On the Waterfront from him. So he shoves his fist into the guy’s bloody stomach wound a la Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds and gets Jimmy’s identity. That’s not bending rules, that’s bent. Later, when Van Alden dines with his wife, he’s lit from above, his Neanderthal brow looking like Frankenstein, or the Lincoln Monument minus the righteousness. His sexless marriage helps explain why he craves whips and the ribbon he so creepily stole from Margaret – but who knew he was just as psycho as Capone?
The other big character breakthrough is black gangster Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams – do you realize how many up and comers named Michael there are on this show? It must be some abstruse homage to Michael Corleone). Chalky, Nucky’s new hooch distributor, is a rich contrast: clad in a scarlet coat instead of Nucky’s muted herringbone, flashier than Nucky, or maybe just wearing the clothes that signify power to his constituents, like Nucky. He makes his racist predecessor Mickey Doyle (helium-giggly Paul Sparks) -- who’s actually a self-loathing Pole who switched to the Irish name -- look stupid. Chalky’s about the only operator as smart as Nucky (who in real life did great things for Atlantic City’s blacks, as long as he could milk them for votes and payoffs).
Scribe Nagle nicely captures the gulf between Chalky and Nucky linguistically. When Chalky threatens underlings, Nucky says, “Simon Legree!” thinking Chalky will know Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “I don’t give a fuck if they agree or not,” says Chalky, whose education was evidently less bookish. And Nucky doesn’t get Chalky’s lingo either. When Chalky says he’s sensitive “as a baby’s ass, motherfucker,” Nucky asks, “What does ‘motherfucker’ mean?” Another nice example of cross-cultural misunderstanding: when the fat man insults Van Alden in Yiddish, the mom of the dentist’s original patient has to explain that what he said was, “Fuck your grandmother with your little faggot dick.” So the cop kills the fat man by fist-fucking his wound. Sensitive!
Time will tell if the Chalky role fulfills the titanic promise and raging fan base Williams earned as Omar on The Wire. Macdonald’s Margaret begins to fulfill her promise as Boardwalk Empire’s first breakout star as Nucky spins her deeper into his web with a job at the Ritz’s ritzy ladies’ store Belle Femme, where the boss is bitchy even by Frenchwoman standards and nobody’s bitchier than Margaret’s customer – Nucky’s tramp Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). Their first acting duet is a duel. Lucy feels Nucky’s passion cool, so she takes it out on Margaret in the fitting room – a place of violence, as in Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. As she wiggles voluptuously out of unmentionables and slips pricier ones back on, Lucy verbally abuses Margaret while posing and cuddling her own naughty parts, as if demanding sexual validation from Margaret, and somehow getting even with Nucky. When she calls Margaret a “charity case,” it stings. But maybe this duel isn’t over yet.
Jimmy’s ma (upsettingly nubile Gretchen Mol) confronts Nucky for not looking after him (a disappointingly flat scene). But maybe Nucky is looking out for him by banishing Jimmy from Atlantic City (to Chicago). Van Alden’s big, squashy Karl Malden schnozz has picked up Jimmy’s scent. Rothstein, whose hooch Jimmy stole, told Luciano he’s got someone he wants dead. The only thing worse than a gangster with orders to kill you is the same guy with an impotent joystick recently zapped with zinc. Luciano doesn’t feel lucky lately – worse luck for Jimmy.
What’s Jimmy got to live for in Atlantic City, anyway? He’s accused his fiance of shtupping the photographer who snapped a va-va-voom shot she’d hoped to give Jimmy. The shutterbug’s a yutz who tells WWI trench vet Jimmy, “Yipes! I would not have minded having my mettle tested like that!” But he runs the photo shop with his wife, and he should thank them for looking after his gal while he was off getting his mettle tested. He flunks this moral test, walks out on fiance and kid. And onto the Chicago-bound Broadway Limited. He’s reading Sinclair Lewis’s road book Free Air, soon to be a 1922 movie, about a rich New York girl who lights out for Seattle and lights up for a poor boy like him. How free will Jimmy be? Will he get fresh air or a lungful of lead?