A man’s character is his fate, and crucial characters come fatefully into focus in the fourth Boardwalk Empire (“Anastasia”). Al Capone (Stephen Graham) welcomes Jimmy (Michael Pitt) to Chicago by sneaking into a whorehouse in the wee hours, shushing Jimmy’ favorite mattressback, the Chinatown opium-loving beauty Pearl (ingénue-to-watch Emily Meade), and shooting the snoozing Jimmy in the ear. It’s a blank, but it bloodies and scares the bejesus out of Jimmy. Capone is getting even for WW I vet Jimmy’s razzing disbelief of Scarface Capone’s false claim that the Huns gave him his scar. “Lookit Mr. Solider Boy! You’d piss yer pants if you were wearin’ [any].”
Capone’s brutish will to power erupts again when he and Jimmy are trying to muscle in on a rival mob’s turf by shaking down a bartender. Capone stomps the guy, overdoing it like Pesci in Goodfellas. Like Pacino in The Godfather, Jimmy cautions him to play a cooler, deeper game, taking over by stealth, not brute strength. Capone thinks everyone will knuckle under to brass knuckles; Jimmy knows the bartender beating will backfire, inciting retaliation by the rival mob. Jimmy advocates sneaking up on them, like Capone did on him.
You know Jimmy’s coming into his own, because his face is lost in Gordon Willis shadows, like everybody powerful in this episode – each a prince of darkness, starkly lit from the side or the back, or from the chin down. Jimmy’s lighting is most like his mentor Nucky (Steve Buscemi), who, it keeps getting noisily hinted, may be more than avuncular to him. “I hope the filmmakers aren’t heading for a ‘Luke, I am your father’ moment,” grouses Matt Zoller Seitz in The New Republic.
Nucky’s more intriguing family romance involves his brother and hit man, Sheriff Eli (Shea Whigham). Smarting under Nucky’s insults, resenting what he considers Nucky’s excessive indulgence of Jimmy, Eli hunkers down and executes his sibling’s uppity orders. He takes out his pent-up aggression on the brothers’ victims, like the hardware store owner and Grand Cyclops of the KKK. “Lose the dunce caps!” Eli shouts to the KKK guys. “You too, Cyclops.”
To find out whether the KKK was behind the lynching last episode – inconvenient for Nucky in an election year, because he depends on black votes--Eli turns the Cyclops over to the most promising character of all, Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams). Williams nicely underplays his lynch-soliloquy interrogation of the KKK guy, his face a mask of dark menace amid the blinding striped noir light stabbing from the window behind him. Chalky still is no match for Omar on The Wire, but everybody’s praying he will turn out to be.
Turns out the KKK is innocent of a lynching for once. Chalky’s guy got strung up by the Polack bootlegger Nucky cut loose for attracting cops. Now the Polack is siding with Nucky’s enemies, only he can’t tell black guys apart so he lynched Chalky’s minion instead of Chalky. But Nucky is discovering that people can get even, in Atlantic City as well as Chicago. (It’s like Irving Azoff once said when a disgruntled associate cornered him at an Eagles-reunion wedding with a piece of cake aimed at his face: “Payback’s a motherfucker!”)
Nucky’s character is getting more thuggish. He abuses his kitchen staff and smashes glasses when he finds “some cocksucking whore’s lipstick” on an imperfectly washed rim and heaps contempt on a Senator who balks at building a new road to Atlantic City. He hopes to send the Senator to the White House; is it smart to piss him off now?
The most conspicuously smart character is Margaret (Kelly Macdonald). Sent to deliver a dress to Nucky’s mistress at Nucky’s big birthday party, she winds up wowing the insufferable sexist bigwigs with a wittily literate defense of women’s suffrage. Nucky impulsively sweeps her onto the dance floor, and they’re perfect together, a whirling double star, the cynosure of the glitterati.
The dumbest character is Nucky’s squeeze Lucy (Paz de la Huerta). Quizzed about the League of Nations, she obliges the misogynist antisuffragette men with the most ignorant answer yet. Popping out of Nucky’s giant birthday cake, she dances as incompetently as Margaret danced well, wriggling lasciviously like Marilyn Monroe for JFK, only without the grace and irony. It’s easy to see who Nucky wants to see more of.
Who Jimmy wants to see more of is entrancing trollop Pearl. No dunce, she wants to light out for a new life out West, like the heroine of Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air, the book Jimmy left by the bed and she’s reading. But it’s payback time. Jimmy’s rivals carve Pearl’s angel face like angel cake.
Nucky lobbies the elusive Senator by sending him a box of his favorite pricey Pimm’s Cup and a note: “I DO expect to get everything.” Will Nucky get what’s coming to him? Or more than he bargained for? Boardwalk Empire is starting to get addictive.