Everybody made a big deal about the Scorsese-directed pilot of Boardwalk Empire, but Timothy Van Patten’s followup is in some ways better. No muzzle-flash valentines to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre this time, but instead of endless setups and proud pans of HBO’s multimillion-dollar period set, we get some actual storylines unspooling. Last week we saw Nucky’s nooky naked; this week we get a peek at his unguarded heart. And Van Patten beats Scorsese’s bookend iris shots with the opening scene (pan down with the Chicago snow to mob boss Big Jim’s funeral) and the finale (a Baltimore flapper rolls her averted eyes and mechanically works the crankshaft of crass businessman Baxter in his Tin Lizzie – until the gory, half-dead survivor of the first episode’s massacre staggers zombielike out of the woods and into their headlamps). And Van Patten’s old-time movie moves work as well as Scorsese’s: I like the wipe from the closeup of Capone stomping reporter Eddie Corrigan’s face to Nucky at his desk.
The episode is all about money and betrayed relationships. The flapper handjob repays Baxter for their romanceless Atlantic City date. Big Jim paid for being in the way of more ruthless gangsters. Nucky charges Darmody $3,000 for the botched booze stickup. Darmody unwisely blows his heist money on bling for his wife and stripper mom (in a nicely uncomfortable scene, we first mistake Gretchen Mol for Darmody’s moll – how weird that she’s his ma!). What agony that Darmody has to steal Ma’s necklace back to repay false father figure Nucky. Capone, who botched the stickup, shows his vile colors by laughing when Darmody implores him for a $500 loan.
Rothstein wants $100,000 from Nucky for the heist. Nucky starts showing his fangs: it’s one thing to drop his helium-giggly funeral-parlor brewmaster for getting busted, but now he’s disowning his virtual son Darmody, perilously declaring war on Rothstein, and needlessly needling his brother Eli the Atlantic City top cop for being a clumsy body dumper.
But Nucky misses his wife, and he seems sweet on Margaret, the immigrant widow whose sot husband he had Eli kill so he could make him the fall guy for the heist murders. Only Margaret seems to get lucre’s filthy effects – she hands back Nucky’s payoff, quoting George Sand’s line, “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it.” She doesn’t know the half of it – yet. But Nucky seems impressed. Like Sinatra, he’s a boss who only respects those who don’t kowtow to him. (On the set of The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra came in hours late, fuming, and the only one who dared sass him was Laurence Harvey, who announced, “And are we having our period today, Frank?” Suddenly, Frank was in a jovial mood; Harvey’s brass balls saved the day.)
There’s been a backlash against Broadway Empire’s hype tsunami. Editor Doug Brod claims it’s the worst Scorsese ever. I disagree, but you have to admit it has its flaws. The dialogue can be clumsy and obvious – sometimes it reminds me of the old Firesign Theatre Nick Danger line, “It’s been such a long exposition, I’m so TIRED.” At this episode’s first-scene funeral, reporter Corrigan says, “Is it true the police questioned you about Big Jim’s murder?” “We was like brothers,” snaps the mob boss. “Like Cain and Abel?” “Oh, a wiseacre, eh?”
Such exchanges lack life, spontaneity – and crucially, originality. The Sopranos hit big because it felt innovative and true, a distinct variation on gangster drama traditions. True Blood and Twilight hit because they updated vampire legends. To make it big, you have to make it seem new, yet rooted in genre. Mostly, I think Boardwalk Empire does so. But critics are right to point tommyguns at its weak points. Now that it’s been instantly renewed for a second season, perhaps the writers can fix it. One way: more scenes like Rothstein’s poolroom anecdote related to Big Jim’s killer. Methodically clearing the pool table, Rothstein tells the guy about how he murdered someone with a pool ball, then says, “If I cause a stranger to choke to death for my own amusement, what do you think I’ll do to you if you don’t tell me who ordered you to kill Colisimo?” This dialogue has the efficient click of Rothstein’s implacable cueball. That’s what it will take to win this game.