BOARDWALK EMPIRE Recap: “The Ivory Tower”

     September 26, 2010

The second episode of the best new series on television didn’t have all that much action or violence, but plenty still happened in the wake of Jimmy Darmody’s (Michael Pitt) scheme to steal Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) shipment of liquor to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) as well as the murder of Big Jim Colosimo in Chicago. This episode specifically functions as a small move in the big game of chess that is the story of Boardwalk Empire. In the big picture, the episode is one big setup for an impending storm in the crime world. That’s not to say this episode is uneventful, but it’s certainly the beginning of something bigger. Hit the jump for details.

Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is already sniffing around the offices of Nucky inquiring into the bloodbath resulting from the liquor heist in the woods. After some polite and snidely playful banter, Van Alden can only continue his investigation elsewhere, but that’s too close for comfort. With no other choice, Nucky decides to fire Jimmy while also making him pay another $3,000 for his little scheme that resulted in four deaths (or is it five?). As he so eloquently puts it, “You wanna be a gangster in my town, then you’ll pay me for the privilege.” Van Alden knows this business style all too well as he’s figured out that nearly every business, public employee and citizen of Boardwalk Empire is in Nucky’s pocket and there’s not one bit of profit where a percentage doesn’t go to Nucky. The prohibition agent has decided Nucky Thompson is “the bigger fish” and no longer has his sights set on Rothstein.

Though they’re opposing forces, in this episode we find out that they may not be so different behind their masks. While Nucky has longing glances into open space or at a picture of his deceased wife, it seems Van Alden has lost someone very dear to him as well. In writing a postcard to his wife (in the most formal of tones), he finishes by taking out some sort of ribbon hidden in his desk drawer, wrapping it around his head and with one great breath, taking in as much of its scent as he can. Has Van Alden previously lost a daughter or is this simply his wife’s hair ribbon? The moment certainly has the feel of tragic memory.

In a moment equally as impacting as this, a monologue from Rothstein (delivered to Colosimo’s assassin Frankie Yale) can be counted amongst the great threatening anecdotes from underground crime. To make a long story short, Rothstein turned a street performer’s trick of swallowing billiard balls into his death as he requested that he take the cue ball down his throat this time. The cue ball being 1/16th of an inch bigger than the rest, the man choked to death. Rothstein adds very calmly, “The moral of this story is that 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 Colosimo.” You know the shit’s going to hit the fan when later Nucky threatens Rothstein’s inquisition on his lost shipment of goods, “You wanna know how I do business? Show your face again in Atlantic City.”

I could go on with all the spectacular moments within this episode, but if I did that, I may as well write you a complete transcript. But I will say that there seemed to be some flare lacking in this episode. It wasn’t the absence of action (after all Al Capone’s “statement” to the Chicago Tribune was enough violence for me), but rather Martin Scorsese’s absence from the director’s chair. Timothy Van Patten does a fine job, and I don’t mean to take any credit away from him. However, little touches like prominent irises in/out of the picture, quick freeze frames and the like have been replaced by conventional filmmaking methods. Luckily one single element seems to make up for their absence.

In what I have dubbed as a set-up episode, there lies a long set-up for quite a shocking ending to the episode. Throughout the episode both Nucky and the audience encounter George Baxter, a thriving businessman, and his dish of the week, Claudia. Despite his providing nice amenities, fancy dinners and pretty much anything she wants, Claudia just won’t make with the right kind of pleasure for Baxter’s needs. As I watched the episode, it was clear that something bad was going to come of this relationship. As tensions rose, and Baxter wasn’t getting any play, murder seemed to be the only option. But when Baxter promptly decides to drive Claudia back to Baltimore upon her self-imposed celibacy, a quick handi-snack in the woods to appease him finally shows why we’ve been, well, jerked around. The aforementioned fifth “dead body” comes stumbling out of the woods, shotgun wound and all as the screams echo in the night sky. Classic setup and payoff.

THE FINAL WORD: Still going strong, the second episode of Boardwalk Empire does not fail to impress despite missing some of Martin Scorsese’s stylistic elements. Though the episode also lacks fast-paced action and even much violence, there’s a lot of meat here to digest which guarantees a whole smörgåsbord of action down the road.

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