Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 2.09, “Battle of the Century”: Shifts in focus make for jerky storytelling

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Boardwalk Empire
, Season 2, Episode 09, “Battle of the Century”
Written by Steve Kornacki
Directed by Brad Anderson
Airs Sunday at 9pm ET on HBO
Jimmy Darmody consolidates his new position as King of Atlantic City boardwalk, but also makes some bad decisions. Nucky travels to Ireland with a proposition for its whiskey distillers, while back at home a deadly illness strikes someone close to him.

Atlantic City’s booze business now belongs to Jimmy Darmody. Or so he thinks. Nucky Thomson’s abdication in last week’s episode is strictly temporary, but Jimmy’s weaknesses are starting to show. He’s either too arrogant or too self obsessed to allow the thought into his head that Nucky might be playing a long game. Michael Pitt has struggled to show the conflicts in the character of Jimmy Darmody, but in this episode he does a better job of capturing a man who uses aggression to mask deep self doubt. Violence without motivation is a good way to intimidate the men who work for you, but as Nucky could have told Jimmy, it never makes good business sense. Darmody owes money to butcher Horvitz (played by William Forsythe as a bull with tiny, cunning eyes) but instead of finessing the situation as Nucky would, for example by cutting Horvitz in on another deal, Jimmy chooses to kindle a feud by telling tales against Horvitz to a rival, a move which backfires. Despite this better character development, Jimmy still seems two dimensional and underexplained, not enough of a credible threat to the smooth wiliness of Thomson. Jimmy needs to show some better judgement, or gain some better support than Nucky’s vacillating brother Eli, to maintain tension about which of the two men are going to claim the Boardwalk throne.

The “battle” referred to in the show’s title refers to the Dempsey-Carpentier heavyweight championship, but three other segments of story take a step back from the details of individual characters to focus on other battles, ones which draw direct lines between the past and the present. Nucky’s segment concerns his visit to the Emerald Isle with the aim of sourcing an alternative supply of alcohol. He is bartering guns for booze and his dealings with the Nationalist hard men, whose war against the British means they’re in the market for arms, has immediate echoes not only with the present day situation in Northern Ireland (which is currently clinging to an uneasy peace) but also with other modern day ideologues who prefer bullets to negotiation. “Terrorism didn’t start in 2001” is the subtext here.

Back in Atlantic City, trouble is brewing in the black workforce who keep the hotels and restaurants running, but eat the white folks’ leftovers. The relationship to modern day tensions is made explicit when Michael Kenneth Williams, well known for his role as The Wire’s Omar, listens to the complaints of one of the hotel workers and asks the man why he doesn’t just go back to Baltimore where he came from. And the third segment focuses on Margaret, Nucky’s common law wife, whose little girl Emily falls ill with polio. The fight against this disease led more or less directly to the mass vaccination programs of today and with the current unease about inoculation still unresolved, the sight of Margaret’s panic, the rows of silent, paralysed children speaks directly to this issue. We’ve come a long way, but not all that far.

The trouble with messagy storylines is that they operate on a different scale to the smaller, personal elements of the show. In this episode the contrast between Jimmy’s segment and the other three makes the action feel jerky. But with Nucky about to return to the Boardwalk, ready to fight for control, the story has little option but to pull back in and focus on the characters, ready to end on a high for the season finale.

Cath Murphy

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