Devastated by Angela’s death, Jimmy recalls how she and his mother met for the first time, a visit which had far reaching consequences for the future. Nucky’s position seems to improve with the digging up of another skeleton, this time from Van Allen’s closet, but Margaret is struggling with the guilty certainty that Nucky was involved in her husband’s death.
Boardwalk Empire Review, Season 2, Episode 11, “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”
Written by Howard Korder
Directed by Allen Coulter
We never escape the past. We might run from it, as Jimmy Darmody has for almost two seasons of Boardwalk Empire, but it will hunt us down and find us in the end. The past has created the flaws in him which lead him to irrationally set up the butcher Manny Horvitz. It’s therefore this same past which leads Manny to take revenge by shooting Jimmy’s wife Angela. And it’s Angela’s death which forces Jimmy to confront the moment back in his Princeton days which embedded the weakness in his character and led step by inevitable step to the disaster he’s now confronted with. This pivotal incident, which has been signalled in sky writing from the moment Gillian Darmody greets Jimmy on his return from war by jumping into his arms and wrapping her legs around his waist, explains all the puzzling aspects of Jimmy’s character and illustrates why Jimmy is always going to be torn between doing the right thing and doing what he (and his mother) really wants.
So if Jimmy’s faithful hitman Richard Harrow wears his disfigurement on the outside, Jimmy carries his scars within. He’s not the only one. As ever with this series, the separate plot strands not only motivate each other, they echo the same theme. Nelson Van Alden also carries with him a dark moment from his past: his father’s devastating decision to sell the family farm and wait for the Rapture (and the little nod towards present events is another reminder of how past and present intertwine). It’s a nice clarification of Nelson’s uneasy relationship with religion as a whole, demonstrating his kinship with Jimmy and also making the point that there are no good guys and bad guys in this series, only people with varying degrees of damage in their souls. Margaret is similarly afflicted, convinced that her daughter’s paralysis is divine punishment for her own sins. These different expressions of the same theme are what give the series its coherence and power. No one can run from their past and the scars inflicted on us by others will cause us to inflict hurt on others as well as ourselves.
It’s moments like Margaret’s threat to testify against Nucky which give the writers the opportunity to show us what kind of people the characters really are. Nucky’s reaction ably demonstrates the difference between him and Jimmy: he doesn’t lose his cool, which he would be most justified to do under the circumstances, but uses Margaret’s own reasoning against her: you can’t clear your conscience with an act of betrayal. The same moment arrives for Jimmy at the Princeton social when the two women in his life are finally in the same room. His mother is flirting with his tutor and his girlfriend is telling him she’s pregnant. It’s a moment of pure conflict, but the words don’t quite match the situation, or possibly Michael Pitt’s acting isn’t quite up to the job, because the tensions aren’t fully realised. Later, however, when Darmody’s Oedipal rage is finally released, not only does Pitt do a great job, even small details like the sound effects are used to capture the differences between the two men. Jimmy attempts to slaughter Gillian in the echoing, cavernous rooms of the Commodore’s museum-like mansion, while Nucky treads over soundless plush carpets to confront Margaret. The subliminal aural message is clear- he’s much smoother and more deadly than his rival.
Whether that will still hold true, now that Jimmy has stopped running from the past, remains to be seen. Jimmy consolidated is a much trickier proposition than Jimmy fractured and Nucky’s throwaway comment that his brother Eli will never testify against him, because blood is thicker than water, carries with it the sound of a distant warning siren. The set up for the season finale is perfect: something bad is going to happen, but it’s anybody’s guess as to what that might be.