Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 2.08, “Two Boats and a Lifeguard”: Calm waters with a storm on the horizon

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Boardwalk Empire, Season 2, Episode 8, “Two Boats and a Lifeguard”
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Airs Sunday at 9pm ET on HBO

Recovering from an assassination attempt, King of the Atlantic City boardwalk, Nucky Thomson, takes stock. His common-law wife Margaret wants him to treat his lucky escape as an opportunity to walk away and live a quiet life. When Nucky capitulates to his young rival Jimmy Darmody, the man behind the attempted killing, it looks like Nucky has taken Margaret’s advice. But Nucky is not done yet.

One of the problems facing the creators of Boardwalk Empire is that basing some of the characters on real people means their options about what happens to them are limited. Including such real-life villains as Al Capone in the cast gives the series gritty appeal but, because we know Capone died of a heart attack in 1947, it also denies us the satisfaction of seeing Nucky put a well-deserved bullet through Capone’s head for his part in trying to kill him. We also know that the real Enoch Thomson survived to a ripe old age, so the writers can’t play on our fear of seeing Nucky die to create tension.

They have to find other ways to keep us guessing and this week they do it by playing on the question of how Nucky is going to react to the attempt on his life. Will he do as Margaret suggests or will he fight for control of his Empire to the bitter end? As ever, the writing this episode is skilled, setting up situations which allow the characters to show us what they are made of, rather than have them announce it to each other. The death of Nucky’s father allows Steve Buscemi to show us two conflicting sides to this complex man, while the halting, stilted lines given to Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody when he confesses to his wife Angela that he went along with the plot to kill Nucky because his mother told him to, convey how locked in and blind to his own motivation Jimmy is.

The story moved more slowly than it had to, focussing on Nucky when it’s Jimmy who requires the most development at this stage. Nucky’s announcement that he intends to retire gives Jimmy the keys to the city, but as some of his shrewder business partners suspect, he’s not up to the job.  The weaknesses are there, concerning his relationship with his mother (and who wouldn’t have incestuous feelings for Mama if she happened to be the luscious Gretchen Mol?), but they don’t have the coherence we need to either root for Jimmy or hate him and ambivalence about a character is the death of drama. Part of the problem may lie in Michael Pitt’s acting, who plays Jimmy as so dead-eyed he doesn’t appear to have a fraction of the charisma he would need to work a man like Capone.

Still, it’s interesting to watch the three main male characters each struggle in their own way to come to terms with their demons and step up as husbands and fathers. While Jimmy battles to slip from his mother’s grasp, Nelson Van Alden, the federal agent charged with stopping Atlantic City’s lucrative bootlegging business (a task similar to an ant trying to hold back a tidal wave) has become a father, a job for which he is spectacularly underqualified. Van Alden is so repressed you sense he’s like a party popper: yank his string and instead of paper streamers, he’ll spew angst, giving every scene with his small daughter a mixture of poignancy and tension as we wait for him to either kiss the child or hurl it across the room, screaming.

These are small, unspectacular moments while one of the pleasures of Empire is the superb handling of big set pieces. A couple of visual treats liven up the episode: a shot of the beach covered in frolicking bathers in one piece suits like an Art Deco illustration come to life and a moment on the boardwalk where a hermaphrodite (dress and curls on one side, tux and hair gel on the other) entertains a crowd. These moments summarise the tawdry, intoxicating glamour of the town and it’s telling that they had to be shoehorned in rather than delivered as an integral part of the action, which this week mostly takes place in offices, boarding houses, and the cavernous recesses of the Commodore’s vast and gloomy house.

The women get a poor deal this episode too. All the best scenes go to the men (like when Charlie Cox as Owen Sleater has to decide if Nucky knows he’s shagged Margaret – the kind of scene actors beg for). This is a pity, because watching the female characters carve a life for themselves in the chauvinistic world of 1920’s America is one of the show’s most intriguing aspects. But a storm is on the horizon as Nucky asks Sleater to set up a meet with his IRA pals. Let’s hope that all the characters enjoy some more action as a result.

Cath Murphy

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