Heartless, Godless, Hell’s Delight
It's impossible to watch a TV show about mobsters in the Jazz age and beyond without making comparisons to the established iconography of the genre. It was clear from the opening scene in "Boardwalk Empire" that Martin Scorsese was well aware of this and chose to insert some mini-homages along the way rather than risk looking too derivative. Some of them worked: the opening scene with the mist and the tension on the captain's face evoked the same cold strained feel of the famous woods scene in Miller's Crossing. However, he took it a little too far in the penultimate sequence that moved back and forth between New Jersey and Chicago, with operatic crescendos and a bit too much in-your-face Godfatherness.
As with most premieres, the opening episode of "Boardwalk Empire" spent much of its time introducing us to the key characters and establishing our baseline understanding of the relationships among them. The central figure is Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the county treasurer who is controlling most if not all of what happens legally and illegally in Atlantic City. Thompson moves easily between the establishment and the wild side of Atlantic City. He is as loved by The Women's Temperance League as he is by the underworld (a bit of a stretch when you consider how openly he appears to socialize in the many dens of iniquity). He lives in a palatial suite at the Ritz Carlton; is looked after by a valet who appears to be channeling Hercules Poirot minus the little grey cells; has a girlfriend, Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) who orgasms before he does; and a chauffeur called Jim Darmody (Michael Pitt), who dropped out of Princeton to fight in The Great War and is now back with a limp and itching for some action in Thompson's empire. I assume later episodes will explain how Darmody got in to Princeton since evidence of his brilliance and/or legacy connections were scant in this episode. Then there's Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald), the pregnant immigrant Irish wife of a classic gambler/drinker/wife beater straight out of central casting (at least they didn't make him an Irish immigrant as well). She forms a connection with Thompson when he speaks to the Temperance League and moves his heart when she approaches him seeking a job for her husband. It's made pretty clear that mothers and babies are Thompson's weak spot, especially in a bizarre scene where he takes a walk to a local shop front where one can watch premature babies be put on scales to show how little they weigh. I'm fully aware of the pervasive attraction of freak shows in the 1920s (in a later scene we see two dwarves boxing each other), but this scene was jarring and uncomfortable and Buscemi's face was a study in anguish, not curiosity, as he gazed at a clearly ailing three-pound infant.
So Prohibition is an opportunity for Thompson. He has already set up a Canadian import line and has connections to a distillery in the basement of a funeral home where some pretty lethal alcohol is being concocted using potatoes, formaldehyde and food coloring (if you think that is scary consider the fact that during Prohibition, the government ordered legal industrial alcohol to be laced with poison to deter people from drinking it, resulting in about 10,000 deaths between 1920 and 1933). It would seem that Thompson's operations are pretty extensive and very well-publicized because almost immediately we have a delegation of heavy-hitting Italian mobsters from Chicago and New York in town to do a deal and the Feds are camped out in the local hotels reporting on everything. And finally, the story starts to gain some traction. There's a clear disconnect between how the old country Italians and up-and-coming guys do business. Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) is impatient and ruthless with no time for the niceties of negotiations. The Italians also have Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) in tow, a suave tee-totaller who does a deal for $60,000 worth of liquor from Thompson but then wins $90,000 at his casino leaving Thompson in the red before the whiskey even makes it out of Toronto. And then there's the Italians' chauffeur: Al Capone played by the incomparable Stephen Graham. Soon Darmody and Capone are sharing their ambitions and together plan a whiskey heist that leaves most of Rothstein's men dead and sets us up for the gang wars that would become as much an icon of Prohibition as the gin bath. Meanwhile, Thompson's kindness to Margaret results in her husband beating her so hard she loses the baby so he helps her out a little more by sending his Chief of Police brother to make her a widow and we literally get to see her husband sleeping with the fishes. Darmody makes his peace with Thompson giving him a share from the heist and warning him "you can't be a half gangster anymore," leaving Thompson pensive and worried that his way of running things might not be keeping up with the times.
I had mixed feelings about the premiere. There was a lot of cliché and an over-emphasis on scene-setting as well as the aforementioned Godfather tribute that didn't work. But there were moments of brilliance such as Buscemi's scene with the preemie babies and the late introduction of The Commodore (Dabney Coleman), Nucky's mentor, who gave us a non-expositional opportunity to see that Nucky is a pragmatist first and prejudice comes second to making things run smoothly. Unlike Tony Soprano with whom he is inevitably compared, Thompson doesn't think of himself as a mobster and like Al Swearengen (another comparison frequently thrown about) he believes that proper society and illegal activity all have their place as long as he can keep control. There's potential for this show to go either way. Hopefully next week the story will emerge from the background and we'll see which direction it's going to take.
Aggie Maguire lives in a fly-over state where she enjoys waving at the people flying over and wondering if anybody ever waves back. She is a member of the Jane Austen society and a life-long supporter of the Home for Abused Apostrophes.