Periscope Depth

for I’m drunk tonight and I’m rarely sober

When last I wrote about Boardwalk Empire, Ferrett cautioned me about expecting too much too soon. “At this point in its development, Mad Men was still relying heavily on “GOTCHA!” moments,” he noted. “It evolved; I’ll give this time too.”

Well, he was right to preach patience. Because now the threads have started to come together.

It hasn’t been perfect. The Jimmy Darmody storyline struggled for footing. If you define drama as two characters in a room, trying to get past each other, Jimmy’s story has been disturbingly absent of that. He takes up with a prostitute, who gets horrifically scarred while he’s out getting a suit. He tends to her while she recovers, but then she kills herself. In both cases, the pivotal developments – the injuries to Rose, either self- or thug-inflicted – happened while Jimmy was literally out of the room. Sure, there was some excellent characterization in the form of Jimmy’s story about the Fourth of July, but otherwise nothing.

Then, of course, the shootout.

Suddenly Jimmy’s making choices. In some cases they’re obvious, violent choices, like shooting Jim Sheridan and his goons in the cloakroom of a fancy club. In other cases they’re subtle, like spending a little social capital to show the mutilated Richard Harrow a good time. But he’s now a participant in his own story. And this is inherently more interesting to watch than baby-faced Michael Pitt moping.

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Margaret Schroeder has started making choices as well. First, she used what leverage she had on Nucky to get him to quit shipping beer to the garage behind her house. Then, when that failed, she sicced Agent van Alden on him. She grappled with the dilemma of whether or not to accept Nucky’s romance – and patronage – and has lived with some of the consequences. She chose to ignore her neighbor Annabel’s advice and allow Nucky to confide in her. And she chose to peer into Nucky’s secrets: his ledger of graft and bootlegging.

Nucky Thompson has grown into his role. I complained in the last post about how Steve Buscemi played Thompson as “history’s most neurotic capo.” That bothered me at the time because, in the first few episodes, he had nothing to be neurotic about. He ran Atlantic City with an iron hand in a suede glove. But now, with the d’Alessio Brothers rifling his collections, the Feds indicting his ward bosses, his paved roads flitting toward Jersey City and Lucky Luciano parked on his stoop, he’s feeling the pinch. Now, his agita is justified by dramatic circumstance. Now he’s a cornered terrier – and I want to see him bite.

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My continually evolving verdict on the minor characters:

* None of them can do an accent worth a damn. Madame Jeunet’s accent and delivery remind me of some of Hercule Poirot’s worst lines. Margaret Schroeder’s Irish accent has graduated from “appalling” to merely “distracting.” I’d lay into Eddie Kessler’s Hogan’s Heroes German with a little more weight, but he’s clearly comic relief anyway. And while Lucy Danziger’s thick Brooklyn gazpacho is annoying, it’s supposed to be.

* Aleksa Palladino is one of the finer actors on the show. She’s capable of the most genuine facial expressions I’ve seen on anyone in a long time. From the fatigued patience she has with Michael Pitt in bed in the second episode (“you want me to put my mouth down there”), to the disbelief she has at the dream of Greenwich Village, I get no sense that she’s delivering lines. She’s a real person living through these moments. It’s fascinating to watch and I hope she gets lots more work.

* Shea Wigham, as Eli, is similarly unaffected in his performance. It’s a shame that the two best actors are typically confined to bit parts.

* Michael Shannon is also lots of fun. I love the humorlessness with which he commands civilians. I love the weird thing his face does when he tries to smile. But some aspects of his character are a bit too much. The flagellation, for one thing. You can make a character a creepy Protestant without making him whip himself. That said, it was a well-shot scene. The ritual of laying out the towel and the belt; taking off his shirt and folding it. It’s an excellent thematic capstone to an episode where every moment of pleasure – Luciano balling Gillian Darmody; Nucky lazing in a cathouse while Mayor Hague gets his rocks off – is coupled with a moment of awkward shame.

And that, as much as anything, is a reason to keep watching. Theme, style and vision are unified in a way that you typically only see in movies. In the best episodes, like “Nights in Ballygran” and “Family Limitation,” every line and scene points like an arrow into the heart of the story. In other episodes, like “Anastasia” and “Hold Me in Paradise,” the gears rattle a bit. But it’s still TV that eats like a movie. To get that quality every week is a sign we live in a fortunate age.



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