S2E5: The strengths of Boardwalk Empire as a series on the whole come into play when you hold an episode like this week’s “Gimcrack and Bunkum” up to, say, anything from the first season. Your typical Boardwalk might cover six or seven storylines, each delivered via verbose, high intensity (and dimly lit) scenes filled to the brim with fast-talking characters. The latest episode is not devoid of this device—Jimmy’s scene with the business heads is straight out of Hudsucker Proxy (hairstyles especially). But this week, Boardwalk tries something very new with Richard’s storyline, and it pays off in spades.
“Think I can’t play this game?” – Jimmy
“I don’t think you even know the rules.” – Nucky
It’s Memorial Day in Atlantic City, and Nucky is back onstage, hosting the holiday for his townspeople. The episode opens with a small illustration of the major war going on in this series: Nucky v. Jimmy. In an attempt to throw his competitor for a loop, Nucky calls an unprepared Jimmy up to the stage to make a speech for the occasion. Jimmy marshals some earnestness (surprising Nucky, Angela, and I believe himself) with a moving, if not downbeat, speech about heroism.
Although Jimmy comes out the victor in this battle, the episode does not see him consistently so. A meeting with the business heads shakes him up a bit: concerned about the displacement of the Commodore, and furious about the money loss that comes along with the explosion of Mickey Doyle’s shed, the men attack Jimmy. The wheelchair bound Mr. Parkhurst—after recounting his days of slaughtering Native American tribes—even hits Jimmy with his cane to embed some respect in him. This is the last straw, and Jimmy leaves the meeting in a huff, much to the bereavement of Eli. Of course, Jimmy brings his woes to the attention of his very loving mother, and keeps them a safe distance from his poor wife, Angela.
“Unless you have something to say, aside from the fact that G-d distributes his gifts unevenly, this conversation is over.” – Nucky
Although things seem to move in Nucky’s favor legally this week, it doesn’t mean he’ll be spending his Memorial Day with a good deal of cheer. Nucky meets with the Attorney General, who is not as interested in discussing Nucky’s case as he is in playing a round of golf. Eventually, Harry introduces Nucky to the prosecution, who is in cahoots with the whole “Save Nucky from the Trial” game being devised by the treasurer’s henchmen. Of course, none of this will play without a little Atlantic City entertainment for the lawyers, courtesy of Mr. Thompson. A small price, but an irritating one.
However, Nucky’s real trials in this episode come with a visit from his brother Eli. Now that the Commodore is out of commission (as Eli discloses to Nucky) and Jimmy is losing the faith of the businessmen, Eli is begging Nucky’s forgiveness and asking to come back to his side. Nucky, however, will not have this. He has been betrayed by his own brother, something that hurts him nearly as much (sometimes even more) than his surrogate son’s betrayal. Nucky and Eli come to blows and engage in a long, well-choreographed, violent fight that only ends when Margaret pulls a gun on Eli and demands that he leave the house. It seems as though their brotherly bond—tested by years of jealousy and resentment from Eli to Nucky—is finally severed. This takes a toll on Nucky, Maggie (who is beginning to doubt her safety), and Eli, who, in a drunken stupor later on, murders George O’Neill when he batters him about the Commodore’s health.
“These woods is for hunting, fishing, seeing what the birds get up to. These woods is for living. Understand me there?” – Glenmore (or Pete) the Woodsman
Two weeks in a row, Richard is the show’s shining star. As explained earlier, this episode features a storyline unlike any we’ve seen in Boardwalk Empire just yet. An actionless, primarily wordless storyline, that furthers very little in the world of crime or politics—or anything beyond the internal makings of one man, really. It is shot far from the bustling boardwalk, deep in New Jersey’s woodlands, where Richard heads on Memorial Day morning with a simple plan: he is going to kill himself.
But his plan for a serene, dignified suicide go awry when a dog swipes his mask, leading Richard to the campsite of two generous, intuitive woodsmen. Long story short, with their kindness, their apparent indifference to his facial condition, and their understanding of just what he plans to do in these woods and their expression of just how they feel about that, the men talk Richard out of suicide. I deliver this point with brevity for the simple reason that no matter how detailed my explanation of any part of Richard’s storyline is, it wouldn’t do it justice. As explained, up until he meets the woodsmen, Richard spends a good deal of the episode in long, beautiful, wordless and superficially actionless scenes. Nothing I could really type out about these scenes would at all capture what really goes on in them. They are some of the most captivating scenes in the entire Boardwalk series to date.
“I’m here with you. My son’s asleep in his bed. Nobody’s hungry. Nobody’s scared. What else is there?” – Jimmy
“There’s gotta be something. Hasn’t there?” – Angela
The Darmodys get a visit from Richard. Angela answers the door, and we can feel the tension of their forbidden connection all the way through Richard’s subsequent interaction with Jimmy. However, when Richard poses the question to Jimmy, “Would you fight for me?” Jimmy answers, “Of course I would. Right down to the last bullet.” We’re not certain if Jimmy says this because he needs Richard’s assistance this night, or if he truly means it. Call me a sap, but I’m hoping (and allowing myself to believe) it’s the latter. And so is Richard. The two break into the home of the villainous Mr. Parkhurt and send a message of power through some poetic justice by actually scalping the man. It’s one of those scenes that makes you jump up in your seat…and the exchange between a shocked Parkhurst and a collected Richard (“Who are you?” “I’m a soldier.”) is pretty chilling.
Nucky loses family by the episode—Maggie is next. Meanwhile, Owen Slater is shacking up with Katie the maid, Jimmy is slipping into his father’s role, and something tells me that Nucky’s case won’t be as easily won as he thinks. But who cares about any of that? We want more Richard.