“We’re all unspeakably corrupt.”
-Horton Vint, The Ivory Tower by Henry James
Wow. What an episode. There’s so much to unpack, but here we go.
We open on the Chicago funeral of Big Jim Colosimo (murdered in last week’s episode). As snow falls and people mourn, reporters show and begin to press the paul bearers with one question — who did it? Of course, no one wants to talk, but the reporters notice one thing: on the casket sit flowers and a ribbon stating, “sleep with angels.” From who? Yep. Atlantic City’s County Treasurer (and crime boss extraordinaire) Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi).
And so sets the mood for episode two of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s new gangster drama.
We cut to Nucky in Atlantic City. He’s reading a newspaper article regarding Big Jim’s death when FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) barges into his office. They exchange a few words about the previous Saturday’s shooting which Van Alden — although Nucky claims the police took care of it — believes is unsolved. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a genius to assume that Nucky is behind crime in Atlantic City.
After that unpleasant exchange, Nucky runs into George Baxton who’s spending the weekend in Atlantic City with a young woman he met named Claudia. Nucky is annoyed, but being the politician he is, he exchanges pleasantries and they each go on their way.
We then cut to Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald) in the hospital recuperating from her abusive (and now dead) husband. She’s reading a copy of Henry James’ The Ivory Tower — a novel examining how wealth destroys and corrupts us all (a nice subtle touch, eh?) when Sheriff Elias Thompson — a.k.a. Nucky’s brother — stops in to ask some questions about her late-husband’s involvement with illegal alcohol. She claims he was an innocent man, but Elias implies that maybe Margaret didn’t know everything her husband did with his time (this is also where we learn that Margaret lost her baby from her wounds). Obviously, Elias is manipulating Margaret — but she’s not stupid. She knows what is happening, but is trying to decide what is worse: an abusive husband or an innocent man set-up and murdered. Before Elias leaves, he gives her something “from his brother” — an envelope of cash.
Now we cut back to Agent Van Alden and we learn that he’s no chump. He explains to his supervisor that he believes Nucky Thompson is a major crime boss.
“He’s the county treasurer but he lives like a pharaoh,” he says.
Yeah, no kidding. We learn that Nucky controls the whole town with a bankroll. Everyone — from the fire department to police to the African-American community — pays him. And at the same time, Nucky gives back so he remains a lovable public figure. Basically? It’s corruption at its finest.
Now, remember Jimmy (Michael Pitt) — the dude who teamed up with Al Capone last week and stole Nucky’s booze shipment? Well, he found something to spend his cash on — his family. He picks up a Christmas tree (a month after the holiday) and buys his son a toy truck, his wife a bracelet, and on top of that, he picks up a vacuum (which in 1920, must have cost a fortune).
Meanwhile in New York City, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) is trying to find out who stole the shipment of booze he bought from Nucky. He brings in a man he suspects and threatens him in one of the coolest ways yet on the show. Watch this monologue:
So then, Jimmy heads to a showgirl production. He meets an extremely beautiful woman backstage who is ecstatic to see him. She hops in his arms, kisses him, and as this happens, we can only assume that Jimmy is the biggest scumbag on Earth. Seriously! He just gave his wife and son presents. He seemed like such a good guy! But then, he drops one line.
“It’s okay, ma.”
Wait, what? That hottie is his mother?! But, they look the same age! Wow. Well, anyway, Jimmy has a gift for her too — a gorgeous necklace. We learn that his mother used to have one just like it but sold it to “keep the roof over their head.”
But all the feel good for Jimmy stops there. He shows up to work and Nucky tells him that, after his trouble Saturday night, Jimmy doesn’t work for him anymore. Nucky can’t believe Jimmy killed four guys.
“Five guys,” Jimmy corrects him.
“No, four. But let’s not get caught up on numbers.”
Um. Okay? That must be a hint.
Anyway, then we find out that the money Jimmy paid Nucky was $3000 short. So obviously, Nucky is pissed. He gives Jimmy 48 hours to get the money.
After Nucky throws Jimmy out, he receives a call from Rothstein — who still is trying to figure out where all the booze went. He tells Jimmy that he owes him $100,000 and asks, very accusingly, if “this is how [Jimmy] does business.” To that, Jimmy shows why he’s king of Atlantic City and delivers a total badass line.
“Wanna see how I do business? Show your face again in Atlantic City.” Then hangs up. Bam!
Of course while this happens, Agent Van Alden is snooping around again and this time — with Margaret. He shows up at her home and begins questioning her relationship with Nucky, which takes her back. In her eyes, Nucky is a saint. But Van Alden may know different. Unfortunately, we cut away before we hear much of their conversation.
During their conversation, Agent Van Alden must have said something that made Margaret curious about Nucky because she ends up at Nucky’s place after the conversation (at about midnight). She gives him the money he gave her back — saying that she didn’t know what it was or where it came from. She explains that she doesn’t want charity.
“Charity degrades those who receive it. And hardens those who dispense it,” she says, quoting George Sand.
Nucky understands, and we learn about his late-wife who passed away at age 28. The two take solace in one another, and Margaret asks what she can do for Nucky.
“Vote Republican,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jimmy is trying to find the cash he owes Nucky. After no success with friends (including Al Capone), he resorts in his honorable discharge money. He heads to the casino where Nucky is now after his conversation with Margaret. Jimmy pays Nucky and they are now square “as a block of ice.” So what does Nucky do with the cash?
“3000 on black,” he says, pointing to the roulette table. It lands on 23 red, and he turns to Jimmy. “Not my night, apparently.”
Ouch. Sorry Jimmy.
Now remember George Baxton, the dude spending the weekend in Atlantic City with Claudia? Well, she wasn’t willing to sleep with him. Out of anger, he decides to bring her back to Baltimore in the middle of the night. During the drive, she finally agrees to pleasure him and they pull over in Hammonton, New Jersey (the site of last week’s shooting).
As the couple gets down and dirty, Claudia becomes terrified. We see a man, brutally beaten, bloodied, and who kind of looks like a zombie, stumbling towards the front of the car.
Looks like that’s the fifth guy — a living witness to Saturday night’s heist. Uh oh. Maybe Nucky should’ve cared about that number.