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Thy Name's Delirium: Future Imperfect on Boardwalk Empire

It's tricky to write about a new series when you've seen the subsequent five episodes, as is the case with HBO's addictive and gorgeously realized period drama Boardwalk Empire, which kicked off last night.

While I had the chance to watch the first six episodes of the Terence Winter/Martin Scorsese drama ahead of time, last night was the first time that I got the chance to see the visually stunning opening sequence, which depicts the bowler-clad Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) on the rocky beach as an ocean of booze bottles comes pouring in. With a tip of the figurative hat to Belgian artist Rene Magritte, it effortlessly captured the scope and tone of the series while reveling in the symbolic implications.

Last night's dazzling series premiere ("Boardwalk Empire"), written by Terence Winter and directed by Martin Scorsese, perfectly brought to life the Atlantic City of 1920, a world populated by grifters, flashy politicians, midgets, widows, booze-hounds, and gunmen. A world of excess and depravity, of temperance and alcoholism, of freedom and imprisonment, where everything--from the fishermen's daily haul to baby incubators--becomes a boardwalk attraction for the masses.

For Buscemi's Nucky Thompson, the boardwalk is his past, present, and future, aligned in one singular physical location. It's telling that he's drawn first to those baby incubators, a painful reminder of the children he didn't ever have with his long-dead wife who died from consumption seven years earlier, and then later to the fortune-teller, where his eyes meet those of the gypsy behind the veil. His entire life--birth to death as well as what's been lost--called up in one long stroll along the boardwalk.

Nucky has made quite a life for himself in this oceanside fiefdom, carving out a world of privilege, a flat on the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton, a beautiful young girlfriend (Paz de la Huerta), and a gifted protege in Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). But one also can't shake the feeling that he's missing something, that the constant grift, the greasing of palms, the glad-handing, the speeches to the Women's Temperance League have left him in search of something to fill the void left by his wife's death.

Enter Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), the pregnant wife of baker's helper Hans who already has two kids and an abusive marriage to deal with. Moved by Nucky's (untrue) story of tragedy in his own past, she reaches out to him to effect change in her life. While he offers her a wad of cash, Margaret's after not charity but something more beneficial: a job for her husband.

Margaret's efforts to improve her life have a nasty way of making things worse, however. Hans spies her being driven home by Jimmy and uncovers her secret stash of cash and violently beats her. Confronting Nucky at the casino and spending the very money he gave Margaret for her children, Hans is beaten by Nucky and chucked out... and then takes out his anger on Margaret, beating her severely and causing her to miscarry.

While Nucky could have just turned up at the hospital with flowers for Margaret, the intersection of their disparate lives has only just begun. He uses Hans as a fall guy for Jimmy and Al Capone (Stephen Graham)'s theft of illegal liquor destined to New York mobster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), who had previously insulted Nucky... and cheated him out of $90,000. It's a tidy solution that gets Jimmy off the hook and allows Nucky the benefit of ridding Margaret of her no-good husband.

The pay-off: having Hans' corpse fall out of the fishermen's nets right in front of the tourists on the boardwalk. Genius.

I am however more than a little concerned about just where Jimmy's new line of work will lead him, particularly as he played the Prohibition agents and Nucky against one another and walked away the victor. Now he's on both of their radars and Nucky and Elias know that he was behind the hold-up and the murder of four of Rothstein's men. And then there was the fact that Al shouted out Jimmy's full name at the scene of the crime. Sure, they shot those four men and killed them, but... something tells me they're not in the clear.

What too to make of the murder of “Big Jim” Colosimo (Frank Crudele)? Was it Rothstein looking to take over Chicago? Or Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) looking to muscle a larger share of Chi-town? Curious that...

Ultimately, a fantastic and vivid portrayal of life in Nucky's so-called Boardwalk Empire, one that has the possibility of crumbling down around him. The next five episodes are even better than the pilot, so prepare to be intrigued, dazzled, and entertained in equal measure. I'll see you at Babette's...

Next week on Boardwalk Empire ("The Ivory Tower"), investigating a crime which he feels has been pinned on a scapegoat, straight-arrow Agent Nelson Van Alden pays a visit to Nucky and leaves convinced that the Treasurer is “as corrupt as the day is long"; Nucky quickly does damage control, enlisting his brother, Sheriff Elias Thompson, to close ranks with their underlings; in Chicago, Al Capone shows a local reporter what he thinks about accusations that Johnny Torrio was involved in the slaying of local mobster “Big Jim” Colosimo; Nucky discusses the upcoming election with his aging mentor, Commodore Louis Kaestner, with whom he debates the women’s vote issue; Nucky rebukes an irate Arnold Rothstein over the phone, then meets privately with Margaret Schroeder, who asks him for help in providing for her children; traveling salesman George Baxter, in town for a few days with an unwilling young beauty named Claudia, makes a startling discovery while on the road home to Baltimore.

Comments

Ask Rachel said…
I had high expectations and they were definitely met. Buscemi (and the entire cast) were brilliant and I'm happy to here that the subsequent episodes just get better. And those opening credits are fantastic.
Megan said…
I really want to watch this show, but don't have HBO. Do you know if they'll be putting it on iTunes? It's not on there as of today and I planned my whole evening around watching it!

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