Still Haven’t Tried Boardwalk Empire? Watch This Episode.

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 6 2013 10:26 AM

Gateway Episodes: Boardwalk Empire

boardwalk_home
Steve Buscemi, Michael K. Williams, and Michael Badalucco

HBO

Summer is here, the perfect time to catch up with a few of those shows everyone is always saying you should watch. But there are so many! How can you decide which to try? You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it.

There’s a fine line between a historical drama and a history lesson. Indeed, Boardwalk Empire begins about as dramatically as the Prohibition Wikipedia page.

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It’s not surprising that the show starts off this way; after all, the HBO drama about organized crime in Atlantic City during the roaring ’20s is inspired by true events and features many of the storied names of organized crime (Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, for instance). But the excesses of the 1920s, the golden era of gangsterism, has been done to death, and the show may seem stale at first to many viewers.

Which is why it’s key to find the right gateway episode, because—I promise—the show does get better later. First, some background: The show centers on Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a high-level political figure and bootlegger in Atlantic City, and his relationship with his mistress Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald), an Irish immigrant with an abusive, alcoholic husband. Nucky’s protégé, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), the son of Nucky’s aging boss, returns to AC and enters the organized crime milieu after fighting in World War I. Much like The Wire, the show relies on the slow build. Since it’s a period piece, though, that build can feel even slower, once you add in all the necessary attention to period detail that makes that world believable: the drop-waist dresses and Model-T’s, the barrels of contraband beer and constant soundtrack of fuzzy blues and jazz ephemera. The result, as Troy Patterson put it, can seem like “the pay-cable equivalent of a tableau vivant—of the old popular art form involving models, deliberately posed and precisely lit, who illustrated a historic scene with great elegance and no action.”

But the slow build works in service of a bigger story, and “Home,” the seventh episode of the first season, is both an important early turning point in that story and a an accessible, self-contained brick in the narrative that will hook you if you give it a chance.

The plot of “Home” is split between two stand-alone storylines. In the first, Nucky must make a decision about his ailing father’s house after it becomes clear that the old man can no longer take care of himself. Tension brews between Nucky and his brother Eli, the sheriff of Atlantic City, over where their father will live and what will happen to the home. Nucky’s father is a difficult, abusive man, and much of the energy in this storyline concerns the way Nucky’s relationship with his father affects his intimacy with Margaret. It’s a window into the psyche of the show’s main character, a man who, up until this point, has been more of a figure than a person.

As interesting as Nucky’s interior life becomes, the true power of the episode lies in its primary subplot, which introduces Richard Harrow (John Huston), another veteran and a marksman who suffered an injury that has left his face permanently and drastically disfigured. Jimmy sees Harrow at a veteran’s hospital during a check-up on his own war injury, and befriends him when they run into each other later at an interview session for former servicemen.

Harrow is a lightning strike to the series. “You live here?” he asks, agog, when they arrive at the club where Jimmy and Al Capone reside. “It’s a whorehouse.” They drink bourbon and talk about guns, and the quiet moments shared by the two men mark the beginning of a partnership that is probably the most interesting relationship of the series so far. Harrow also provides a  new angle in the show’s depiction of violence. His particular brand is unique: He’s not the high-voiced, tommy-gun wielding psychopath so common in depictions of this era. Instead, his bashful introversion is punctuated by swift, startling moments of brutality that feel organic to his character from the moment he’s introduced.

The episode checks in with other important players: Chalky White (Michael K Williams), who mans Nucky’s booze production; Jimmy’s wife Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino); Nelson Van Alden (the brilliant Michael Shannon), a federal prohibition agent; and Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), a childish sexpot and showgirl who Nucky dumped for Margaret. There are scenes that allude to the larger, interconnected world of organized crime, with appearances by Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). But the reason “Home” will grab you is that brief bloom of Nucky’s inner life, coupled with Harrow’s magnetic presence, and the swift, unexpected moment of justice he delivers at the episode’s end.

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