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'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Mr. Thompson Goes to Washington

Margaret and Owen investigate a suspicious fire at home while Nucky makes friends and foes in the capital

Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Shroeder in 'Boardwalk Empire.'
Macall B. Polay
October 21, 2012 10:05 PM ET

It's either too much or not enough when it comes to Boardwalk Empire this season. Last week's episode satiated our appetites for both narrative drama and character presence following the dearth of excitement in "Blue Bell Boy." But after the huge high of "You'd Be Surprised," "Ging Gang Goolie" (named for a 1920s gibberish campfire song performed by a Boy Scout troop in one scene) stopped just short of being a letdown. For starters, what happened to that New York vs. New Jersey bootlegging war whose opening salvo resulted in four Tabor Heights deaths? The only times Gyp was even mentioned in the episode – he didn't appear at all – were during a brief powwow between Eli, Mickey (still alive!) and Sheriff Ramsey, and when Margaret feared that the "gypsy man" Teddy saw roaming around the neighborhood was the antagonistic gangster. Nucky, in the meantime, as hinted in Gaston Means' little men's-room conference with Jess Smith last week, was too busy staving off another potential federal indictment.

Margaret also took a break from her reproductive-education crusade (there was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of her receiving a copy of Margaret Sanger's Birth Control Review newsletter – can't wait to see the fireworks that will inevitably erupt at the hospital over that one!) to resume her duties as mother and desperate housewife this episode. Her end-of-Season-Two betrayal is one of the main reasons why I've been not so much supportive of Nucky's affair with Billie, but at least understanding. Yet Margaret's constant sourpuss has started to grate on my nerves, so it was a relief to see her get laid after such a long dry spell. The playing field between her and Nucky has been leveled at this point, so I think Peggy was plenty entitled to a nighttime romp in the greenhouse with Owen.

The Breakfast Club

Nucky arrives at the Hotel Astor to drop off his monthly payment to Harry Daugherty, except Means, the go-between, is nowhere to be found and the usual depository is full of water and a goldfish. Apparently Nucky's been reading the papers, making him well aware of the Senate subcommittee hearings on Prohibition. So he hightails it to Washington, D.C., and barges in on a private meeting between Daugherty, his aide Jess Smith and George Remus. Once Nucky gets Daugherty alone, he presses the attorney general to come clean about his plans to indict him so the Justice Department can dodge their own waist-deep corruption. But Daugherty isn't intimidated by a "washed-up bootlegger from New Jersey," even if said bootlegger delivered enough votes so his "fucking puppet could pretend to be president." Dejected, Nucky heads home, but makes the mistake of buying a bottle of whiskey at a train-station newsstand. He's summarily arrested by two of Daugherty's henchmen on a weak charge (possession of one pint of liquor). Most would say 18 hours in a holding cell and subsequent conviction resulting in a $5 fine can be chalked up to a rough night. In Nucky's case, it wound up being a moment of serendipitous convergence. The lawyer prosecuting the steady stream of low-level Volstead Act violators is none other than Assistant U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph (whom this recapper is very happy to welcome back into the Boardwalk Empire family). Randolph, clearly bitter over her courtroom disgrace at Nucky's hand a year and a half ago, tries to add extortion, solicitation of murder and bootlegging to his list of charges, but is swiftly rebuffed by the wearied-by-Prohibition judge: "This entire undertaking is sort of a joke, wouldn't you say?"

At daybreak, Nucky invites Randolph to breakfast. Why? She's miserable and needs a juicy, headline-worthy case to redeem herself after the Great Botched Federal Indictment of 1921. And Nucky needs a new friend on the inside. Randolph is initially unmoved when Nucky reveals that Daugherty intends to indict him just to "save his own skin." But she's forced to reconsider her position when Nucky reminds her that Daugherty, her boss, "set [her] up for a fall in Atlantic City and then blamed [her] for bungling it," leaving her little more than "intelligent, capable and invisible." Nucky proposes that Randolph indict Remus – which in turn would bring down the entire Justice Department. (Remus is directly connected to Jess Smith.) Randolph is skeptical, because she knows there's no way Daugherty would hand over his aide, or that the corrupt President Harding would allow any of this to go down. But Nucky confirms her piqued interest: "You're still sitting here," he says as he smugly sips his coffee.

That night, Billie arrives home in full party finery to find Nucky resting on her bed – and she's miffed. He missed the opening night for The Naughty Virgin and he hadn't been in touch for three days. (Um, didn't you pull that same trick three episodes ago, Lillian?) Their spat is interrupted by a phone call, and the syrupy voice of the all-knowing, all-seeing Gaston Means is on the other end. Means offers to introduce Nucky and Randolph to someone "who could cut the Gordian knot that is your mutual conundrum with the attorney general." My money is on Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Means' price is $40,000, and despite the high figure, Nucky is sold. But Means' loyalties remain murky. He was listening in on Nucky's tiff with Daugherty, and his exchange with the attorney general after Nucky left the room suggests this all might be part of Daugherty's plan to bring down the New Jersey bootlegger once and for all.

The Greenhouse Effect

Back in Atlantic City, Margaret is worried that her son Teddy's proclivity for playing with matches has reared its ugly head again. The Thompsons' greenhouse is set on fire late one night, and given Teddy's previous infractions, Margaret isn't terribly inclined to believe his story about a vagrant in the neighborhood. When Cornelia Predock, the Thompsons' next-door neighbor, brings Teddy home one day, having found him in her garage with a sack full of kerosene and matches, even I was surprised that he got off with just three spanks. But then Owen shows up with the news that there was indeed a drifter who had been camping out in the area – and had lit a fire in the greenhouse to keep warm, which ultimately got out of hand. It's not clear what became of the vagabond, but Owen assured Margaret that "it's all taken care of." RIP, "gypsy man"? Naturally Margaret is guilt-ridden over Teddy's harsh punishment, but I wouldn't feel too badly if I were you, Peg. That night, Teddy tells Emily a creepy story about "the gypsy man" who, "when he doesn't like you, he burns you up." Don't worry, Emily. Your big brother keeps a knife under his pillow, which he'll use to kill the gypsy man if he tries to hurt you. What else can you expect from a boy whose male role models are abusive dad Hans Schroeder and murderous stepdad Nucky Thompson?

Still spooked by noises and a light emanating from the greenhouse, Margaret takes the shotgun and confronts the perp – who happens to be Owen. He's there at Nucky's request, to make sure Margaret and the kids are safe, but he's not exactly in a rush to get home to his Kewpie-doll-obsessed girlfriend (and the Thompsons' former maid), Katy. Margaret, on edge from the events of the past couple of days, unloads onto her fellow Irishman, her question about her treatment of Teddy doubling as an existential query about her life decisions: "I've done what I thought was best and wound up here. How did that happen?" And when Owen encourages her to leave those thoughts for the morning, she's unable to withstand the tension that's been brewing between them since that late-afternoon summer day in 1921. She initiates a kiss, and while Owen hesitates, it doesn't take much to persuade him to bang his boss' wife in the greenhouse. "We both know how to keep a secret," Margaret intones. Since the sex is even more tepid than the tryst in "Peg of Old," it's hard to care where exactly this coupling is headed.

Wrap-Up

Gillian continues to live in the twisted, incestuous dream world she's concocted by scoring herself a young Michael Pitt doppelgänger (nowhere near as cute) from Indiana named Roger McAllister – and nicknaming him "James" during their post-coital pillow talk. Ew. And a potential love interest may be on the horizon for Richard, in the form of a fallen veteran's sister.

Previously Performance Anxiety

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