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'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Oedipus Wrecks

An extended flashback uncovers the disturbing truth about Jimmy's past

December 5, 2011 11:20 AM ET
boardwalk empire episode 11 gillian jimmy
Gretchen Mol as Gillian Darmody and Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody in HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire.'
Macall B. Polay

For all the jokes that Steve Buscemi made during his Saturday Night Live hosting gig about his move from character actor to leading man, he still couldn't avoid playing the supporting role this weekend. But it wasn't his fault in "Under God's Power She Flourishes,” Boardwalk Empire's penultimate episode of this season: when it comes to story lines, incest trumps federal charges. The entire episode was Freud's Oedipus complex writ large: Jimmy slept with his mother and killed his father, promptly replacing Angela's brutal murder as the show's most disturbing development to date.

The Way We (Always) Were
After last week's episode closed with Angela and her female lover shot to death by Manny Horvitz, it was a little confusing to see actress Aleksa Palladino's name in the opening credits. But once it became clear that much of Jimmy's story line was being told in flashback, it was a thrill to see a long-haired Angela back onscreen. We find out what drove him to leave Princeton University and fight in the Great War – and we answer the question about his relationship with his MILF-caliber mother that's been gnawing at us since last season.

Back in the late 1910s, Angela was just a sweet-faced local waitress who enjoyed hopping between the sheets with a floppy-haired student from Atlantic City. When he wasn't going to bed with townies, Jimmy was studying the works of John Webster, subconsciously relating to Webster's characters by expounding on the idea of a mother teaching her son "things that aren't of any use.” Also, the fact that Webster's The Duchess of Malfi contains an incest subplot was not incidental.

Gillian pays her son a visit at Princeton and is introduced to his new girlfriend at a school mixer. In the time it takes for Angela to spill that she's pregnant, Jimmy gets all hot and bothered over his English professor, Mr. Pearson, flirting with his mother. Strange, because Gillian appeared visibly jealous by Angela's presence, too! Later that evening, when Gillian emerges with her dress strap askew,  Jimmy confronts his teacher, who didn't realize that Gillian was his mother: "Your life is pretty Jacobean all by itself,” Pearson snickers, alluding to Webster's time period. One beatdown later, Jimmy has kissed his Princeton career goodbye and has accompanied his drunk mother back to her boarding house. From the moment the two enter the room, you can feel what's coming. Jimmy starts of the scene half-naked thanks to a bloody shirt. Toss in a vulnerable Gillian ("I'm the loneliest person on Earth”), and you have a recipe for one of the most sickening moments in television history. Gillian falls onto the bed and caresses her son's face. Jimmy weakly attempts to leave by moving his lips toward his mother's forehead, but her mouth obstructs his path. "There's nothing wrong with any of it!” she reassures Jimmy as their bodies intertwine, a train loudly rolling by outside.

Jimmy awakens the next morning to find his mother gone. Revolted by what he's done, he escapes into the Army, giving Angela's name as his only next of kin. Poor Angela. Even with this backstory, she remains the innocent victim of a drastically twisted family.

Back in 1921, a disconsolate Jimmy has been holing up in a hotel room, ignoring his mother's phone calls and getting drunk and high – the latter courtesy of Lucky Luciano's nascent heroin business. By the end of the episode though, he has returned to the Commodore's mansion, sitting in a stupor while Gillian does her needlepoint and breezily discusses funeral arrangements. But when Gillian suggests that in a month's time Tommy won't even remember who Angela was, Jimmy fulfills every viewer's fantasy by lunging at his mother's neck and screaming, "I'll remember!” over and over again.  His chokehold is released only when the Commodore pierces his back with an ornamental spear (typical). In retaliation, Jimmy stabs his father in the stomach with his switchblade. The calculating Gillian then orders her son to eliminate the final barrier between the two of them: "Finish it!” One fatal stab to the chest, and we bid a fond adieu to Dabney Coleman. It's a hell of a loss, but as despicable as the Commodore was, he can't hold a candle to his once-jailbait lover.

After passing out, a bandaged Jimmy opens his eyes to see Richard Harrow cleaning up the murder scene. This moment bookends an earlier scene in which Richard walks into the room where Angela was killed and sees the blood on the floor, left behind by a sloppy Horvitz. When Jimmy awakens again, the room is spotless. Richard will protect his friend to the death – even if it means hiding his crimes.

Gillian then brings Tommy downstairs to introduce him to the new version of his family. "I'm here, baby,” is her creepy response when Tommy asks for "Mama.” Fully assuming her role as Tommy's mother (and, perhaps, Jimmy's lover), she tells her son, "I'll put him to bed and I'll be upstairs.” The glee in Gillian's eyes is more frightening than any gun or knife, making Jimmy the most tragic victim of all.

Sins of the Mother
There wasn't much room for Nucky and Margaret's story line this episode, leaving plenty to be resolved in next week's season finale. Despite hiring New York lawyer William Fallon, Nucky's case looks bleak, with jail and possibly the electric chair becoming an ever-encroaching reality. After Fallon recommends that he get his finances in order, Nucky explains to Margaret that he's hiding his money through Mayor Bader's businesses and ultimately transferring it into her name, but she's too busy feeling contrite over Emily's new life in leg braces.

Nucky is briefly given hope when his African-American servant, Herman, informs his employer and Fallon that he witnessed Van Alden, who is scheduled to testify against Nucky, drown one of his agents during a baptism. (Remember when Van Alden killed the Jewish Agent Sepso last season?) As if receiving divorce papers from Rose wasn't enough, now Van Alden has his own crimes to face. He's accosted at his office by Esther Randolph and Fallon but resists arrest, accidentally causing Clifford Lathrop's gun to misfire – and wounding Randolph's chief investigator/lover in the process. The Prohibition agent runs off a wanted man.

Margaret's role in Nucky's life is coming full circle. She started off the season as his greatest ally, and now possibly ends it as his worst enemy. Unable to ignore her all-encompassing guilt, Margaret, who has been subpoenaed by Randolph, admits to Nucky that she is considering testifying against him. "I have stolen, and cheated and deceived, and now I'm being punished for those sins,” she confesses (wisely withholding mention of her dalliance with Sleater). But Nucky isn't having any of it. He refuses to be sold out by the woman who should be forever indebted to him. In his cold and cutting way, he reminds her of the tangled web she has woven: "I will not permit you to sacrifice me. And if you don't think I'm as good as my word, then you don't know me at all. I have given you everything.” Sorry, Margaret, but he's got you there. You wanted this power. You wanted the money. And it comes at a price.

Wrap-Up: Now that Gillian has replaced the Commodore as Boardwalk Empire's resident villain, her potential for freaky mischief has us salivating. The big question is, will Jimmy fulfill his mother's wishes and become her lover, too? With Nucky's trial at the forefront of the season finale, we may have to wait until next season to find out.

Last Episode: Collateral Damage

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