At the close of the first season of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s Emmy-winning Prohibition-era drama, County Treasurer/gangster Enoch “Nucky“ Thompson had much to celebrate. He succeeded in getting a construction tycoon elected mayor of Atlantic City and welcomed the return of his mistress, Irish widow Margaret Schroeder. But as the two gazed out at the Atlantic, it was impossible to ignore the lingering anxieties plastered across both their faces.
The show’s second-season opener does little to allay their fears, as Nucky’s firm grip on America’s Playground is slowly being pried from his glad-handing fingers. “21” takes place a few months after the 1920 Election Day-set first-season finale, and it’s clear that Nucky needs to step up his game in order to avoid being ousted from his gilded Ritz-Carlton suite.
The Fall of an Empire
Nucky’s kingdom begins to unravel when Ku Klux Klansmen attack the warehouse operated by his counterpart in Atlantic City’s African-American community, bootlegger Chalky White. As the white-hooded men drive away, Chalky, wearing a bright red coat rivaling Nucky’s tangerine shirts, gets in a single shot – hitting a Klansman in the throat. No matter how much clout Chalky carries, he is in deep shit now. This is 1921, and he just shot a white man. To say Nucky is furious is an understatement, but, as he warns Chalky, he’s “the only person keeping him from a lynch mob.” A seething Chalky threatens to withdraw the support of the city’s 10,000 black residents who keep Nucky in power, but Nucky isn’t intimidated: “Your people have a lot more to lose than I do.”
Doing damage control, Nucky addresses an African-American congregation, with a skeptical Chalky in tow. He asserts that he will not rest until “these hooded cowards are brought to justice.” But Nucky Thompson never does anything without an ulterior motive – and his attempts to walk on both sides of the street will be his downfall. In a seamless shot, Nucky assures the congregants that “no one need fear for their safety, or the safety of their wives, children or property in the face of the obstreperous Negro.” We then cut to see he is now speaking to a white crowd. His oration is interrupted by the news that the Klansman Chalky shot has died. In a kind but dubious gesture, Nucky orders his sheriff brother, Eli Thompson, to arrest Chalky: “For his own safety.”
But whatever further “protection” Nucky has to offer will have to come from a jail cell: A couple of days later, the county treasurer’s shady influence behind Mayor Edward Bader‘s victory finally catches up with him when he is arrested for election fraud.
Trouble at Home
The Irving Berlin tune that opens the episode, “After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It),” may be upbeat, but the lyrics hold up a mirror to the malaise that ensconces the Thompson-Schroeder household. In what was likely a deliberate artistic decision, Margaret awakens to an empty bed as a woman sings “If I give you the moon, you’ll grow tired of it soon.” Although Margaret briefly left Nucky last season after he verified he was behind the murder of her abusive husband, she realized that her children’s well being trumped her patron’s penchant for illegal activity. In “21,” she continues to grapple with her moral conundrum – especially when Nucky’s influence begins to seep into her son Teddy‘s behavior, like playing with matches. Guess little Teddy did see Uncle Nucky burn down his childhood home while he was sitting in the car last season.
When Margaret goes to see Teddy’s teacher to address her son’s disciplinary problems, Sister Bernice informs her that Teddy will not be expelled only due to the intervention of the priest. “Apparently he’s close with your Mr. Thompson,” the nun cautions Margaret, unimpressed by her fur-trimmed coat. As Margaret shuffles out of the classroom, we see the tangled web she’s woven around her family, with Nucky not just the source of their problems, but the only solution to them as well.
Nucky goes to talk to Teddy, at Margaret’s behest, but the memories of his violent father are still fresh in the boy’s mind, and he starts removing his clothes in anticipation of “the belt.” After Nucky promises Teddy he won’t give him a whipping, he sends him off to the sweet shop after a cursory “mind your mother.” While it’s obvious Nucky would rather be carousing at Babette’s with a topless woman in his lap than be a role model to an impressionable young boy, the fact remains that he’s a better father to Margaret’s two children than her husband ever was, making Margaret’s predicament all the more complicated.
At least Margaret doesn’t have a meddling mother-in-law like Gillian Darmody. The showgirl mother of Nucky’s protégé, Jimmy Darmody, is poised to drive a wedge between her son and his now-wife, Angela Darmody, this season, and it’s not because she knows how to cook his ham and eggs: “When I would change [Jimmy’s] diaper,” she tells Angela, “I used to kiss his little winky.” And now we know why Jimmy is such a fan of oral….
It’s a good thing that Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano don’t appear in this episode (Al Capone gets one scene), because Nucky’s got enough enemies in his own backyard.
At Commodore Louis Kaestner‘s mansion, the elderly mob boss – who has made a full recovery from last season’s arsenic poisoning – meets with Jimmy and Eli. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the three are conspiring to overthrow Nucky. Or that Jimmy’s inner conflict over whether to double-cross his mentor is going to be one of the major themes this season. Nucky was more of a father to Jimmy than the Commodore ever was, but getting on the Commodore’s bad side may prove deadly, as Kaestner has the Ku Klux Klan in his pocket.
The battle lines are drawn at the wake of the Klansman Chalky killed, where Jimmy and Nucky arrive to
save face pay their respects. Even though Nucky suspects that Jimmy knew about the planned attack on Chalky’s warehouse, he makes a last-ditch effort to keep his former apprentice in his corner. Nucky goes for the jugular by admitting he misses Jimmy, playing up his memories of taking him gull shooting when he was a boy. Jimmy doesn’t let on what he knows, but his aloofness confirms that Nucky can’t trust him. Ceding defeat, Nucky leaves with one parting thought: “Your father is a very duplicitous man.”
That night, Jimmy opens a wedding gift from Nucky: A figurine of a man and a boy holding rifles. Instead of putting it on display, Jimmy stuffs it in a closet, silently pledging his loyalty to the Commodore. It seems.
Wrap-Up:With confidants and family members aligning against him, Nucky’s arrest puts him in an even more vulnerable position. It’s time for him to choose a side and stick to it. For example, he needs to stop pretending he’s the black man’s friend while rubbing elbows with the Ku Klux Klan. Only then will he have the allies he so desperately needs to survive.