Between his brief incarceration and the Commodore‘s storming of his cronies, Nucky Thompson is humbled in “Ourselves Alone,” with few friends to turn to. But by the end of the episode, he accepts that his greatest ally is right in his own home, in the form of Margaret Schroeder.
It’s still not clear what exactly Margaret’s motives are, as we’ve only been given sporadic hints concerning her background (she was a maid in Ireland; immigrated at 16; pregnant at the time; lost the baby), but considering how she runs the Thompson household with an iron fist and has no reservations about giving her benefactor orders, a lust for power appears to be lurking beneath her sweet demeanor. Her desire to advise Nucky in his business dealings seems to go beyond her need to keep her children fed – and herself in the latest fashions.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Thanks to a good lawyer, Nucky’s jail time is transitory, but public opinion is that he has indeed committed election fraud. And Nucky doesn’t help his case by dodging reporters’ allegations with jokes. He spends most of the episode trying to figure out which of his associates betrayed him to the authorities, but all he comes up with is the realization that with a precious few left in his corner, his days of running Atlantic City may be numbered. But he doesn’t let this fear slip when Mayor Edward Bader pays him a visit: “I’m going to beat this, Ed,” he tells Bader. “And when I do, I’m gonna remember who showed up here today, and who didn’t.”
Back home, Margaret learns of Nucky’s arrest through the newspaper’s front page (and the gossiping domestics). While keeping the children ignorant of Uncle Nucky’s misfortune, she telephones her lover’s valet, Eddie Kessler. Eddie, overwhelmed by the officers from the state attorney’s office who are ransacking the Ritz-Carlton suite, hurries her off the phone. But Margaret has hung around Nucky Thompson long enough to know if she doesn’t get involved, Eddie, as well as the entire household staff, will be looking for new positions. Later that day, Margaret arrives at the suite, dressed in raggedy clothes and a padded stomach – eerily reminiscent of the first day she went to Nucky for help in securing her husband a job. Playing dumb to the investigation being conducted, she meekly asks to see “Mr. Thompson.” When she is denied, she swoons and asks to use the facilities. A few minutes later, she is escorted out of the hotel. It’s not until the episode’s final scene we learn the reason for her covert visit.
That night, after hosting a dinner for an Irish nationalist who wants help in raising arms against the English government, Nucky and Margaret chat by the fire. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Nucky opens up to his mistress about his dire situation. For the first time, he looks and sounds genuinely scared. He confesses that Jimmy and Eli are against him, and that they’re under the Commodore’s thumb. Margaret disproves Nucky’s theory that the officers from the state attorney’s office seized the ledger book documenting his illegal activities when she puts it, along with $20,000 in cash, into his hands. Then, in a complete role reversal from when they first met, Margaret instructs Nucky in his next step: “You are smarter than your enemies, and you will persevere. But you’re not thinking clearly now. You must concentrate, and not give over to emotion.” She convinces him that the ledger must be burned, and that he must commit all future dealings to memory. Once Nucky agrees, Margaret, tired of waking up alone, gives him his final command of the night: “Come to sleep. In our bed.”
There‘s a New Sheriff in Town
The Commodore is ramping up his militia of supporters to unseat Nucky by pinching the county treasurer’s fleet of ward bosses, including Jim Neary and Patrick Ryan – the two men who squealed about Nucky’s election-fraud activities. His shoddy hair-dye job notwithstanding, the Commodore also demonstrates to his much-younger sycophants that his advanced age does not mean less vitality: The man can still lift an elephant tusk over his head.
While Jimmy is in New York forming a business deal with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (he sells them liquor, they sell him heroin – signaling a possible addiction foreshadowing. Jimmy already exhibited his affinity for opium back in Chicago…), the Commodore sets his plan in motion to turn brother against brother by having Eli place a menacing phone call to Nucky: “Nobody takes power,” Eli goads him. “Somebody else has to give it to them. Look around, big brother. What do you got?” Nucky’s face goes ashen as his brother hangs up the phone.
Satisfied with Eli’s allegiance, the Commodore then introduces him to “the men who made this city,” including Leander Whitlock (Dominic Chianese, furthering the Boardwalk Empire/Sopranos crossover), who not only toasts Eli but sports the fluffiest mutton chops this side of Gregg Allman. This scene echoes Nucky’s words to Jimmy from last week: “Your father is a duplicitous man.” It seems the Commodore is also trying to pit Jimmy against Eli by introducing the younger Thompson, and not his own son, to the city’s elder statesmen.
“Pursley Be Done“
Since Nucky has his own legal troubles to deal with, Chalky may have to chill in jail for the foreseeable future. But unlike his Caucasian counterpart, Chalky’s influence has strengthened with prison time. After spending most of the episode being taunted by an arrogant fellow prisoner, Dunn Pursley, Chalky works his way around the cell, asking each inmate how he’s been faring thanks to his assistance (money, food, jobs). Grateful for how much Chalky has done for them, and not wanting to find themselves on his bad side, the prisoners beat Pursley to a pulp, as Chalky looks on in silent fury. As Pursley takes his final breath, Chalky pithily observes, “Pursley be done.” In a sign of reverence, one of the inmates picks up Chalky’s copy of David Copperfield (a gift from his son) and hands it to Chalky with a deferential “Sir.” The scene closes with Chalky ordering the one literate inmate to read the book aloud, the camera affixed on Michael Kenneth Williams’ livid visage. Chalky’s fate is still ambiguous, with him a wanted man even if he is released from prison. But in a filthy jail cell, he has reasserted his authority among his people. Williams’ visceral performance in the first two episodes alone makes him worthy of an Emmy nod – if he doesn’t get one for his portrayal as a Chalky-esque prison-inmate-turned-professor on Community.
Wrap-Up: Although it’s hard to know if Margaret is operating under her own agenda or if she is sincerely trying to help her lover, she is without a doubt Nucky’s strongest ally right now, and it would behoove him to let her pull the strings until he’s back on top. She’s cunning, smart and charismatic, and Nucky would be a fool to not utilize all of her valuable assets.
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