'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: How Nucky Got His Groove Back

The mob boss seeks to reclaim his city, one establishment at a time

Steve Buscemi as 'Nucky' Thompson in HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire.' Credit: Macall B. Polay

"A Dangerous Maid" could have been a terrific episode if so much time hadn't been wasted on a tedious plot line: Lucy Danziger's pregnancy by FBI agent Nelson Van Alden. Those scenes aside, the focus remained on Nucky and his fight to maintain a foothold in Atlantic City.

Despite a mounting insurrection, and his inability to even call in political favors anymore, the county treasurer has started rebuilding his empire, thanks to a new collaborator – and a successful showdown with the Commodore at Babette's Supper Club. His relationship with Margaret is strengthening too, after she proved herself a vital ally during his arrest. Their mutual admiration is developing into true affection, so much so that an "I love you" exchange may not be as far-fetched as it once was.

The Empire Strikes Back
Things still look bleak for Nucky following his brief jail stay, with Al Capone arriving at his office to announce that Chicago will no longer be buying alcohol from Atlantic City. To make matters worse, any political clout Nucky once carried in Washington seems to have disappeared with his arrest. Even though Nucky kept now-President Warren Harding's mistress and child out of sight during the election, his friend Attorney General Harry Daugherty refuses to help his struggling associate.

His options limited, Nucky accepts assistance from Owen Sleater, who first appeared in last week's episode as an advance man for Irish nationalist John McGarrigle. Sleater, now employed at one of Nucky's casinos, and privy to the lack of decent liquor coming in – courtesy of the Commodore and his Coast Guard connections – offers himself up as a thug, stopping the shipments of substandard booze delivered to Nucky's businesses. Nucky is in need of a good heavy, but it's hard to take Sleater seriously when the actor playing him is just doing a bad Colin Farrell impression.

Things come to a head when Nucky takes Margaret to dinner at Babette's along with Mayor Bader and his wife. Babette, dressed in her Marlene Dietrich best of a top hat and tails, initially hesitates to seat Nucky's party – because the Commodore is there, with Jimmy and Governor Edwards. The evening continues to go downhill when Margaret is denied her order of Lobster Thermidor – and Nucky notices the same entree being served to the Commodore. Fed up with the old bastard taking his woman's meal away, let alone his city, Nucky storms over to the Commodore's table and knocks his plate to the ground. We're finally getting our first juicy Steve Buscemi scene of the season here, and it's worth the wait: "You've had your last meal in this place," he asserts. Nucky, also seeking revenge on Jimmy for his betrayal, even goes so far as to tell him the sordid truth about how he was conceived: "He never even asked [13-year-old Gillian's] name," Nucky informs Jimmy. "[The Commodore] just pointed to the one he wanted." Jimmy gets up to deck Nucky, but his father orders him to hold back. Satisfied with the evening's result, Nucky strolls out of Babette's with the knowledge that he is no longer the Commodore's victim.

Later that night, Jimmy drowns his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey, shaken by the evening's events (or maybe Michael Pitt is just lamenting his lack of meatier scenes). When Angela asks how dinner with his father went, he replies, "Which one?" Even though his outer loyalties are to the Commodore, Jimmy is still caught between fealty toward his dad and to Nucky.

Feeling powerful for the first time in weeks, Nucky kisses Margaret passionately as they arrive home. It's a sweet moment, especially when we see Margaret's look of absolute elation. But it's also evident that Nucky's improved mood isn't so much due to their relationship, but that he's won a major battle against the city's insurgents. Instead of being whisked to the bedroom, Margaret is left alone on the stairwell, as Regina Spektor's cover of "My Man" plays over the credits. The song choice is fitting, since the lyrics of the Fanny Brice-popularized lament are about how the singer's man is no good for her – but she loves him anyway: "For whatever my man is, I am his, forever more." And that's Nucky and Margaret in a nutshell: They may love each other, but Nucky is still a criminal, and running Atlantic City will always be paramount.

"A Dangerous Maid"
At the end of Season One, Nucky's discarded mistress, the cabaret dancer Lucy Danziger, had been reduced to working as a prostitute in a speakeasy – and wound up impregnated by Nelson Van Alden. Now a lingerie-clad prisoner in his rooming house (Van Alden is paying Lucy to stay put and have the baby. Then what? Is she giving the kid to Van Alden and his barren wife?), hot mess Lucy is bored to tears – and we have to suffer the consequences, which are prolonged scenes featuring her whining. Apparently that's Paz de la Huerta's only form of speech. The petulant Lucy, oblivious to her prominent belly, wants to audition for a musical (A Dangerous Maid), the script provided by her friend Eddie Cantor. The repressed Van Alden naturally forbids it, not so much because she's with child, but because he equates theater with smut. Van Alden is absolutely loathsome in the way he treats Lucy as little more than a baby vessel, but given her idiotic, childlike behavior ("I wanted to mean something besides just whoopee," she coos to Eddie. Ugh, please), who could blame him? And no thanks to Eddie, we're stuck with Lucy for the foreseeable future: A deliveryman, bearing the vaudeville star's gift of a Victrola, interrupts Lucy from throwing herself down a stairwell.

Given de la Huerta's offscreen antics (club brawls, showing up drunk to a Golden Globes party), fingers are crossed that Boardwalk Empire producers will write Lucy out of the show. She serves no purpose, other than to grate on viewers' eardrums.

Peggy Rohan
We also came a step closer to learning about Margaret's background this episode, and that she's battling plenty of demons that have nothing to do with Nucky. Margaret receives a letter from a detective agency confirming her brother and sisters' residence in Brooklyn. She shares this information with Nucky, furthering the bond between them, but she's reluctant to contact her family. "It wasn't a happy parting of the ways," she tells him. Sounds like they didn't take kindly to a teenage Margaret getting preggers.

Margaret enlists her maid, Katy, to telephone her siblings and to ask for a "Peggy Rohan." When Katy passes along the message that "Peggy Rohan died 12 years ago," Margaret retreats to her room and weeps. It doesn't take Katy (or us) long to realize that "Peggy" is Margaret and that "died" means "disowned."

Wrap-Up: The climactic Babette's scene was the season's best so far, with the supper club serving as a metaphor for Atlantic City. If Nucky can take his restaurant back, the rest of his town can't be far behind. The question is, will Jimmy return to Nucky's fold after his mentor publicly humiliated his father, or will he continue to be manipulated by the Commodore?     

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