'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Welcome Back, Peggy - Rolling Stone
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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Recap: Welcome Back, Peggy

Margaret falls back into old habits following a visit to Brooklyn; Nucky makes Van Alden an offer he can’t refuse

Kelly Macdonald in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" Episode "Peg of Old"

Macall B. Polay/HBO

Margaret returns to her roots in the aptly named “Peg of Old” – so much so that by the end of the episode, she’s engaging in the very same act that caused her to abandon her life in Ireland and start anew in America. Is she destined to repeat her mistakes? Or is this her way of declaring her long-suppressed independence to her family? Whatever the reasons behind her decision to bring Owen Sleater into her bed, they’re secondary to the fact that the window to Margaret’s past was thrust open in this episode and that we can at least begin to understand why she’s such an enigmatic character.

Afternoon Delight
Undeterred by the failed phone call a few months prior, Margaret journeys to the slums of Brooklyn to visit her estranged family. Her brother, Eamon, eyes her suspiciously like the damaged goods she is, while her sisters are dazzled by her fancy clothes and hired car. The already tense atmosphere is heightened when lady-of-leisure Margaret learns that her tenement-dwelling siblings slog away building subway lines (Eamon), sewing in a sweatshop (Eulah) and pressing laundry (adolescent Beth). And the truant officer is the only thing keeping them from putting little Eilish to work. After a few hours of stilted pleasantries, Margaret and her brother address the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Her illegitimate pregnancy. Eamon still holds the old-school Irish Catholic belief that the sinners, like his selfish sister, should be punished. But Margaret, giving us a brief history lesson, reminds her brother that her fate would have been enslavement at a Dickensian Magdalene laundry, which is why she bailed on her family.

Even the news that Margaret miscarried doesn’t melt Eamon’s cold veneer. When she returns the following day, the liberal-minded Rohan chastises Eamon for always toeing the line, because in the end, he hurt her more than she ever did him: “You never talk back to the priest or the boss…. Never dare to stand up for me….Who begged you for help when she had nowhere else to turn. And you’re proud of it!” Her speech falls on deaf ears – Eamon tells her to get lost. He resents her for getting whatever she wants by not following the rules. And now she’s some rich guy’s mistress, living large only because she opened her legs to him.

Margaret arrives home to find Sleater alone in the house. That day, he carried out a brutal IRA-related murder in a tavern bathroom, but he’s strangely calm for someone who has just strangled someone, which makes him all the more dangerous, and all the more intoxicating to Margaret. Unfortunately, this supposed sexual-tension scene was as hot as an ice cube, thanks to the complete lack of chemistry between Kelly Macdonald and Charlie Cox. Reveling in the power she cherishes, but also walking into the same illicit trap she did back in Ireland – Nucky could have her killed for this – Margaret explains the rules to Sleater after allowing him into the bedroom: “When we’re done, you will leave, and we’ll not speak a word about it. Ever.” Sleater obliges, and as we close on Margaret’s face, she shrieks in ecstasy.

Mr. Mom
The yawn-inducing election-fraud plot line got an assist this episode with the introduction of Esther Randolph, the new federal prosecutor. Looks like Harry Daugherty decided to save his own corrupt ass instead of Nucky’s, because if there’s anyone who can put Nucky in jail, it’s this tough-as-nails broad. Randolph is based on Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who was prominently featured in the PBS documentary/Boardwalk Empire companion piece Prohibition. Forget  gangsters like Manny Horvitz who need knives to flex their muscle – Randolph makes ward boss Jim Neary quake in his boots solely by flaunting her confidence: “I can make your life quite difficult, Mr. Neary. In fact, I might enjoy it.”  

Nucky, agitated that prison could still be in his future, is galvanized following an impromptu visit from Lucy. Because Van Alden‘s promise of $3,000 was just a ruse to get her to go through with the pregnancy, Nucky’s erstwhile mistress needs a handout. Steve Buscemi’s line “You and I haven’t seen each other since May 23rd of last year” puts a nice comic touch on his surprise at Lucy with a baby – but Lucy gets the last laugh, right after she tells Nucky who the father is.

While Van Alden is brooding in his office over Randolph usurping his desk, he receives a call from Nucky. Arriving at the Ritz-Carlton suite, Van Alden is enticed by the county treasurer to spy on Randolph – “If she renews her subscription to Vogue magazine, I want to know about it” – in exchange for total financial support for his expanding family. But when Nucky casually mentions that he gave Lucy some money as well, a sinking feeling envelops Van Alden. He returns home to find the baby being looked after by a neighbor – and a soiled diaper revolving on the Victrola’s turntable with the first page of A Dangerous Maid‘s script pinned to it. Guess Lucy wasn’t keen on that whole feeding-and-changing-a-baby thing. Good luck on Broadway, toots.

Whether or not Van Alden is going to take Nucky up on his offer remains ambiguous, but the following morning, the Prohibition agent ingratiates himself with Randolph by presenting her with the file he’s kept on Nucky over the past 16 months. Given Van Alden’s descent into greed and corruption since his arrival in Atlantic City, and that now he needs cash more than ever, his future as a double agent seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Heavy Is the Head that Wears the Crown
Jimmy is easing into his new role of mob boss with aplomb. He has a sensible plan for keeping his bootlegging business going, and he understands how Atlantic City works: “The way this place runs, you have to keep people happy.” But when Eli convinces Jimmy to hire a hit man to kill Nucky, Jimmy is faced with a moral dilemma that plagues him the entire episode.

Gillian, furthering her son’s Oedipal complex by getting dressed in front of him, does little to assuage Jimmy’s crisis of conscience. When he asks his mother what would happen if he called off the hit on Nucky, she advises against it. She’s been around gangsters long enough to know that any sign of weakness is a death sentence: “I’d never make the mistake of letting [anyone] see me be indecisive.”

The next day, at Babette’s, Jack Dempsey is promoting his upcoming fight when Jimmy approaches Nucky. The way he slowly leans in, we’re teased into thinking Jimmy’s decided to save his former mentor. “It doesn’t make a difference if you’re right or wrong,” Jimmy whispers to Nucky. “You just have to make a decision.” As Jimmy walks away, his face crumbling, a man with a gun comes into view and shoots Nucky in the hand. The assassin is then taken down by an undercover federal agent – Randolph’s idea of having Nucky trailed ultimately saved his life. And Jimmy’s conscience is clear. Sort of.

Wrap-Up: Boardwalk Empire is back on its game after a couple of weeks of disappointing episodes. The Esther Randolph character, as well as the potential Van Alden-as-double-agent angle, are already giving a much-needed jolt to a flagging story line. But the overly dramatic aerial shot of an inert Nucky on the floor of Babette’s was a little excessive. Spoiler alert! He survives! 

Last Episode: The Student Becomes the Teacher


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