[SPOILERS] Not as whip-smart or memorable as the extravagant premiere, "The Ivory Tower" nevertheless told a more comprehensible story and is slowly building its 1920s world, while introducing more characters. Shows like this don't quite take hold with me until I'm au fait with the major players and understand everyone's perspectives, hopes, and desires -- so Boardwalk Empire still has a way to go before I feel connected and desperate to see what happens next, but it's doing a good job cementing the foundations.
Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is definitely corrupt, taking cuts from Atlantic City businesses, but he's cannier than his peers in Chicago and New York, recognizing the value of potential female voters and the black community. Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is investigating the death of Mr Schroeder, whom he believes has been made a scapegoat in the alcohol stickup, and has already got the measure of Nucky after a brief meeting in his office. Nucky realizes as much, so asked his sheriff brother Eli (Shea Whigham) to make the necessary arrangements to cover his crimes -- which includes manipulating Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) into towing the party line about her innocent husband being involved in the robbery.
I'm enjoying how the action sometimes shifts to Chicago and New York, as I wasn't expecting this series to be so broad in scope, but giving Nucky some rivals is a great move. Here we got to see more of the shrewd NYC boss Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlberg), who scared Chicago mobster Jim Colosimo's assassin into revealing who ordered the hit, and later called Nucky and inferred he was behind it (which he might have been, but it's not certain). Clearly the two men are going to be enemies from hereon in, with Rothstein looking to avenge the death of a comrade.
We also met some vital support figures in the lives of Nucky and his subordinate Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Nucky has his elderly mentor Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), a Commodore of the Ku Klux Klan; unsurprisingly, a narrow-minded racist who takes pleasure in belittling his black maid's knowledge of business, claiming her lack of knowledge proves the uselessness of a female vote. But Nucky's more enlightened as a protégé, knowing that the key to his continuing success as Atlantic City's treasurer is to keep women and the black population sweet. He may use public funds to line his gilded cage (or Ivory Tower, as the title has it), but he knows that you have to keep the public on-side to keep that position of power.
For Jimmy, we meet Gillian (Gretchen Mol), a showgirl who at first appears to be a lover that Jimmy's seeing behind his wife's back, but in fact turns out to be his young mother. I'm not convinced the age gap works to that fact, however. Writer Terrence Winter says Gillian was pregnant at the age of 13, but that still doesn't quite sit right for me because Mol's nearly 40 and Pitt's nearly 30. If Pitt looked five years younger, or Mol five years older, it would be easier to accept. Still, the misdirection worked, and I was convinced Jimmy was seeing someone behind his wife's back (do you really let your mother give you a leg-hug embrace?). And Mol's fantastic casting because she's one of those people who look like they belong in a period setting.
The relationship between Margaret and Nucky also took some steps forward, which is currently one of the more interesting elements of the series for me. Margaret's so sweet and sympathetic you can't help but want the best for her, and Nucky clearly means her no harm (hearing she's well-read seems to only increase his affection for her), but trouble will surely follow if Margaret becomes a fixture. Interestingly, she also has the attention of Agent Van Alden, so is caught in the middle of the show's most obvious symbols of good and bad.
Also good to get a sense that Nucky's a darker character than he seemed in the premiere, with him forcing Jimmy to handover $3000 that was missing from his cut of the liquor robbery, forcing Jimmy to steal from his own mother because he's already spent the cash on luxuries. And having been given the money, Nucky pointedly gambled it away in front of Jimmy on a roulette wheel, pushing the idea that trying to cheat Nucky has bad consequences, and losing $3k on roulette is nothing compared to what might happen. Right now, Jimmy's so eager to please Nucky, ultimately pursuing a way to get some of Nucky's lifestyle for himself, that I'm guessing it's a lesson he'll learn. Nucky's certainly willing to show a stronger, crueler side if he feels threatened.
Overall, it's still early days, but the promise of the premiere wasn't washed away by this second episode. It wasn't as good, but it was easier to follow and the script is doing a good job driving the story forward while enriching characters and introducing new faces. There were times where you felt a little overwhelmed with information overload last week, but "The Ivory Tower" was much easier to slip into, and I'm already very interested in the lives of Nucky, Jimmy and Margaret.
- Margaret is seen reading Henry James's "The Ivory Tower" in hospital, which explains this episode's title. It was an unfinished novel by the author, about two dying millionaires and their corrupting influence on other people. Clearly a relevant theme with Boardwalk Empire.
- Jimmy's friendship with Al Capone (Stephen Graham) last week doesn't appear to have lasted, as Capone was quick to avoid Jimmy asking for cash as a favour over the phone.
- Amusing scene with Jimmy having bought a "vacuum sweeper" and its noise frightening his young son.
- Does anyone else think Michael Shannon (Van Alden) sounds exactly like Rod Sterling of The Twilight Zone fame?
WRITER: Terence Winter
DIRECTOR: Timothy Van Patten
TRANSMISSION: 26 September 2010 - HBO