The fourteenth episode of Boardwalk Empire is a busy one, centered around the growing conspiracy against Nucky and his imminent rally; a rally that is sure to be buttressed by his live-in girlfriend Margaret Schroeder. The episode takes its title “Ourselves Alone” from the correct English translation of “Sinn Fein,” the Irish revolutionary group that sends a dour-faced emissary to shill for monetary assistance from an embattled Nucky Thompson. Mistaken identity abounds as Nucky is released from jail, Jimmy heads to New York to “lay some ground work” for the planned takeover in Atlantic City bootlegging, and Chalky find himself in a revealing bottle episode.
Let’s start with the scenes involving the Commodore, Eli and his ward bosses. The conspiracy is now well afoot, and every one of the Ward Bosses – save for Damien – is on board. They meet with the Commodore, who has dyed his hair and mustache to look younger. It isn’t effective and he looks preposterous – even his co-conspirators mock him “Did he fall into some shoe polish?”. The Commodore begins with a feat of strength to demonstrate in his own prehistoric way his suitability as a leader, and begins giving marching orders. It’s now clear that Neary and Ryan are the main conspirators – the other Ward Bosses fall into line because, frankly, they’re simpletons.
The Commodore asks the men “when you come face to face with destiny, do you want to be the bear, or do you want to be holding the shotgun?” The issue of course, is that if you’re not a bear – you better be damn confident in your shotgun. Is the Commodore, a sickly old man who has only recently caught his second wind – the most dependable weapon to wield against a bear like Thompson?
Later in the episode Eli calls his brother from the Commodore’s study, Nucky offers his brother one chance to walk away from his conspiracy – but Eli declines and “twists the knife” asking Nucky boastfully to “look around brother – what you got?” What Nucky has is Margaret, a great lawyer and his youth. The Commodore may have money and allies, but youth? Even with Jimmy on board, not so much. When Eli meets the Commodore’s investors, they’re all grey ancient men who toast in an extinct language (and one of them, the guy with the particularly hilarious mutton-chop/goatee ensemble, is the man Nucky recognized from the Klansman’s funeral in the previous episode).
Shifting to Chalky White who has been imprisoned, ostensibly for the murder of a Ku Klax Klan member, but really he’s behind bars for his own protection from potential lynch mobs. Chalky and Nucky talk about their mutual predicament as Nucky tries to re-hash the events of election night. Nucky knows their problems (the KKK for Chalky, and the Attorney General for himself) originate from the same source. Chalky turns out to be a pretty astute political operative – he quickly diagnoses the likelihood that none of Nucky’s Ward Bosses possess the balls or savvy to be acting alone on this one.
While Nucky is released on bail – after urging Chalky to be patient – Chalky remains in the cell where he is shortly visited by his wife. His wife calls him “Albert” (something I’m not sure we’ve heard Chalky referred to as previously in the series), and brings him a book recommended by their son. The book is David Copperfield, and though Chalky happily tells his wife that “it’s a good one,” it quickly becomes apparent that Chalky cannot in fact read.
In an episode dominated by a crises of identities – the Commodore’s mustache, Jimmy the “businessman”, Margaret the poor pregnant constituent – David Copperfield is a sensible symbol to throw into the mix. I’ll let you google it yourself if you’re interested – but David Copperfield is a Dickens work that is preoccupied with examinations of artifice.
A fellow inmate introduces himself as Don Pernsley from Baltimore, and he begins heckling Chalky the moment Chalky’s wife leaves. For all his aggression and bombast, it’s Pernsley who sees Chalky’s stylistic flourishes for what they really are, “the uppity way you tell the world your better than me, when all you really be is jut another juggaboo in a jail cell.” Of course, Chalky calls on his personal relationships with everyone in their shared cell – and they proceed to kick Pernsley’s teeth in. Chalky may be a man of power, dressed to the nines, with a beautiful wife and all the accouterments of being refined – but despite all of that, he’s an illiterate bootlegger rotting in jail.
In Jimmy’s case, he makes a pitch to Arnold Rothstein in New York. He wants to replace Nucky as Rothstein’s pipe-line to the imported liquor in Atlantic City, but Rothstein is a conservative man and won’t have any of it. It’s one of the first times we’ve seen Jimmy in a highly politicized setting and he carries it off pretty well – impressing even Rothstein who tells Jimmy that he’s “better spoken than expected.” He also admires Jimmy’s discretion, and audacity – but asks him “who are you” to which Jimmy responds “a business man,” as well as a war-veteran, a husband and a father.
Though Rothstein was uninterested in Jimmy’s proposal, Lucky Luciano and his partner Meyer Lansky are more receptive. Jimmy goes to their poker game, and meets with the two young upstarts. Lucky and Jimmy nearly come to blows over Lucky’s past relationship with Jimmy’s mother – but Meyer gets in between them, yelling “GENTLEMAN, I’M RUNNING A BUSINESS HERE!”
When it comes down to it, Jimmy isn’t a “business man”, he’s a gangster – as is Lucky. The only businessman in that room is Lansky – and he knows how to bridge the gap. Lucky and Meyer are running side businesses outside of the purview of Rothstein, and similarly to Jimmy harbour ambitions of being bosses in their own right. As Meyer Lansky tells Jimmy “no one wants to be in school forever.”
After Jimmy leaves the poker game he is mugged by two of Mustache Pete’s men – who we see earlier having a loud disagreement with Lansky over territory. They see Jimmy the business man – in his “silk crevat” – but they don’t realize who they’re dealing with and Jimmy viciously murders them both with his boot-knife. The shot of the fountain (the setting of the epically failed mugging) filling with blood that’s spewing from one of Jimmy’s victim’s carotid artery is awesome; but is instantly outdone by the shot of the other victim gasping for air despite his thrashed wind-pipe while Jimmy walks away in the background. Businessman, my ass!
Which brings us to the happy couple – Margaret and Nucky – celebrating Valentines Day in their own unique way. Nucky of course begins the day in prison, his lawyer pays his bail and proves valuable, ascertaining from the court-clerk that Nucky’s “ship is leaking” and that two confidential witnesses (who are revealed in the Commodore’s meeting with the Ward Bosses) are the source of his legal troubles. Nucky’s lawyer offers to accompany him on his upcoming perp walk out of the court house, but Nucky declines “that’s what guilty men do.”
Nucky’s perp-walk starts out poorly with a couple jokes that whiff, but he eventually gets the response and defiant sound-bite he wants “I’m going to put this business where it belongs: in the trash.”
Margaret begins her morning to whispers from the help about Nucky’s arrest. She sees the news in the paper and reacts stoically. She goes about her business ensuring that the children are properly attired and that the necessary preparations are made for a dinner they’re hosting that night with John McGarragle.
Margaret calls Kessler (Nucky’s comic German driver and personal assistant) who is fussing about Nucky’s office – which, the States Attorney officials are turning over for evidence. While there’s no denying Kessler’s loyalty, he’s a fuss-pot and a bit useless to Nucky on matters of importance. The comparison between Kessler and Margaret is night and day.
Margaret borrows her maid Katie’s coat, dresses to look pregnant and goes to Nucky’s office posing as a humble constituent in need of assistance. Her plain looks, drab attire and stellar imitation of a pitiable lady (an act she has some experience with) serve to allow her access to the facilities in Nucky’s office. There she manages to nab Nucky’s Ledger Book – a damning piece of evidence against him – and the twenty-thousand in cash that Nucky received in the season premiere.
When Owen Slater, the cheeky bodyguard for John McGarragle, shows up to ensure his leader’s safe visit at the Thompson residence – he mistakes Margaret for the help. Margaret certainly used to be the help, but now she’s the lady of the house, and so much more. Margaret may look simple to outsiders, but to her maids she’s domineering. When she helps one Katie clear the table after dinner and informs her that she used to be in a similar station, Katie can’t believe it exclaiming “I didn’t think you were like me!”
Margaret may look simple to outsiders, but the help’s interpretation of her is more on the mark. Margaret is a fearsome ally for Nucky, she’s astute and cunning. She is his ace in the hole. After the dinner with McGarragle – who proves himself to be a sober extremist, and terrible company – she gives Nucky some essential council. She insists on burning his ledger book, and she insists that he deal with the issue at hand intelligently. When he won’t say that his brother Eli has betrayed him – she insists: “you must be specific… you are smarter than your enemies and you will persevere, but you’re not thinking straight”. She also insists that he stop kidding himself, when he insists “I keep people satisfied – that’s all I do,” she forbid his delusion “they will not be satisfied, you know that already.”
The stage is now set for Nucky’s attempted comeback. Though he’s devoid of allies at the moment, and facing serious legal trouble – he’s younger than his opponents, as rich, possesses a high-quality consiglieri in Margaret Schroeder, and retains a smart lawyer. As the episode ends, we can be pretty confident that when Nucky comes face to face with destiny, it won’t be as a bear, it will be as yet another hunter with a shotgun.