This week’s instalment of Boardwalk Empire brought us a heaping portion of the old ultra-violence that we so cherish. It’s Veteran’s Day in Atlantic City, a city “built to help people forget” says Nucky in his speech to the throngs gathered to commemorate the occassion, “but today is for remembering.” Is it ever. Nothing in this episode seems to be forgotten or forgiven – every past slight is remembered and every debt paid for.
The ceremony itself goes off without a hitch, Nucky pays tribute to his nemesis, the Commodore, who is incapacitated by his stroke and unable to attend the festivities. Nucky then calls Jimmy to the podium, to Jimmy’s surprise. It’s a challenge, and one that Jimmy handles ably despite his shaky nerves. “You think I don’t know how to play this game?” Jimmy asks his ‘father’, “I don’t even think you know the rules.”
But Jimmy does know the rules, he downplays his own acts of heroism, captures the ghastliness of the war, and pays tribute to the reasons for the soldier’s sacrifice: mothers, son, wives and America.” It’s not the first time we’ve seen Jimmy demonstrate his political savvy (I’m thinking of his conversation with Rothstein a few weeks back), but it’s the first time Nucky has; as the look on his face, and his continued obsession with Jimmy in the country club dressing room reveals.
With the Commodore in a vegetative state, Jimmy has assumed control over the “political coup” against Nucky, but his financial backers, Eli and the Ward Bosses are skeptical about the young buck’s leadership. In a meeting with the old men, including the guy with the facial hair (who I only this episode realized is played by Dominic Chianese, famous for his portrayal of Uncle June in The Sopranos), they appear to be very worried about their investment. “You’re trying to diddle the wrong men,” they tell him when he won’t own up to the Commodore’s ailment.
Jackson Parkhurst is the financial backer who is the most hostile towards Jimmy. A veteran of the wars against the Sioux, he brags of his exploits to the group, who have clearly heard every word a million times. He also boasts of his war profiteering, something not likely to endear him to a veteran like Darmody.
When Jimmy grows tired of the threats and whining from the old men, he points out that they don’t scare him, quipping, “oh yeah, you’re going to throw me out of your yacht club?” Parkhurst responds by striking Jimmy across the face with his cane and admonishing his lack of “respect.” Jimmy withdraws with a panicked Eli, who Jimmy doesn’t even attempt to pacify. It seems as if the coup leaders are fragmenting in a hurry…
The icky relationship between Jimmy and his mother Gillian is re-visited again shortly thereafter. It’s been clear that the incestuous undertones of their relationship would be a major theme of the season since Gillian told Jimmy’s wife about how she used to kiss baby Jimmy’s “winky” while changing him (I’m still not over that quote). In this scene Gillian cleans her son’s injury, dotes on him, touches his face in a way that makes me squirm, and advises Jimmy that he’s not to be “disrespected” and he has to “make that clear.”
In effect, Gillian has indirectly ordered the murder of Jackson Parkhurst (a man she probably used to dance for, and perhaps service), and is now in effect the “real leader” of the coup. In contrast to Gillian and Jimmy’s all encompassing openness, in a scene later in the episode, Jimmy tells his wife that he hurt his head on a car door. She is, as she suspects, not the main woman in Jimmy’s life.
On Nucky’s return from golfing with the Attorney General, he is greeted by Margaret whose first line to her husband is, “where’s Owen?!” She is worried, of course, because Eli has come to visit and she knows what that could (and does) lead to, but it also provides some fuel for fire for those viewers who believe that Margaret has something of a crush on the sexually explosive Irishman.
Eli reveals that the Commodore is “out of the game”, and that he “knows who is going to testify” against his brother. None of this information is valuable to Nucky, who has “just played golf with the Attorney General of the United States,” but Eli nonetheless pleads for forgiveness. Instead, Nucky calls him a “scared child,” and requires his brother to “kiss my fucking shoes you piece of shit” which Eli can’t abide. A fist fight ensues and Eli probably would’ve murdered Nucky then and there had Margaret not come along with an unloaded rifle and broken up the fisticuffs.
Eli’s utility may be realized yet, as we see from Nucky’s conversation with the Attorney General later that evening that the AG can’t make any guarantees about their plan to have the charges against Nucky dropped. The Attorney General presents a prosecutor, a flamboyant fellow named Chip, and once the deal is done, they expect to be entertained. Nucky sends in his girls, but his face is resentful throughout, and one suspects that the role of “pimp” is not one Nucky particularly cherishes.
The action then cuts to brother Eli, who is proper wasted and fixing something or other with one of his many children. “Your pops can fix anything”, he assures the youngster, not quite believing his own words as he takes a massive glug from his flask. When he is visited by one of the Ward Bosses named George, he is agitated, cornered and drunk.
George suspects that something is afoot with the Commodore and demands to go see him. Eli tries to protect the status of the Commodore, but he’s drunk and not particularly savvy, and gives the game up. He then freaks out and hits George in the neck with a wrench, which, he clearly didn’t wholly intend to do. Once it’s apparent that George is going to die, however, Eli viciously (and graphically) beats in George’s face with the wrench. Great stuff.
Now let’s get to the major side plot of the episode – Richard Harrow’s walk in the woods. Harrow skips the Veteran’s Day parade, and our fist glimpse at him occurs while Jimmy is reading the names of the fallen veterans of Atlantic City. A few names continue to be read off while the visual transfers to Harrow, himself “among the fallen” despite the fact that he technically “lives on.”
Harrow leaves his flat and his collage book of idyllic domestic settings and goes out to the Jersey Bush about 30 miles outside of Atlantic City. He has his gun ostensibly to go hunting, but in reality, Harrow considers himself “dead inside,” and is looking to formally end it all.
Harrow finds a suitable log, removes his prosthetic face and begins a last meal of brie and apples. We’ve heard Jimmy tell Richard not to be embarrassed to eat in front of his family before, and seeing this “last meal” we finally know why. Merely taking a drink from a flask looks painful and laborious for Harrow.
Richard lies back, puts his rifle in his mouth and looks at the grey sky, he is about to end when a dog approaches, growls at him and steals his prosthetic. It is striking that Richard, who was considering ending it all then and there would be so upset about the loss of his fake half face, which, presumably he’d have little need for once he blew the rest of his face off. Instead, Richard chases after the dog (his deux ex machina object) while yelling: “I need that mask!”
Richard eventually comes upon the dog’s owners, a couple of bush-men named Glenmore and Pete who hunt “tree rat” (squirrel) and drink extremely strong homemade liquor, which, they share with Richard once he confirms he’s not a revenue agent. They talk about flying horses that they’ve seen in Atlantic city, and Glenmore admonishes Pete for going home to spend the night as opposed to roughing it, “you’re getting soft.”
Eventually the talk turns to the dog, who Glenmore refers to as “an old soldier, he just keeps on fighting,” This interests Harrow who asks Glenmore “what is he fighting for?” The response: “you’ll have to ask him.” Glenmore gives Richard a speech about “what these woods is for,” and apparently the woods are not for “foolishness” but instead “they’re for living,” and Richard, now saved, goes on his way to rendezvous with Jimmy.
Jimmy and Richard’s conversation is the proper end to Richard’s soul-searching subplot. “Where were you today?” Jimmy asks. “Went for a walk”, Harrow responds. “I should have gone with you” says Jimmy. At the end of the day, Jimmy’s affection for Harrow isn’t an act, it’s very real. In contrast to Jimmy’s regard for Eli, whom he wouldn’t so much as offer a word of reassurance to earlier in the episode, Jimmy brushes Richard’s face when Richard asks him, “Would you fight for me?” The answer: “Down to the last bullet.”
So they go to work, which, tonight at least involves scalping Mr. Parkhurst. When Parkhurst sees Richard he asks him, “who are you?” Harrows response: “a soldier.” And so his emotional arc is complete, Harrow has come to terms with who he is, he may never have the idyllic domestic life he craves, but he’s not wholly “dead inside”, rather, he’s “an old soldier who just keeps on fighting.” By the way, how hard was that scalping to watch? I’d venture so far as to say that it was a more brutal scalping than anything the Basterds got up to. When you beat Tarantino for gruesomeness, and you’re a cable series, you’re doing something right.
Parkhurst’s screams echo the maid, Katie’s screams. Except she isn’t getting scalped, she’s just getting freaky with Mr. Sleator in the maids quarters at Nucky’s place. They wake Margaret, who checks on the children before encountering her promiscuous, well endowed maid. She asks Katie if she heard anything, but Katie plays the innocent, though the look on Margaret’s face makes plain that she knows what’s up, and she is probably pretty jealous.
The episode closes with a wickedly stark shot of Eli burying George against the edge of a cornfield, illuminated by the lights of his car.