Boardwalk Empire Review: "Battle of the Century" (2.9)
I’ve mentioned before in these reviews that one of my favorite things about Boardwalk Empire is the show’s incredible scope, and that was truer than ever with “Battle of the Century.” By taking on historical characters as larger-than-life as Al Capone, we’ve long known the show would be attempting to dive into kingmaking across the nation, but this is the first time we’ve seen the way Atlantic City’s bootlegging wars affect international problems. When the show first began we were dealing with Atlantic City, which soon expanded to New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The gradual expansion, now to Belfast, has helped make the show into a real epic. The Sopranos was the story of a single, somewhat unimportant crime boss. Boardwalk Empire is trying more, making its successes grander and its disappointments equally large as well.
Nucky’s visit to Belfast doesn’t go as smoothly as planned because their contact there, John McGarrigle, is looking to end their war against Britain due to the recent death of his son. This looks to put a large cramp in Nucky’s plans, because without Ireland he seems to be out of options. Fortunately for him, the rest of the IRA don’t agree with McGarrigle and in a stunning scene at the end of the episode McGarrigle is killed and the new leadership of the IRA makes a deal trading guns for whiskey. This may end up being a Faustian bargain for Nucky, though, given the way we’ve seen the IRA deals with those they find lacking. Owen Sleater has shown before that he’s still a loyal member of the group (his dialogue with McGarrigle only served to prove that he’s not a peacemaker, not that he’s left the cause) and he always has constant access to Nucky.
Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Jimmy is left maneuvering as the de facto boss of a city despite having no money to fund his operations. He wants to end his dealing with Manny Horvitz, so he turns to Waxy Gordon and betrays his old ally. Gordon sends a hitman against Horvitz who fails miserably. Jimmy also reaches out to the still-annoying George Remus, who agrees to fund liquor despite his reservations about dealing with people who run their operation out of a house.
Outside of the major players we also have a lot going on elsewhere. Margaret’s daughter Emily has contracted polio, which is likely to be fatal. The investigation into Nucky is continuing at a steady pace, although now the two federal investigators are sleeping together. And in Atlantic City Nucky’s father receives his actual funeral, surrounded by Eli and his large family.
Much more important to keeping the plot moving foward, though, is the beginning of the black workers’ general strike in Atlantic City. I was of two minds about this part of the episode. The actual sequences themselves were extremely well-directed, keeping with an episode that had numerous parts that were above the usual standard even for an HBO show (the attempted assassination of Manny and the successful assassination of McGarrigle were both spectacular). That being said, the way Boardwalk Empire involved Chalky was less than inspiring. He apparently hasn’t left his shed since we last saw him and, rather than involving himself directly in the striking, he’s simply telling someone else to do it. This seems like a particularly strange position since for once it doesn’t matter if he’s seen leading the strike, given that his ally prefers him doing so. While this will keep him away from violence, that’s never seemed like something Chalky was particularly interested in, to the point that I assumed he’d want to be the first one protesting his people’s oppressors, so this seems out of character… but then, we so rarely get to see him that it’s hard to say fully what his character is.
This strike was also an important part of the episode because it drove home what “Battle of the Century” is about. While the show has gone out of its way to feature this boxing match and aligning the winner Jack Dempsey, this has little to do with the rest of the episode and more, I suspect, with the overarching story of Boardwalk Empire. In fact the episode is largely about the relationship between workers and their bosses, something the show’s long been interested in but has rarely featured so much. The murder in Ireland is another case in which the underlings have gone against their superior, and the relationship between Owen and Nucky remains tense. Jimmy back in Atlantic City is the new king, but the question is the king of what? This is a show in which kings are constantly being deposed and workers are starting to understand that they have rights, too. Jimmy’s constant betrayal of those who work for him seems like it’s bound to catch up to him later, if not sooner.
•“They have cookie jars here, right?” – Well no, not really. Now that you mention it, Nucky, they don’t have cookies at all, they have biscuits.
•Doyle sure talks back a lot still considering the way he nearly died for being so annoying.
•Why do they bring in the Gabby’s brother in to see her when she’s paralyzed?
•Umm… so when exactly did Jimmy make fun of Richard? I don’t remember that. I kind of enjoy the way Nucky has Sleater and Jimmy has Harrow, such that neither man can trust their bodyguard.
•Instead of burning the toys, couldn’t they put all of them into the polio ward in order to make it less horrible for the children there?
•I enjoy how impossible it is interrogating the world’s stupidest deputy.
•“Looks to me like it came out the wrong end of a mule.”
•It may seem weird to you that the show only showed a broadcast of the Dempsey bought, but that’s another instance of the show landmarking and event: that fight was the first national radio broadcast of a boxing fight. Also, I just appreciate the visual of a large group of people gathered together to listen to a radio broadcast.