Terrence Winter’s last show The Sopranos was, like many of the best mafia stories, centered around family. Even when there were far more interesting things going on, it never lost track of for instance what AJ was doing and the way it affected his father. In fact, that was one of the essential draws of the show: here’s in many ways a stereotypical American family (albeit one wealthier and crazier than most, but still) that just happens to be earning its living through the mafia. The mafia was in some sense a commentary about a certain type of family gone wrong.
Boardwalk Empire on the other hand, and in particular “21,” is largely concerned with the impossibility of the traditional family within its world, which may account for some of the show’s decreased draw. Rather than having an exaggerated nuclear family around to latch onto for empathy, all of its main characters have been struggling with that part of the American dream in one way or another since the show began.
“21” picks up pretty cleanly where the first season ended, so rather than recapping, it’s focused on putting the pieces in play for the rest of the season. Nucky is still with Margaret but he’s hardly ever around and in particular doesn’t have great communication with her son Teddy. When Teddy refuses to go to school he doesn’t know what to do and we’re not surprised, because while Margaret’s relationship with her son was one of her main draws for Nucky, he’s mostly just been interested in viewing it rather than partaking. Margaret challenges him to become an active father figure but even when he tries to take one step in the right direction by talking with the kid he also has to resort to bribing him into being good, treating Teddy like an associate rather than a son. Shortly afterwards his attempt to see a movie with them (a new Chaplin flick) is stopped in its tracks when he’s arrested at the end of the episode.
Jimmy Darmody was Nucky’s first surrogate son, but we saw how their relationship dwindled last season. Still, this is what Jimmy tries to emulate with his own son, but we’re shown nothing of what happens when they go hunting, instead underlining the strangeness between Jimmy and his own parents. He has a semi-incestuous relationship with his mother that creeps out his wife Angela, while he’s only now reconnected with his father in a relationship that we’re warned is almost certain to be “duplicitous.” All of this after Jimmy spent most of last season abandoning his family entirely.
Boardwalk Empire’s other lead, the prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, takes his wife to Atlantic City for their 13th anniversary but she’s offended by the city’s unchristian nature and decides that it’s better that they don’t raise a child in such a horrible world. When she leaves, Van Alden returns to his apartment, where professional mistress Lucy Danzinger is living while pregnant with his child (who we can be fairly certain he’ll do little to raise).
Emphasizing all of these stories of failed families is Richard Harrow, who observes Jimmy at home and cuts out pictures of idyllic families from catalogues and pastes them into a scrapbook. The irony is that he believes anyone else in Boardwalk Empire is raising a traditional family and envies them, when in fact he’s just part of the overriding trend.
While that’s the episode’s focus, there are also two other main events in “21”: the massacre of Chalky White’s workers and a deal between Al Capone and George Remus to fight against Nucky’s liquor empire. While the latter is just there to set up later episodes, Chalky’s events comprise most of the episode’s really memorable moments. The shooting itself is stunning in its brutality and the fallout from the firefight, while expected, is still affecting. My favorite part of the episode was the cutting of Nucky’s speech in response to the massacre, where we see how willing he is to tell everyone what they want to hear regardless of his own personal morals (whatever those might be).
It may be disappointing that even with a few extraordinary moments the episode as a whole was still just pretty good—especially for a season premiere, which really needs to grab viewers. While there was an interesting thematic throughline in “21”, as in a lot of Boardwalk Empire plots it often felt more like the characters were moving forward with events forward simply because that’s what happened in history rather than because of careful scripting.. The characters were interesting and the story was well-told, but it didn’t quite hook in the middle. Boarwalk Empire tends to make every scene compelling but it can still sag in the middle.
That being said, “21” ended on a cliffhanger which does give the show more forward momentum than it usually has, and hopefully that will help. It was also nice to see Boardwalk Empire doing something more interesting with Chalky, who always seemed like he would become a major character but then never ended up getting developed. There’s no guarantee that this opportunity won’t be squandered, but Boardwalk Empire is at its best when its being political, whether it’s commenting on civil rights or religion, and bringing the real KKK into things promises to do just that.
•Boardwalk Empire does love its montages.While it may be too reliant upon them, boy are they stunning.
•Best part of the opening montage: the Commodore sparring with a huge battle axe.
•“Is of Polish stock” – aah, the days when you couldn’t tell whether they were talking about people or cows.
•I really appreciated Capone’s annoyance with Reamis and his third person schtick. Wow is that an annoying personal tick, but a great way to build a character.
•Only four of Chalky’s people were killed? That looked a w hole lot bloodier than that to me.
•Finally we get an explanation as to why Van Alden’s so angry: Van Alden drinks cold butter milk.
•The KKK funeral is as creepy as it should be. The armbands are a nice touch, creating a visual assocation between them and Nazis.
•”I thought you didn’t believe in gifts” – now I just feel really bad for Mrs. Van Alden.
•The second best bit of editing in the episode was to the Van Alden’s bedroom. It may be an easy joke, but it still entertained me.
•”Sodom by the sea.”
•While the hunting statue may have sentimental value for Jimmy, it sure is ugly.