While Boardwalk Empire’s first season was busy fleshing out Margaret, Nucky, Eli, Jimmy, and Van Alden, it also gave us two particularly fascinating characters who went for the most part unexplored: Chalky White and Richard Harrow. They were for the most part mysteries, major players in many of the events we’ve seen but their motivations never fully known. It would be an exaggeration to say that season two has been about delving into them, after all Nucky remains the show’s center with Jimmy becoming more and more his archenemy, but the best parts of the season so far have largely focused on them.
Last week’s episode on White finally brought the show out of low gear, and while Harrow’s story isn’t as immediately dramatic, it’s nonetheless some of the show’s best material. As the episode begins we see him suiting up with a knife and a gun, but as he wanders far and away from Atlantic City it’s increasingly clear that they’re only meant for himself. Harrow, so depressed at the prospect of never having the family he wishes for, has decided to kill himself. Moments before shooting his head off with a rifle, a dog interrupts and steels his mask, eventually leading him to a pair of hunters in the woods.
Like White’s story, Harrow’s is one of self-discovery. These were both men following orders without questioning why they were doing so, but with the second season they’ve gained self-consciousness about their actions. Harrow is no longer just a frightening assassin, he’s a person who we see questions Jimmy’s loyalty toward him. He’s willing to accept Jimmy as his family because of Jimmy’s word, but it’s clear that the moment Jimmy betrays him in some way Harrow won’t be so forgiving. For now, though, he shows his loyalty by killing one of the Yacht Club members who insulted Jimmy earlier.
There’s a nice contrast between the slow burn of Harrow’s story and the explosiveness that occurs in the rest of “Gimcrack and Bunkum.” Disappointed with both the Yacht Club and Jimmy, Eli returns to his brother in order to ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately for him, Nucky’s offer no longer stands, and the two begin fighting on the floor of Nucky’s villa. Before Eli overpowers his much small brother, Margaret arrives with a shotgun. After this he begins drinking in his workshop and, upon the arrival of an alderman involved with their conspiracy, kills him for learning that the Commodore is injured.
Because of Martin Scorsese’s work in developing Boardwalk Empire and its pilot, there’s always been the expectation that the show, at its best, could function like one of his movies. This is one of the few episodes that’s come somewhat close to that standard, because the contrast between chaotic violence and thoughtful meditation is part of his signature style. This made for an absolutely captivating episode which left me anxious for next week; the show feels like it’s starting to finally make good on what it’s promised at since the beginning. .
•”Atlantic City – a city for forgetting.”
•Jimmy: “I can’t play this game.” Nucky: “I don’t think you even know the rules.”
•Gretchen Mol goes from being amazing actress to terrible, almost within the same line reading. It’s hard to really account for what causes this.
•”Lay off your pontificating.” – I love the bickering couple in the woods. It felt a bit like we suddenly dropped into Deadwood.
•“I’m Brian.” “Sure, ok.”
•Boardwalk Empire has such an abiding love for facial wounds that I’ll be disappointed if there aren’t some dissertations written on the subject one day.