It took three whole hours of television to get there, but finally season two of Boardwalk Empire has had an episode that was good with no qualifications needed. That’s also not an absolutely terrible thing, either. Both The Sopranos and The Wire had stretches in which several episodes in a row were devoted to setting up future action and were in and of themselves disappointing. It’s just that the eventual pay-offs for patiently waiting while the shows’ characters got into place were so good that it was worth it. Is Boardwalk Empire the same way? Only intermittently so far, but “What Does the Bee Do” does help justify some of what we’ve seen previously.
Part of this came from getting one of the less interesting characters in the show out of the way (and, likewise, completely leaving Paz de la Huerta’s Lucy Danzinger offscreen). The episode begins and ends with the Commodore and Gillian Darmondy, and while the second of these scenes is more memorable, it’s the first that has huge implications for the rest of the show. While Gillian gives him a striptease, the Commodore has a stroke, leaving him almost completely unable to talk and for all intents and purposes killing him as far as the conspiracy against Nucky is concerned. His contacts, assurances, and financial backing are now all gone, leaving Eli and Jimmy to fend for themselves. Suddenly Nucky’s prospects don’t look so bleak after all.
Likewise, Nucky and his lawyer figure that they can wrap his election rigging charges into a national case because the prostitutes he used to buy voters were from Philadelphia. This means that he should (though its still-unconfirmed status may mean something) be able to get the entire mess pardoned on a federal level. At the same time, his new hitman Owen Sleater has been effective in keeping Nucky’s rivals from unloading their liquor and he’s made a new deal with Arnold Rothstein to transport liquor through Philadelphia. While Jimmy has made his own deal with a butcher/mob boss, Rothstein seems like more of a heavyweight here.
A lot of what made the episode work so well, though, was because aside from some interesting developments with the show’s leads, there was a lot of time spent focusing on its more interesting supporting characters. Richard Harrow, who usually just appears, says a few cryptic lines, and leaves was instead given time to tell his backstory. It wasn’t quite as unique or compelling as would be hoped, but it left him as threatening as ever. Gillian Darmody usually has little to do but play-up her semi-incestuous affection for her son, but her two scenes made an indelible impression and illustrate that she’s willing to even have sex with the man she hates more than anyone else in the world if it will help out Jimmy. Likewise, Rothstein showed new found vulnerability in his negotiations with Nucky and Luciano.
Best of all, though, was Chalky White’s subplot. He has a meeting with the community to air grievances, but this goes awry when all anyone wants is revenge for the KKK’s murders. Chalky finds himself unable to find his own place in the world, eventually lashing out at his family because he can’t resolve his inner conflict as to whether he should sit still and wait for Nucky, or if he should do what he feels is right and go after the murderers himself. While “What Does the Bee Do” doesn’t show us what he’s decided on for his next move, it answers the question of whether he’ll sit this one out by showing him leave behind the manners of his house to go whittle in his shed—the murderers had better watch their backs.
With all of that and an explosion, the show stops spinning its wheels and suddenly moves into interesting territory. “What Does the Bee Do” managed to be both spectacular on a scene-by-scene level and drew some interesting connections between the different storylines. The episode’s motif of half-faces drew parallels between the characters that weren’t immediately obvious, finally making use of the literary nature of the show’s writing the way it should. We also saw relationships that seemed fairly solid finally beginning to crackle under the pressure of so many sordid deals. Boardwalk Empire needs to stay somewhat out-of-control or it gets waded down by endless planning, and this was an episode where careful plans were finally going awry in unexpected ways.
•Gillian’s first and last scenes this week were both stunning, but in general there were as many memorable moments in this week’s episode as the last three combined.
•Chalky’s family dynamics aren’t particularly realistic, I have to admit. The unlikelihood of it taking him this long to question his lifestyle seems impossible, as do some of the family’s dynamics. But I don’t watch a show like Boardwalk Empire for realism, and the drama and feelings were real even if the situation wasn’t.
•”Cockfucker.” – I suppose when you can only make out one word a minute, you have to really make it count.
•More profanity: “Van Asshole.” It’s not creative, but I still like it.
•Sharpening knives while doing negotiations is clearly the best way to get your point across.
•”My icebox is filled with pieces of guys who tried to fuck me over.”
•So Jack Dempsey is randomly there? You know what, why not?
•”I called your boarding house five times last night.” “That seems excessive.”
•Of course Richard Harrow has a twin.
•I would be happier if the show would decide whether or not Margaret cares about Nucky’s illegal activities rather than switching it every week. Every case Margaret goes back and forth
•Chalky, it turns out, is a terrible whittler.