This post contains spoilers through the October 2 episode of Boardwalk Empire.
This week’s episode was all about the gap between how people see themselves and how others see them — and when people decide to bridge the gap. Jimmy, Margaret, and Nucky all got understimated tonight. But only one of them made full strategic use of that misunderstanding.
First, Jimmy approaches Arnold Rothstein on behalf of the Commodore to try to cut Nucky out of the liquor business. “Don’t even pretend you’re inclined to be warm towards me. I wouldn’t insult you like that,” Jimmy tells him. “I have great respect for you. Your wisdom. Your achievements.” But instead of responding to the proposal, Arnold assesses Jimmy himself. “You’re better-spoken that I expected…You show up well-dressed, with a silk cravat and a proposal. A year ago you were a brigand in the woods.” Jimmy gives him the most anodyne version of his biography, telling the gangster that “I’m a businessman. A veteran. I just got married. I have a son. He’s four years old.” His smoothness gets him through the meeting and a promise not to be ratted out, but not a deal. And later, it gets him into a discussion of joining the heroin trade, into and out of a card game, and finally, in a cemetery at midnight, surviving a frisking long enough to kill both men. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be discovered, that his lethality will be, if not a matter of public record, a more broadly-known piece of knowledge than it was previously, which may or may not be to his long-term advantage.
Chalky goes through a similar process when, after his wife visits him in prison, a fellow black inmate begins to harass him. Before that, he’s underestimated by Nucky, who assumes he doesn’t know the meaning of the word precarious. When he’s moved into the man’s cell (“Can’t be mixture of the races,” the warden says, apologetically.), the man beings needling him, first asking Chalky what the name of the book his son sent him is (it’s David Copperfield, but Chalky says it’s Tom Sawyer, revealing he can’t read), then trying to bait him into admitting his illiteracy by asking him what a line says. “That say get your finger out of my face,” Chalky sticks stubbornly to his story. And finally his cellmate pushes Chalky too far. “Bright-skinned bitch you strut around with. The uppity way you try to tell the world you better,” Don complains, “when all you be is another jigaboo in a jail cell.”
I said last week that it’s fascinating to see Michael K. Williams play a character who has Omar Little’s steel but the responsibility of a constituency (and also, not his sense of humor). What happens after his unwanted companion’s final insult struck me as the perfect evidence of that theory. Quietly, Chalky reaffirms his connections to every man in that cell except his harasser, and without having to tell them to do it, watches as they take him out. And once he’s silenced, bleeding out on the cell floor, Chalky can stop pretending, not simply to be unperturbed, but to be more than he is. “Which one of you boys knows letters?” he asks, and one of them stand forth to read: “David Copperfield. By Charles Dickens. Chapter 1. I am born. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anyone else…” I wish the episode had concluded on that powerful, ambiguous note, Dickens’ words resonating across the screen to unite us with Chalky in a powerful uncertainty.
That said, I thought Margaret’s arc was the best of the episode, as she confounded everyone around her, preserving her advantages by letting only Nucky know the extent of her skill. She begins with the maids, inquiring about the weather with absolute calm when they expect she’ll be in hysterics over Nucky’s arrest, as are they. “Emily must wear her Union suit, and Ted will put on his heaviest socks,” she declares. Then, she borrows one of the maids’ coats and marches off to Nucky’s office in the guise of a poor woman seeking aid from a great man, and in an utterly hilarious and understated performance, gains entry to his rooms. “You read the papers, m’am?” ask the agents searching Nucky’s office. “On Sunday, after the neighbors are done with it,” she says, adorably innocent and entirely false. “I was told, you see, that I could come here and Mr. Thompson would aid me. I have two wee ones…I walked here from Bloomdale Park.” If she teamed up with Trixie from Deadwood, they would have a serious bid at an Atlantic City takeover.
Margaret takes a different tack with a handsome visitor to her house, scouting it before dinner with an Irish independence fighter, who mistakes her for a servant and calls her a “good Colleen,” before learning of his error and admitting, “It’s suddenly rather dark down here in the hole I’ve dug for myself.” “We’re not given to threatening our guests,” Margaret says, skeptical of his mission. “You do have the hammer,” he flirts. It’s interesting seeing a man who’s underestimated her appreciate her worth, even as his boss remarks sourly that Margaret is “plain-spoken, for a woman.” When the revolutionary explains that his security expert wants to stay behind, it’s hard to imagine that Margaret isn’t one of the incentives. But she’s still loyal to Nucky, explaining that his roses weren’t a surprise, but she has one of his own — the account books he thought were taken, and a plan for how not to leave such troubling things lying around in the future. “Were you in service?” one of the maids asks Margaret during the evening. “Do I look that grand?” Margaret asks back. “I just didn’t think you were like me,” her employee asks. But Margaret doesn’t confirm or deny it. Sometime, it’s good to hold back some secrets.