This post contains spoilers through the October 10 episode of Boardwalk Empire.
As a Boardwalk Empire newbie who’s shotgunning the series all at once, one of the things that stands out most about the show is its manneredness, its theatricality. Sometimes this works beautifully: Steve Buscemi’s very good at pulling off slight strangeness or outsizedness and making it seem natural, while Kelly Macdonald’s very good here precisely because she’s a bit of a neutral agent. She can do things like sneak into Nucky’s offices by pretending she’s a pregnant, itinerant Irish girl: she’s good at seeming invisible when it counts. But it doesn’t always work well, and last night’s episode focused on two characters where I think the mannerdness of the show doesn’t necessarily work very well: Lucy and Nelson.
I should make no bones of the fact that I think Paz de la Huerta isn’t a very good actress period, and in this role, she’s playing a character who is flighty and maybe doesn’t have much education or sense as if she’s stupid to the point of disgust. When she whines to Nelson that “I wanna go out…That neighbor lady stopped by the other day. She invited us for dinner…a simple dinner. Some conversation. Some music, for god’s sake…a Victrola…I used to be out every night in the week…Say what you want about Nucky, at least he was fun,” it’s hard not to feel anything but contempt for her. Has she managed to learn absolutely nothing about Nelson in the months he’s effectively kept her locked up in? Does she genuinely have no idea that there is precisely nothing in that whine that will move a man who, as he explains to her, without judgement of his parents, “was taken to a Christmas pageant by an aunt in 1894. When my parents found out, they broke off all relations.”
The thing is, there’s a really interesting story here about what it means to put someone through a forced pregnancy. We’ve got bits and pieces of it in the staging, the neglige Lucy wanders around the apartment in, an attempt to convince herself that she’s still sexy, but also a symbol of her depression: she can’t get out of her pajamas and pull herself together. There’s the moment when she contemplates throwing herself down the stairs as a means of either abortion or suicide. It wouldn’t make sense for her to do it, at least not at this point, of course. If Nelson’s going to have a realization that really rocks his worldview, that challenges his idea that “You’re carrying a child. That is a sacred trust from the Lord and a financial agreement between us,” (and makes him realize the contradictions of that sacred trust and financial agreement setup), he’s going to have like Lucy a little more, and come to value other things. One suspects the Victrola might be the chink in his armor, the thing that pushes him over into valuing fun, even a little, but we’ll have to wait and see.
While Nelson’s clinging to his worldview, Jimmy’s questioning his. He’s touched by the store Al tells him about his father, whose estate Al is planning to wrap up: “He was a barber. Had his own shop. Not like your father, but he did okay,” Al tells Jimmy. “Thought I’d be a barber, too.” Jimmy’s almost wistful when he tells his friend, “It’s an honest living,” and later, when he tells his mother, who is giving him a manicure in preparation for a big dinner with the Commodore, “Sometimes I think I’d be better suited to a simpler life.” And maybe that’s right. I like the bit the show does to parse the moral complication between Nucky’s treatment of Jimmy’s mother and the Commodore’s: Nucky may have procured her for the Commodore, but the Commodore pointed her out like a piece of meat, without ever even knowing her name. Getting such distinctions might have helped Jimmy make a decision about which side he wants to be on. But it may be too late.