Review by Mike Dennis
The hijacking of a truckload of bootleg liquor bound for New York is so far proving to be the central event in this unfolding HBO series.
Johnny Torrio has the booze now, over Big Jim Colosimo’s dead body. Now that he’s running the Chicago mob, with Al Capone lurking in the wings, bootlegging has clearly moved to the forefront of Chicago’s agenda, as episode 2 kicks off with Big Jim’s extravagant funeral.
Meanwhile, back in Atlantic City, things are heating up as a result of the hijacking. Arnold Rothstein, who had purchased the whiskey from Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), is holding Nucky responsible for the entire load. He’s demanding $100,000 for the lost liquor and his personal inconvenience. Michael Stuhlbarg’s careful performance gives Rothstein a chilling presence, and when Nucky rudely refuses his demand for the hundred grand, you know Rothstein isn’t going to go quietly into the night.
In addition, Nucky himself has drifted into the sights of the Feds’ new Prohibition enforcement unit. Agent Nelson Van Alden realizes that while Rothstein may oversee a criminal empire in New York, Nucky, as the primary source of liquor distribution in the country, is the much bigger target. Not only that, his tentacles reach into every corner of Atlantic City life. Every business, every government employee, every illegal activity sends him regular envelopes.
Another consequence of the booze heist is the life lesson learned by Jimmy Darmody, Nucky’s driver. Jimmy planned the heist with Capone and gave Nucky a cut, but Nucky informs him that he was $3000 light. Not only that, Nucky fires him and gives him 48 hours to come up with the money. Jimmy’s spent most of it already, so what’s he to do?
One thing’s for certain. He’s a gangster now.
This episode (like the premiere) was penned by series creator Terence Winter and directed in fine style by Tim Van Patten, along with Winter, another former Sopranos warhorse. The look remains lavish (they even added quick glimpses of the New York and Chicago of 1920) and the tight script further developed the plotline.
But mostly, the characterizations deepened. Agent Van Alden (a perfectly-cast Michael Shannon) shows us a rare flickering of humanity as he writes a letter to his wife, while clutching a hair ribbon he stole from Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald).
Jimmy Darmody’s wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) is beginning to catch on, as she sees him spend money he previously never had. There’s going to be trouble brewing in that household before too long.
Veteran actress Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page, Rounders) makes a slam-bang appearance as Jimmy’s mother, of all things. Mol’s bio lists her age as 38, but she clearly looks younger in this role, meaning her character of Gillian would’ve likely had Jimmy as an early teenager. Here, she’s a showgirl in one of the big Boardwalk productions. We’ll see where Winter & Co take her character.
There’s what looks like a couple of throwaway characters in this episode. A traveling salesman, and acquaintance of Nucky’s, has picked up a girl in Baltimore and brought her to Atlantic City for a good time. They seemed to have no connection to the story arc, although maybe they’ll make sense later on in the season. I’m hoping that Winter won’t allow any more such characters to taint his series.
Dabney Coleman can do no wrong in my book. And here, he’s perfect as the Commodore, the guy who ran Atlantic City before Nucky’s rise to power. Nucky still checks in with him from time to time, kicking up his cut of the action to him. One brief camera shot pans over the entire room where the Commodore sits petting his dog, and the detail is breathtaking. Big kudos to the art direction and set designer teams.
As this outstanding series progresses, look for the texture of the characters to thicken as they grow with the unfolding events in this turbulent era of American history.