HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” returned for its second season a few weeks ago, and while I was glad to see it again, it seemed at first like it just wouldn’t take off. While we were treated to loads of exposition, the character touches that made the first season so memorable were for the most part just not there. Yes, there were great scenes: nearly every moment with Chalky White (Michael K. Williams, demonstrating once again that “The Wire”s Omar is not his only iconic role), especially his tension-filled encounter with Dunn Purnsley in the jail house.
But last night’s Episode 4, “What Does the Bee Do?” reminded us that the show’s emotional heart resides in a character we haven’t seen much of this season: Angela Darmody, Jimmy’s wife, superbly played by Aleksa Palladino.
Angela and Jimmy’s marriage came as a surprise in Episode 1–last season it was strictly common law, Angela giving birth to a son while Jimmy was in France during the Great War. It was clear these two knew little if anything about each other when he returned home, and suffice it to say, he’s got mommy issues like nobody’s business. His mother, played by Gretchen Mol, is a showgirl only 13 years his senior, having gotten pregnant as the result of being raped by the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), a key Atlantic City power player. Whenever mother and son are on screen together, there’s more than a faint wisp of incest in the air–she kisses him on the mouth, he steals jewelry for her and tells her things he’d never confide to Angela. Definitely twisted.
Angela is a complex character. She’s an artist, and while Jimmy was away with the A.E.F., she had an affair with Mary, a boardwalk photographer’s wife. We saw the relationship continue during Season 1, culminating in their attempt to run away together with Angela’s son to Paris. It fell through when Mary, leaned on by her emotionally manipulative husband, bailed out. During the first three episodes of this season, we’ve seen little of Angela, but enough to know that Jimmy is still shutting her out and relying on his mother, who’s serving as his cheerleader to take over Atlantic City.
Last night’s episode became a game changer when Angela asked Richard Harrow, Jimmy’s sharpshooter and right-hand man, to pose for her. Richard, another Great War veteran, literally lost half his face in combat and wears a mask and fake glasses to cover the damage (this type of appliance is historically accurate, by the way).
Their scenes together were by turns lovely, revealing and bittersweet. At first Richard sits stiffly while Angela sketches, but she succeeds at something that no one else has managed to do–she not only draws the man, she draws him out. Although he’s the most charismatic character on the show, Richard is also the most isolated. Yet Angela gets him talking about his twin sister from whom he’s estranged, due to his emotional trauma. And then he takes off his mask and glasses and lets Angela see him for what he is. It’s an arresting moment, and there’s a bit of a tickle in the gender reversal–here it’s the man who disrobes while the woman appraises. Jack Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Anjelica) and Aleksa Palladino played this brilliantly, and her compassionate gaze and silent reach for another sheet of paper to begin anew were so right.
Amidst all the skullduggery, bootleg booze, stealing (Margaret, it’s not smart to skim from the help, especially when they know your secrets), throat-cutting and warehouse blowing-up, Angela is different. She lives from the heart, and I fully expect her to fall in love with Richard, who’s obviously there already (As an added hint, there’s mandolin music playing on the Victrola while she draws him, reminiscent of her love scene with Mary, which was accompanied in the same fashion by Jerome Kern’s “They Wouldn’t Believe Me.” In contrast, the Victrola is silent when she and Jimmy make love). Labels don’t seem to matter to her–she loves whom she loves, regardless of gender. While there’s a strong connection with Jimmy, I don’t think she’s in love with him–she knows Mom has first claim. Three weeks ago Richard asked Jimmy “How does it feel to have everything?” I think by the end of this season, Jimmy will have lost it all.