At its best, Boardwalk Empire feels like there are so many conspiracies and machinations going on that all of the cogs required to keep Atlantic City’s machine of vice running are out of control. Everyone has betrayed everyone else a couple of times and it’s unclear who’s really loyal to whom. When it’s bad it’s just setting up those cogs and watching them play out, slowly and meticulously. “Two Boats and a Lifeguard” was an oddity in that it featured both of these identities for the show, first moving so haltingly that it seemed to go on forever and then moving into unexpected territory just before it came to an end.
Part of this is because for much of the episode, not too much happens. After beginning with a dream sequence, “Two Boats” wants to see what Nucky’s reaction to the shooting is. Massive retaliation, perhaps? For once, though, Nucky seems undecided on what to do next. Between his legal problems and his control over Atlantic City slipping he needs to move carefully. In fact, the advice he receives from his old associate Rothstein is that his best move is probably just to stay put for a while. Likewise, Margaret asks him what it would take for him to leave the game entirely. He just nearly died, wouldn’t he prefer to retire?
It turns out that’s something he’s partially interested in, at least the part that means retiring from office. As part of the episode’s exciting conclusion he steps down from his position and also sets up a massive strike by the city’s black workforce. He also plans on traveling to Belfast to meet with Owen Slater’s associates with the IRA. It’s clear that his retirement by no means signals he’s leaving the game, just that he wants to see how his opponents deal with responsibility for a while.
Nucky uses his father’s death as an excuse to retire, but Jimmy doesn’t see through this and instead is convinced he’s been handed the city on a platter. Jimmy accidentally reveals his attempt on Nucky’s life to his wife Angela, and she disapproves, which sends her once again in search of another partner. This time she finds a girl on a beach who runs with a truly bohemian crowd, but like with last season this seems like it may not be headed anywhere. At the end of the episode, when Jimmy’s confident he has everything squared away, he throws one of his associates Doyle from the second floor right in the face of another’s (Manny) feet, setting up what’s certain to be a schism between them.
All things considered that’s a pretty light load for the show, and it’s because the first half moved so achingly slow that it felt like things were being padded out. That’s especially the case with Angela, because we’ve barely even seen her this season (and even when we did it was never particularly important). Other small events occurred, for instance Van Alden hiring a nanny and stashing away money for some unknown purpose, but particularly after last episode’s explosive conclusion it felt like things were dialed back too far. The show was continuing to build momentum for the last few weeks and then it just dropped off for a good 40 minutes here. It was a great ending, but most of what happened before that seemed inconsequential or, in some cases, only served to reemphasize things we already knew about characters.
•I, for one, could do with fewer dream sequences in HBO shows. To me they can’t help but feel derivative to The Sopranos, which I found pretty heavy-handed back then as well.
•What does Margaret do all day when the maids watch her children?
•I was pretty entertained by how egregiously awful Van Alden’s terms of employment were for his maid. Probably pretty standard for the era, though.
•The “I smell horseshit” comment from Rothstein is wonderful.
•The skirt Nazi is a really weird thing to have existed. I didn’t see a big difference between this new woman’s skirt length and Angela’s.
•The old 1920s handmade board game is gorgeous.
•“You’ve obviously forgotten key events from our childhood.” – Buscemi’s delivery there is wonderful. I’d like to see more of the smarmy Nucky we had in the first season. He’s less interesting when just scowling about town.
•The editing in the entire Eli/Nucky scene and afterwards is pretty awkward and has some bad jump cuts. What happened there?