It's 1920, and the passage of the Volstead Act signals the beginning of the Prohibition Era. But rather than go dry, Atlantic City, under the supervision of county treasurer/lord of the boardwalk fiefdom Nucky Thompson, raises a glass to the profitable rise of the bootlegger. Nucky is established as a sweet-talking and savvy politician. He snows the local temperance league with a bullshit story about killing wharf rats for food as a kid. But he spends most of his time lording over his town like a less-glowery Al Swearengen.
Nucky's also got his sweet side. He takes pity on destitute pregnant woman named Margaret, but when her husband finds the stack of cash Nucky floated her, he assumed she'd whored herself for it, and he slaps her around. The husband takes his grievance to Nucky, who busts him in the mouth, but cycles of violence being what they are, the husband only goes home and beats Margaret so bad she loses the baby.
Nucky holds a bootlegging summit of sorts with gangsters from New York (Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano) and Chicago (Johnny Torrio and Jim Colosimo), where he and Rothstein strike up a deal where Nucky will funnel some of his Canadian Club Rothstein's way, for a price. But Nucky sours some after Rothstein takes him for 90k at the card tables the next day. (That, plus the extreme shade Luciano is throwing every which way.) Which brings us to Jimmy.
Jimmy Darmody is a WWI hero back from the trenches who's struggling to re-integrate himself into his family (wife + toddler) and Nucky's power structure. During the Nucky/Rothstein/Luciano powwow, Jimmy bonds with a grunt-ish Al Capone, and they later hatch a plan to boost the booze from Rothstein's people (via a bloody back-roads heist). At the same time, Jimmy leads the Feds (who had been playing on his conscience and Catholicism to turn rat on Nucky) to the basement distillery of Micky, a jittery "bohunk" who'd previously pissed Jimmy off. Nucky gets tipped off to Jimmy's extracurricular activities, and when he confronts him, Jimmy lays it plain: WWI made him a murderer, and since he's going to hell anyway, he might as well get all he can here. He tells Nucky he can't go on being "half a gangster" and hands him his half of the money Capone gave him for the booze. Nucky didn't ask for it, but he's got it now.
Nucky seems to take the advice to heart, at least when he sends his people to beat Margaret's abusive husband to death and drop his corpse out in the ocean.
And after Capone brings the stolen whiskey back to his boss Torrio, Torrio has Colosimo -- who had been against going into the liquor business -- murdered in his own restaurant. Which was only the historical dawn of Al Capone's rise to power, but I suppose that's a little bit down the road.
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Previously on HBO: Terrence Winter and Steve Buscemi teamed up to send Christopher and Paulie Walnuts out to wait for Godot (and a Chechnyan) in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Previously in the universe: the American public's occasional tendency towards overreaction, demonization, and Christian self-righteousness manifested itself long before we even knew what mosques were, much less why we were supposed to be afraid of them. Back in 1920, it was the demon liquor that had everybody hysterical to preserve the public good. Now... look, I'm not going to pretend that my knowledge of the Prohibition era goes far beyond that one episode of The Simpsons, but I've got Google and Wikipedia at the ready, and if I miss the odd reference to the finer points of the era, I trust you'll use your most patient tone of e-mail to let me know.
Oh wait, but first there's some kind of production snafu where the opening credits have been replaced by the John From Cincinnati opening credits. No, sorry, I'm being sarcastic, these are the real BE credits, in all their anachronistic, twangy-guitar glory. I guess this is to keep us on our toes about not expecting the Same Old Story about the 1920s. Whatever it is, it's definitely too winky-clever, no matter how many ominous bottles of liquor litter the Jersey shoreline. Not the best way to kick the show off -- though (SPOILER!) it's the only real blight on the show all hour.
So after Joe Strummer tells us to stop killin' all the bees, we iris in on a man's watch (have I mentioned Martin Scorsese directed this episode? I'll probably be mentioning him whenever there's something fancy and directorly like that; or if "Layla" comes blaring out of a far-off phonograph). The man is on a boat pushing through some evening fog. A smaller boat comes motoring out of the darkness, and Cap'n Timepiece is impatient to unload his cargo to them. And in case the crates clearly marked "Canadian Club Whiskey" didn't tip you off, one of the enterprising men on the smaller boat remarks, "Liquid gold, Boyo." For, you see, bootleggin' were a profitable racket. An' the bootleggers were often sons of the Emerald Isle. The smaller boat putters off into the mist, and after it's disappeared, the camera rises above the fog to reveal a glittering waterfront and the words "Atlantic City, 1920." Marty, that was awful majestic, right there.
From the majestic, then, to the criminally mundane, as the bootleggers transfer their cargo from the boat to a truck. The three-car convoy makes their way down a dark road, past the odd deer and a sign welcoming them to "Hammonton, New Jersey, The Blueberry Capital of the World." In front of them a ways, there's an overturned car, with the driver lying motionless in front of it. The driver of the lead car is perturbed but tells his guys to slow down. They check on the fallen driver, who's got a bloody gash on his forehead but is otherwise breathing. The bootleggers -- all five of 'em -- put the guy's car upright and drag it (and the driver) off to the side of the road. No telling if these upstanding gents are just going to leave the guy there. We'll never know, as two masked men with shotguns emerge from the trees and tell the bootleggers to get their damn hands up, a full eighty years before Jay-Z would instruct boozy New Jerseyans to do the same. As you might suspect, the poor fallen driver is in on this ambush as well. The lead bootlegger seems more irritated than afraid. "You know who's fuckin' load this is?" he demands. The shorter, mookier of the two assailants retorts that it's "pretty obvious now, ain't it?" and cracks him in the face with the butt of his gun. At this closeup of his masked face, we get a freeze frame (Marty!) and a Thematically Appropriate Voiceover: