After a competent, scene-setting and occasionally flat-footed premiere that (quite understandably) felt the need to rearrange itself narratively and substantially change the playing field, this episode started to break new ground for the show, and was pretty impressive overall. As always, I was a little gutted to miss out on Harrow, who still seems the most emotionally relatable character in the show. He breaks my heart every time.
Anyway, this episode is largely concerned with Nucky, Chalky and Eli, and sets up just how little Nucky (and the show at large, it seems) wants to do with Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, who is increasingly being left with threadbare plots that take her far from the show’s thematic and dramatic core, a trend that has been going since the first time Margaret saved Nucky from the feds. What a waste.
Instead, Nucky has taken up with a cherub-faced singer in New York called Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle), who fills his quota of feeling young and carefree and allows him to pretend he could stay in her safe fantasy world forever while his sprawling criminal empire runs itself. Considering Micky Doyle remains inexplicably alive (good point Eli) and in a position of authority, this is not painting Nuck in a favourable light. Sure enough, he gives away far too much of his hand to the always-flawless Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), who notes his besottedness and calculates how to use it to his advantage via the visual aid of his impressive pool skills. Budding screenplaywrights take note: sports are a one-stop metaphor shop.
On the plus side for the Nuckyline, turns out Boardwalk Empire has decided that what it really needs is even more tremendous character actors, and plumps for Stephen Root’s southern gentleman schtick as the whimsically-monickered Gaston Means, who is the man to collect Nucky’s $40,000 bribe in a fishbowl in a hotel room in the middle of Manhattan. Metaphors, people. His scene is wonderful, and is clearly relishing the chance to give his mah stahs ah hayuv a cayse uh thuh vaypuhs a dangerous edge, and a rather dubious moral upper hand on the gang-tainted Thompson.
The Other Thompson (Shea Wigham) has had a pretty rough time in the clink by the looks of him, and emerges from prison thinner, paler, and with no friends but Micky Doyle. Rough times for Eli, but nowhere near as heartbreaking as returning joyfully to his family and finding his position as breadwinner aptly taken by his eldest son. Their exchange is distant, almost formal, and Eli’s attempt to show his gratitude awkwardly, barely accepted, more humoured than anything. His son is picked up for work by the foreman: a beautifully deployed detail that instantly conveys so much of how life has progressed without him.
Eli takes up Micky’s offer as hired muscle for their convey through Tabor Heights, only to find it preemptively struck by this season’s big bad, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), having a ball threatening all and sundry with a massive chip on his shoulder about his own perceived lack of education. In fairness, it does seem like everyone in town has had a sudden attack of obviousitis in his presence, which jars slightly and makes him eventually – in the scene with the waitress and the eponymous spaghetti – seem almost reasonable. Anyhoo, he has paid the cops more than Nucky did, and gives a wonderful performance of emptying the petrol right in front of Owen Sleater (who incidentally, is still giving a better Ulster accent than James Nesbitt ever did). In a neat turn that promises a lot for the future of Nucky’s underlings, it’s Eli that Sleater turns to for battle strategy rather than Doyle. Kind of amazing what twenty minutes of exposition can do for a previously reprehensible character. Just imagine what they could do with Margaret if they cared to follow through on all the promise she had by the end of season one. Seriously, last week’s windswept-watching-Amelia-Earhart’s-first-uncertain-flight-cross-America-SYMBOL-SYMBOL ending felt tacked-on and hollow considering the substance of the episode.
Finally, probably the best work in this week’s show came from Chalky’s thread concerning his ongoing difficulties relating to his own family and the changes he’s experienced since gaining his position of power. After an exchange with Maybelle’s doctor-suitor that was so unusually tender and generous (both for Chalky and the show as a whole) that tragedy could only be round the corner, we get a little insight to his progressive thinking, jazz- and poetry-loving kids, and Maybelle’s understandable desire to marry for love and romance over the somewhat dutiful Samuel. Later in Chalky’s speakeasy she struggles to get him to drink as he struggles to come to terms with her lack of interest in him. As if to prove that going a good thirty minutes without anyone being graphically injured didn’t mean the show was going all soft on us, Sam’s polite request for a dancer to stop barging his table gets him a sliced cheek. Dunn Pernsley gives the man a sound beating, and instead of walking away to be treated himself, Sam goes to treat his assailant’s wounds. Chalky’s words to his daughter, “am I interesting now?” are pointed and feel cruel to a character who has only committed the crime of being hopeful, intuitive and emotionally secure in Boardwalk Empire. Atlantic City and Westeros are not so very far apart.
So a really sound episode that only occasionally tries to force its hand, although I don’t relish the idea of jumping back into the nuts and bolts and flowershops of gangsterism in Chicago or Gillian’s brothel. BE‘s broad canvas is its massive strength and is commendably detailed, but some deep thinking about where exactly its heart is would go a long long way. Nucky is unsympathetic in his personal relationships without carrying the gangster authority or sheer streetsmarts of his rivals, and I can’t help being nostalgic for the freewheeling snake oil merchant of season one. Is Nucky the next Tony Soprano or the first among equals in a great ensemble? As it is, things are still looking up for the remaining ten episodes, and BE remains a top quality period drama production.