“Why does it always have to be pandemonium?”
Last night’s “The Good Listener” demonstrated, much more than the premiere, just how many plates BOARDWALK EMPIRE is attempting to spin in its final episodes. This week, the scope of the season widens considerably, and what started out as an ostensibly simple and well-planted conflict between Meyer Lansky and Nucky reveals itself to be built on a foundation of double- and triple-crosses. In retrospect, last week’s premiere was much more an introduction to this season’s themes, especially in terms of Nucky’s flashbacks. Though the show often alluded to major events in Nucky’s past, it is now explicitly demonstrating how Nucky came to be the man he is at the start of the series. This week’s episode catches up with almost everyone else that was left out of the premiere, and the show finds many of the secondary characters much worse for the wear.
“The Good Listener” brings several additional antagonists for this season into the fold, one of whom had a strong presence in the show last season. Eli’s son/Nucky’s nephew Willie has, in the interim seven years, received his Bachelor’s and legal degrees and is pursuing a position with the United States Attorney. Willie plays it straight-and-narrow in his interview, and is reluctant to admit his association with his uncle. Before he is dismissed for the sins of his father(figure), he delivers an impassioned speech about wanting to make something of himself. It seems to work, and the next time we see Willie, he is having lunch with Nucky and reporting back the details of the interview (with one notable exception: his professed willingness to turn his uncle in). Whether or not Willie is actually working for Nucky or intends to make good on his word in the interview remains unclear.
Nucky isn’t the only one with a possible rat in his nest. When we check back in with Al Capone, he is yucking it up with a room full of yes-men and getting a write-up in Variety. One supposed crony by the name of Mike D’Angelo has the misfortune of delivering some bad news to Al: one of his stash houses has been raided by the Feds. This particular warehouse is currently being supervised by George Mueller (formerly Agent Van Alden, but we’ll call him by his new name) and Eli Thompson. These two are my new favorite pairing on the show, but more on that later. By the end of the episode, we see that D’Angelo actually works for the famous Eliot Ness, who we are introduced to only briefly as he speechifies in front of the press.
According to Capone, Mueller and Eli own him $20,000 for the raided warehouse, and Mueller decides to, as he puts it, “rob Peter to pay Paul.” He and Eli sloppily steal Capone’s own cash from another one of his lackeys, and end up having to off the goons before they flee. These men are both ornery, broken, and quietly furious with their lots in life. While Eli tries to drown his sorrows, Michael Shannon’s signature crazy-rage bubbles just under the surface. He is openly antagonistic toward Eli, and snaps at his wife and poor son, who just wants a little help with his homework. In a moment that is easily in the running for “Scene of the Year,” Eli and Mueller share a hotel elevator with two high-society women, along with their lavish hats and small fluffy dog. I could watch Michael Shannon apprehensively pet that puppy all day. The scene perfectly exemplifies where these once-powerful men are now – trapped and extremely pissed off.
Meanwhile, Nucky arranges a meeting with the Mayflower Grain Corportation, yet another collection of stuffy, affluent men the likes of which have often underestimated Nucky throughout the run of the show. This time, however, Nucky seems to have no influence over them, and after they make him explicitly admit to his long and successful history of bootlegging, they send him packing. The meeting isn’t a total loss, and as he walks out Nucky is approached by none other than Joe Kennedy, who implies that all is not lost re: Nucky’s Bacardi scheme.
Nucky is also more immediately preoccupied with finding out who ordered the hit on him in Cuba. Torrio sets up a meeting between Nucky, Luciano and Luciano’s “new boss,” Salvatore Maranzano. The Italians deny any involvement with Meyer Lansky and claim ignorance, but in a relatively unsurprising twist, Luciano and Lansky have, in fact, been in cahoots to take down the remaining major players (including Maranzano) and take over themselves. Tenino Sandrelli, a former associate of Gyp Rosetti’s who’s latest affiliation is also with Maranzano, sits down with Nucky and quickly gives up Luciano and Lansky. He tells Nucky he’ll work for him, clearly fancying himself the survivor that Luciano has been. He doesn’t survive much longer, however, and after the waiter fortuitously mentions Nucky’s deceased girlfriend Billie Kent (who’s death Tenino had a hand in), it is not long before Tenino’s body is dumped on Lansky’s doorstep. He is missing an ear and a postcard from Havana is stuck to his neck with a knife.
While this episode is very heavy on the mob machinations, there is one other major character that is back in play this episode. Gillian Darmody has presumably spent her time in some kind of sanatarium for the criminally insane after her detox from heroin and subsequent arrest. Always an adept businesswoman, it seems at first that Gillian is trading sexual favors with one of the female prison guards in exchange for something, possibly more drugs. However, she ultimately is only trading one of her old dresses for a pencil and paper.
I have often wondered why Winter has chosen to keep Gillian around as long as he has. Though Gretchen Mol is certainly a capable performer, all of the others that occupied her corner of this universe are dead: Angela Darmody, The Commodore, Richard Harrow and her son Jimmy. By the end of season 2, the show has shed its more Oedipal themes and become more of a pure gangster show. Though there is one interesting theory as to why Gillian has stuck around this long (http://previously.tv/boardwalk-empire/everything-in-its-place/), her storyline once again feels the most distant from the central action.
Whether or not Gillian will bring about the end of Nucky, I can’t help but feel a bit of dramatic redundancy. Both Eli and Willie already represent a long-standing familial conflict that could get in Nucky’s way, everywhere he turns he is surrounded by gangsters that want to kill him, and several times now federal agents (Esther Randolph, Agent Van Alden, Agent Knox) have come knocking on his door. Before this season’s premiere someone asked me, “Do you think Nucky will die?” I have to admit, I hadn’t thought much about it. Even though I am thoroughly invested in the Nucky part of this story, the piling on of so many different options for his downfall is a bit sideways from what I was excited for in this final season. Given that the show is still introducing new characters and more complicated plot points with only six episodes to go, I am increasingly concerned that the complex emotional lives of characters like Chalky will not get their full due by the end of the series. As I said last week, it is very difficult to judge a season of BOARDWALK by its first few episodes, but I do hope those in Nucky’s orbit will get the same amount of closure that he is.