“Who will be called to account?”
Due to the awfulness of moving and unforeseen cable/internet service interruptions last week, I’ll be addressing both “Cuanto” and “King of Norway” here. Both of these episodes feel like the middle movement of the season, where tensions are starting to boil over and conflicts either dissipate or solidify.
I haven’t written much about the flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood so far. They have not been the drag on the show that I had feared going into this season, but up to this point they have only been superficially related to the episode themes. In these two episodes, however, they are beginning to crystalize into the part of Nucky’s past we can recognize. After being laid off at the end of summer from the Commodore’s hotel, Nucky is indignant about the lavish lifestyles that were on display there. He sneaks young Eli (so cute!) into the hotel and shows him some of the wonders on display there, including a real flushing toilet. Unsurprisingly, they are caught by Sherriff Lindsay, and he brings the boys back to his house for a better class of family dinner. The family is so affectionate with one another that Nucky is moved to tears at the dinner table. Lindsay, who up to this point had been much colder to Nucky than the Commodore, decides to finally take Nucky under his wing. In “King of Norway,” teenaged Nucky (holy young Buscemi casting!) is a full-blown deputy, and is once again confronted with the seedy underbelly (literally, under the boardwalk) of the city. He is already beginning to toe the line between the low social status he was born into and his much higher aspirations, as evidenced in the tension between he and Mabel’s stuffy father. I assume these flashbacks will culminate in Nucky having to commit some kind of immoral act himself, instead of observing and facilitating criminal activity for others, likely involving Gillian and the Commodore.
Back in 1931 Chicago, Capone is busy doing his best Joe Pesci impression. Although the “what are you laughing at?” beats feel a little obvious, we are finally getting to see Capone at his most infamous: coked up, crazy and a little constipated. Luciano visits Capone, urging him to join a cross-country alliance insuring cooperation between mobsters in different cities. While he’s there, Luciano recognizes that Mueller is Van Alden, the Fed that arrested him and Jimmy Darmody years before. Of course, Capone doesn’t hesitate to find Mueller (I love the game of telephone his lackeys play. Desk! Elephants!) and stick a gun in his mouth. Mueller, now so much bolder than he was in his previous life, points out that Luciano is disrespecting Capone by coming into “his house” and telling him how to run his operation. His fragile ego bruised, Capone blows off Luciano’s declaration and lets the whole thing go, overcompensating for his moment of weakness by mocking the idea that one of his guys is a rat. Capone can’t get Luciano out the door fast enough, and Capone gives Nucky a “we got a problem” call to discuss Luciano’s hubris. Meanwhile, the actual rat in Capone’s nest, D’Angelo, finds Van Alden’s file back at headquarters.
Before D’Angelo can bring Mueller and Eli Thompson in, however, the two find themselves in the middle of a Prohibition-era “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.” Eli’s wife surprises him with a visit (and a pregnancy), and Mueller’s ever-displeased wife Sigrid hosts them for dinner. Everyone at the table except poor June Thompson is seething with unspoken frustrations, until Eli has an almost PTSD-flashback to a surreal image we’ve seen before this season. As it turns out, Eli slept with Sigrid in a drunken stupor while Mueller was out working one night, and remembers only upon seeing a painting on the Muellers’ wall. Sigrid does not hesitate in telling the entire lurid story at the table, and the ordeal is only interrupted by the arrival of D’Angelo to arrest Eli and Mueller. D’Angelo has found out about Eli and Mueller’s respective body counts, and wants them to steal documents from Capone in order to make the feds’ tax evasion case against him. Once again, it seems that the fictional George Mueller will get to dance around and participate in one of the more famous historical events.
In Havana, another historical event is brewing. The political unrest in Cuba has been heavily alluded to this season, guaranteeing that it will affect the plot somehow. In fact, Sally herself seems to bring it up in almost every scene she’s featured in. Unlike Nucky, Sally clearly has a feel for the local color, and she is always very in tune with what is going on around her politically. Her bar is less a bastion of American escapism as a means by which she can keep her ear to the ground. However, Sally is often a foil for Nucky, and both of them have been playing out of their leagues this season. She is pulled over by soldiers on her way to Bacardi for not observing the curfew that was instated less than 24 hours before. As the soldiers tell her just before she is shot, “You’re what’s wrong with Cuba.” I don’t doubt that Sally’s death will have plenty of plot ramifications in the episodes to come. Without her, Nucky likely won’t be able to hold any meaningful presence in Havana, and the deal with Bacardi could fall apart. With his attention already so divided in Atlantic City, it’s hard to imagine that he will have the bandwidth to properly retaliate.
While Sally lies on the side of the road in Havana, a storm keeps Nucky from joining her for their scheduled meeting. Instead, Nucky spends the evening with Margaret, taking her to dinner in part to keep her from flirting with Joe Kennedy, who pops in to decline Nucky’s offer of partnership. “We’ve had all the fights we’re going to have,” Nucky tells Margaret as they get drunk together on the boardwalk, verbally dancing around the financial and romantic issues that became the downfall of their marriage. Margaret gets more and more glib as she drinks, wondering aloud why Nucky is so willing to help her untangle the Rothstein issue. Even after all this time apart, Margaret knows how to manipulate one of Nucky’s operating principles. Because Nucky has always wanted to toe the line between criminal and legitimate businessman (and is having a lot of trouble with the latter at the moment,) Margaret knows that Nucky will want to keep his alleged involvement in the Rothstein embezzlement out of the press. On the flip side, Nucky has been making note of Margaret’s newfound confidence ever since she returned, and, after an awkward drunken kiss out on the boardwalk, insists to Margaret that she’s going to be able make Carolyn Rothstein go away on her own.
Nucky plans for Margaret to convince Carolyn to take 25 cents on the dollar (which is presumably all Nucky has left to give) as payment for the funds that were syphoned out of Rothstein’s account after his death. While I would have liked to see Margaret work her magic and convince Carolyn to take this deal, the conversation is left off-screen and the next time we see Margaret, she is handing over a check to Carolyn. Carolyn’s lawyer is particularly unhappy with the “unusual nature” of this arrangement, and demands to review the funds before accepting the check. Margaret answers with a curt “no.” In addition to buying off Rothstein’s widow, Margaret and Nucky begin an offensive against the Mayflower Grain Corporation, who turned down Nucky’s offer for the Bacardi deal earlier in the season, by shorting out their stock with the unwilling help of Margaret’s boss.
Though Chalky does not show up in “Cuanto,” he is back at his former club with a big wardrobe upgrade in “King of Norway,” and he wastes no time asking Nucky where he can find Narcisse, Though Nucky doesn’t give anything up, he doesn’t get in Chalky’s way either, and gives him some cash, “between friends.” I’m glad to see Chalky back in Atlantic City, and he has a couple of US Marshalls hot on his trail. Chalky makes Mickey Doyle’s slippery attitude useful (for once) as Mikey points the Marshalls toward a worker in the club’s kitchen with a similar scar while Chalky heads up to Harlem. Chalky doesn’t seem to have any trouble actually finding one of Narcisse’s establishments. He is even able to sneak in with a gun, despite the increased security following the massacre a few weeks ago. Instead of finding Narcisse in the back room, however, Chalky finds Daughter with a young girl (who looks at first glance too young to be the result of a union with Chalky 7 years previous). Since so much of Chalky’s conflict with Narcisse grew out of his relationship with Daughter in the first place, it is unclear how her presence will complicate his plan. Whether or not the little girl is Chalky’s daughter, clearly she is meant to symbolize everything Chalky lost when his own daughter was killed.
Much like Sally’s subplot in “Cuanto,” Gillian has a few small but pivotal scenes in “King of Norway.” While we still don’t know what Gillian intends to accomplish by sending clandestine letters out of the hospital, the sight of another patient post-hysterectomy at the hands of Doctor Cotton is enough to send her to his office to ask for a release. She is unceremoniously shot down by the Doctor’s circular logic, and he strongly hints that Gillian may need a procedure of her own in order to remove the insanity that he feels has taken root in her body. His language is enough to make your skin crawl.
“King of Norway” culminates in a classic Prohibition-era drive-by shooting. Unsure of Maranzano’s promise that he is safe, Nucky asks Johnny Torrio to arrange a meeting between the three of them. Nucky’s Cuban bodyguard saves his life by knocking him to the ground as soon as the guns start blazing, but it is unclear whether or not Maranzano himself was killed. Torrio’s conspicuous absence gives Nucky no doubt that he was in on the attempted hit, and it is revealed that Torrio is not, in fact, out of the game at all. He, Luciano and Lansky planned it, of course. By ending the episode on this beat (with Nucky’s bloodspattered face, no less), the show moves firmly into its last act. Nucky has revenge to deliver on multiple counts, across state and national borders.
Again, the amount of story left to address in the final three episodes calls attention to the abbreviated length of the season. Both Sally’s death and Eli’s affair with Sigrid felt to me like they came somewhat out of nowhere, and perhaps could have been planted earlier if this season were 12, or even 10 episodes long. I’m glad Sally was spared the premium-cable-backstory treatment that often preceeds a major character death and can feel like a show tipping its hand (as Boardwalk did with Jimmy/Gillian’s backstory right before his death.) The episode that featured her death, however, had to address so many other storylines that Sally’s end felt like it was shoved into an already overstuffed episode. Additionally, the reveal of Eli and Sigrid’s tryst came even further out of left field. The PTSD-style flashback didn’t necessarily feel true to a drunken binge, and I don’t recall ever seeing Eli and Sigrid in the same room with one another in any significant exchanges. I understand that the show needed to blow up Eli and Mueller’s lives to some degree so that they have nothing to lose while they are working with D’Angelo, but I didn’t feel that we had spent enough time with them this season to buy such an abrupt change. Regardless of what’s going on the Mueller and Thompson households, I’m certainly looking forward to the dynamic duo of Eli and Mueller contributing to Capone’s ongoing tax problems.