“The trick’s to stay alive long enough to cash out“. –Nucky Thompson
The overarching theme in Sunday night’s episode of Boardwalk Empire reminded me of a scene from the 1983 film Bad Boys. In that scene, a reform school inmate portrayed by a young Sean Penn prepares for a confrontation with two fellow inmates who control the population. His preparation involved the purchasing several aluminum can sodas from a vending machine, putting them into a pillow case and using it as a weapon against his would-be assailants. He ends up getting the drop on them with vicious hits from his makeshift weapon.
Last nite, I felt like I was beaten over the head with a heavy pillowcase as well. Except this pillowcase didn’t contain canned sodas. Instead, it was filled with every motif, symbol and allusion regarding sound and hearing…and then used to pummel this viewer repeatedly until it was convinced that I understood the blatantly obvious theme of the episode. It begins with images of sex and fried fish interspersed amid a backdrop of an old vinyl recording. The camera slowly makes its way out of the ear of one unconscious Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham). He awakens from a dream to find his warehouse being raided for liquor and cash by federal agents. He seems hungover, but well enough to escape the calamity. We learn that he now works for the Capone mob in Chicago with George Mueller (aka Nelson Van Alden aka Michael Shannon) as his direct boss. Their handler, Mike D’Angelo (played by Louis Cancelmi), informs Al Capone (Stephen Graham) of the situation, resulting with Mueller and Eli being granted 24 hours to make up for the $20,000 that was taken during the raid. What ensues is a hilarious elevator scene in which shop-talk between Mueller and Eli is interrupted by the introduction of several civilians each time the elevator stops.
Later, in the Mueller household, George is in his basement searching for something when his son, Chester asks him for help in his science homework. He’s dismissive, but then gives a hurried/annoyed answer before shooing the boy away. After finding what he was looking for (a sawed-off shotgun), he leaves for the night. But not before scolding his wife Sigrid (Christine Seidel) for her smoking and broken English. Van Alden seems fiercely old-fashioned when compared to his primary occupation. Planning a robbery hit with Eli, they seem comfortable with one another to confide their own marital issues. Eli hasn’t seen his wife in six years, while Mueller relays that “sometimes, I find that it’s easier to despise someone than to love them“. They rob two of Al Capone’s men at gunpoint and with masks, but something goes awry. They gain the much-needed $20K, and then kill their victims. It ends with Mueller’s epic lamentation “Why must there always be PANDEMONIUM?!!”
Mueller then delivers the money to Capone who’s much too occupied with his own recent fame to fully take notice. Speaking of fame, the press have been giving their full attention to U.S. Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (played by Jim True-Frost). He vows to fight and dismantle the Capone mob, while the camera moves upstairs to a federal agent meeting with Mike D’Angelo, who turns to be a federal agent himself under deep cover in the Capone mob.
We see that Nucky Thompson hasn’t stopped being a gangster. He meets with Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) who’s returned to New York after his attempted assassination last season. His injuries have forced him into retirement and Nucky sees him to learn who was behind his own assassination attempt in Cuba during last week’s episode. He believes that Meyer Lansky was behind it due to them running into each other along with Joe Masseria’s death which occurred in New York at the same time. Torrio brokers a meeting between Nucky and Maranzano and urges Nucky to retire from the business. Before his sit-down, he meets with the board of directors for the Mayflower Grain Corporation. Nucky informs them of his knowledge concerning their venture into bootlegging as well as his exclusive rights to sell Cuban rum in North America once the Prohibition Act is repealed. He proposes a deal with Mayflower for a distribution infrastructure in North America. When asked about his qualifications for such a venture, he first deflects but then concedes to his known status as a bootlegger. Without the input of a missing board member (the US Senator from last week), they decline the offer. As Nucky departs, one of the board members catches up with him and shares Nucky’s vision of the liquor business. This board member turns out to be Joseph P. Kennedy (played by Matt Letscher).
Nucky meets with Maranzano and Lucky Luciano. Both of whom claim to have no business with Meyer Lansky nor any involvement in his assassination attempt. They assure him that he has no reason to fear them. We later see Luciano, Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Seigel (Michael Zegen) all meet together in one of their brothels. Zegen steals the show with his portrayal of Seigel’s rumored temper. All three men have formed a secret coup and will overthrow Maranzano when the time comes. They meet with Tonino Sandrelli (Chris Caldovino) to understand Maranzano’s motives. When musing on Tonino’s reliability, Lucky quips, “Tell that to Gyp Rosetti“. As a refresher, Tonino worked for Gyp Rosetti in season 3 and killed him in the season finale at Nucky’s behest. Then goes to work for Masseria, only to betray him to Lucky Luciano in last week’s episode. He really gets around for a guy who plays all sides of the fence. Nucky later has lunch with his nephew Willie Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) who now has a prestigious educational background and is seeking employment as a New York prosecuting attorney. His previous interview with District Attorney Robert Hodge didn’t go well until Willie gave an impassioned speech about wanting to serve the law and escape his family’s tarnished name. But given his Michael Corleone-type of indoctrination into his family’s criminal dealings last season, I get the impression that he’s to be a mole for his dear uncle Nucky. Speaking of moles….
…Nucky meets with Tonino in Atlantic City. Tonino fears for his life and seems to grovel to Nucky for employment. He basically snitches to Nucky about the still-intact alliance between Lansky and Luciano and their plans. Nucky promises him employment if he tells his bodyguard, Arquimedes (Paul Calderon) about Lansky’s whereabouts. Upon leaving, a waiter attends Tonino’s table and asks him about Billie Cantor (Nucky’s girlfriend in season three) and directs his attention to a picture of her own the wall. At this point, I knew that Nucky was going to have him killed since he worked for her killer (Rosetti) at the time of her death. Sure enough, Arquimedes kills Tonino, takes one of his ears for a trophy, leaves a Cuban postcard pinned on him and drops him off at Lansky’s brothel. With no doubt, a message has been sent.
In other story lines, Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) has been committed to an insane asylum. She seems to have what I initially thought to be a femdom relationship with the asylum’s female warden, Dr. Cotton. We later see that the warden wants help with her wardrobe in exchange for illegally obtaining stationery materials for Gillian. Also, We see another flashback to Nucky’s childhood. This time, Nucky’s sister succumbs to Tuberculosis and the family’s too poor to give her a proper burial. Ethan Thompson opts to bury her in their front yard. He scoffs at the Commodore’s offer to pay for the burial (but takes it for himself anyway) and then spitefully makes Nucky perform the burial by his lonesome.
THOUGHTS: There’s much going on with this week’s episode, with every story line’s leitmotif pertaining to the notions of sound and listening. The episode opens from inside of Eli Thompson’s ear, and fades to black by closing in on where Tonino Sandrelli’s ear used to be. Nucky’s musings to his silent valet about the implications of the potential boom for his business was filled with suggestions, including his seeming admiration for Joe Kennedy. Nucky also comes from an Irish Catholic family and seems to look to Kennedy as wealthy and respectable with his hands involved in everything. Shea Whigham’s transformation from last season into a disheveled low-level henchman is a testament to his commitment to a role and mirrors his transformation in HBO’s True Detective. His dialogue with Michael Shannon in the elevator scene was hilarious, especially when Shannon deadpans “You reek, buy the way. Of urine.” The flashback scenes to Nucky’s childhood running parallel with the final season’s theme feels much like the narrative in The Godfather Part II. Jim-True Frost (Prez from The Wire) was a pleasant surprise, as is the coup between Lansky and Luciano. The icing on the cake was the end of the episode when Tonino’s dead body was dumped on Lansky’s front door. Nucky should’ve had him Fed-Ex’d like how Owen Sleater was in season three. With that kind of a message being sent, Mr. Thompson’s enemies have heard him loud and clear. Grade: A.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, movies, hip-hop, et. al.