The second couplet of episodes in the third season of Boardwalk Empire presents more of what the first offered: violence, sex, rivalry, and an abundance of one-of-a-kind characters.
Analyzing this show in episode pairs might actually be beneficial in a way; with so many characters, the writers have essentially forgone trying to squeeze the huge cast into an hour and instead give particular players a spotlight, with the more auxiliary ones taking multiple-episode absences at times. To be honest, I find it really hard to not only watch and absorb this show, but also struggle at times to approach it critically. Am I reviewer, or a mere recapper?
How do I tackle this multisided beast? I guess we should start at the top with Enoch Thompson (Steve Buscemi), kingpin of Atlantic City, and candidate for Most Improved Player in this year of television. Nucky is on a trek to villainy and to dishonor the thought reserved for his deceased counterpart Jimmy (Michael Pitt), Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and others. He is proving himself to be the Walter White of the 1920s; at one time almost unsuspecting, and now a force to be reckoned with, a man you always bow to and you never cross.
Both "Bone for Tuna" and "Blue Bell Boy" provide great Nucky highlights. In the third episode of this season Nucky is repeatedly haunted by visions of an injured altar boy, both in dreams and in conscious moments. These apparitions are most likely attributed to residual guilt from killing his surrogate son; murdering him for reasons of power and respect over any true necessity.
Nucky's shame in his act is apparent, even if his regret isn't fully formed. In a concurrent subplot involving hitman Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the masked madman abducts and delivers Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) to Nuck to expose the Irishman's farce as the true assassin of Jewish butcher/thug Manny Horowitz, an act Richard committed to claim revenge for Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino). (I resisted going into like four different tangents with that sentence alone, see what I mean about this show?) In the ultimate scene for that plot thread, Nucky asks Harrow how many people's he's killed. "63," Harrow replies smoothly. Nucky asks if he thinks of any of them. The war vet adequately retorts: "You know the answer to that yourself."
So Nucky is feeling a little guilty, but does it change soften his ways? Fuck no. "Blue Bell Boy" started out a little lame but ended with one of the strongest conclusions in the show's history. In his portion of the episode, Nucky, Irish-born enforcer Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), and a young thief find themselves stuck in a basement while government agents raid the thief's hideout. The young conman is Roland Smith (Nick Robinson), a name dropped in the premiere by his accomplice, a man ordered to be executed by Nucky for stealing from his liquor warehouse. Roland is a "charmer" and uses the opportunity in hiding from the feds with the gangsters to buy himself more time from his punishment for stealing from New Jersey's head crook. The extremely charismatic Roland fits the cut-out of a Boardwalk character, and explains to Nucky and Owen why he would make a valuable asset to the empire. Nucky seems to agree with him, gives him a cigarette… then shoots him in back of the head.
I totally expected it and still find my jaw agape at the bold the writing. When they killed off Jimmy Dormody, their second lead, Boardwalk Empire committed to letting the audience know that no one is safe. Let's be clear: Roland was a one-episode character, the type that often finds itself introduced and offed like cannon fodder, but the method of his induction, the energy of the actor's performance, spoke to bigger plans for the 19-year old gangster trainee. In television we have become accustomed to certain procedures (i.e. not killing off prime characters), but this show has made it a mission to crush these expectations. Roland really looked like he was staying around awhile, I mean even Owen, a man not shy to ruthlessness, looked taken aback by Nucky's decision to execute the boy.
The other character with a heavy focus over the two episodes is Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), new addition for season 3 and apparent main antagonist in a show about huge jerks who consider killing a business decision. "Bone for Tuna" narrows in on the New York native as he tries to coerce Nucky into selling him liquor. Nucky confronts the touchy Italian with tact and gets him to calm his nerves and even mend some bridges. However, the peace does not last long. Gyp is one of the most volatile men conceivable, totally missing the ability to pick up on sarcasm, hyperbole and idiom. The man literally takes Nucky telling him he "takes things too personally" too personally!
These derived insults, including Nuck wishing Gyp good luck in Italian ("Buona fortuna", or "bone for tuna" for an American novice Italian-speaker), help convince Rosetti to turn on New Jersey and hold the town of Tabor Heights, and their valuable gas pumps, hostage. The action sends ripples through the many B-plots, affecting souls like Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), who tries his best, but ultimately fails, to prevent an ambush in Tabor Heights. The fourth episode ends with the Brothers Thompson having an important conversation, the exact details of which are not yet revealed.
The sister cities of Boardwalk Empire, Chicago, and New York, get a lot of screen time, with most of the events happening separately from each other in the grand scheme. The Chicago plotline, and "Blue Bell Boy" in particular, narrows on Al Capone and his ascension into crimelord. While there is no sign Al is about to rise to his historical peaks any time soon, the show does zero on what makes him tick (messing with his family and/or territory), and how he handles a tense situation (smashing a dude's head in with a bar stool). It's some of the finest acting by Stephen Graham yet, and his storyline appears be ramping into something more major. Nelson Van Alden is still wandering around the city, selling irons (previously reported as lightbulbs). Not much is happening with the former agent, he gets caught in a speakeasy and his cute Scandinavian wife is really into him, but overall this is one component that needs strengthening: we want more Michael Shannon!
In the Big Apple, the duo of Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Luciano (Vincent Piazza) also have some business with local rivals. Their young proto-partner Benny "Bugsy" Siegel (Michael Zege
n) narrowly avoids an assassination attempt by the men of Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), don of a family at odds with the Lansky/ Luciano contingent. That conflict leads to a brilliant scene featuring Masseria and Luciano, discussing territory and the don's problem with Lucky's partnership with Jews Lanksy and Rothstein. It's a scene rife with energy, and just like Chi-Town, points to some conflict down the line.
We'll tie this one off with a nice Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) bow. Now arguably the second lead character, the ambitious woman continues her mission to get a prenatal program in the hospital to which she and her husband donated huge sums. In "Bone for Tuna" she craftily arranges a quick meeting between her, the bishop, and the hospital head, turning the conversation to woman's health and insisting that the project was in-progress and merely needed the diocese's permission. A crafty, and extremely risky, move, she is granted her women's ward, and along with Doctor Mason takes the first steps in putting together a delicate educational curriculum, something that won't offend the church. Margaret is always pushing against the tidal wave of oppression, and sometimes she looks like she might end up washed up on the beaches of the shore. Her role so far, while important to the 1920s does not feel at all important to the core action, and I'm waiting for her to swing back into the life of crime and booze.
The series is stronger than ever. There is a lot going on, and it's a tad vague on the direction of the season after four episodes, but there is enough tension in the interactions and minor obstacles that I'm not really paying attention to the meanderings and digressions. Undoubtedly, all eyes should be on Nucky. The lengths he will drive for money and power have proved deep, but are those waters forgeable? Throw history out the window, the producers will stay true but not absolutely loyal. Anything can happen. Don't count your Roland Smiths before they hatch.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.