Was Boardwalk Empire‘s episode title referring to viewers this week? It might as well have been. “The Good Listener” was essentially a slate of conversations, mostly had by Nucky, that updated us on the current gangster alliances (which are always shifting). It also was a reminder that if you don’t listen to every conversation, and catch every name, there’s a chance it won’t be repeated again and you’ll never catch up. Even those with a photographic memory might have trouble telling apart all of these well-tailored white gangsters and politicians apart (and is there a difference?) In this final season, it makes one wonder why kind of show Boardwalk Empire is aiming to be. Hit the jump if you find it easier sometimes to despise someone rather than love them.
When Jimmy Darmody was murdered, Boardwalk Empire lost its way. The upstart was put down, and Nucky continued his reign, proving that his power meant more to him than anything. It’s a theme that has been repeated throughout the series, as Nucky alienated his wife Margaret, as well as his brother Eli. He’s also alienated himself so far from Atlantic City and New York that he can hardly get a sit-down with business interests, and spends his time running from mobster to mobster to find out who wants him dead. Ultimately, what was it all for?
Jimmy’s death was a shift in Boardwalk Empire away from its character-driven roots to something more akin to just a fictionalized historical account of 1920s mobsters (I just typo’d “monsters” — also accurate). It can feel, too often, like work to keep up with the who and the why, especially as the show has expanded to cover not just Atlantic City, but most of the Eastern Seaboard, and part of the Midwest.
Season Four did a lot to reset the balance, allowing Richard Harrow — always a fan favorite — to take more of a prominent role, and explore his own struggles, along with the moral dichotomy between his job and his inner life. It’s the same struggle Jimmy faced, and it ended in the same way. With Richard also dead, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t really have a moral center or really, a soul any more. It’s certainly not Nucky. Margaret, the remaining hope, has essentially been written off the show at this point, (though could still make an important comeback as this final season wears on).
An episode like “The Good Listener” shows what it looks like when there’s no one left to root for. Example: Gillian, who has been taking up space for years (even though Gretchen Mol is lovely, and Gillian always sports an incredible wardrobe), continued her story in the state mental hospital / prison. But is there anyone who still cares?
There are glimmers of that old character drama, though, providing interesting dynamics. It’s Eli Thompson, of all people, who has provided so much pathos in the last few seasons. Eli currently looks like shit, reeks of urine, and cries as he listens to a family comedy show on the radio. He’s been removed from his family for 6 years, and his son has revolted so far away from him and Nucky that he seems genuine in his desire to want to put away the bad guys.
Nelson Van Alden / George Mueller continues to work for Capone and serve as Eli’s boss (what an upside down world this has turned into). The two of them make a great pair, and are a reminder of what Boardwalk once was. That old conflict of work versus family still resonates within them, and when they team up, their different styles also bring about some wry comedy.
But “The Good Listener” was mostly about Nucky, on the hunt for who tried to kill him. In the process, we learn that it was Lucky and Meyer, who also have a plan to get rid of all of the Old Guard (Torrio got a nice out from Capone — he was maimed and not killed, and currently enjoying retirement in New York while Capone lives it up in Chicago, getting fan mail and being interviewed by Variety). Nucky sends a message via a body (and I honestly can’t remember who the guy is — was he connected to Billie in some way?) to show Meyer that he is not ready to step aside, and that they had better consider him in their plans, setting stage for his final attempt at a return. But again, at what cost?
Even when it’s not its best, Boardwalk Empire‘s style and reverie always make a good watch. But as Nucky considers his comeback and his legacy, the show should do the same. What will there be left to hold on to in the end?
Episode Rating: B-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Obviously, I watch a lot of TV, and I tend to fast-forward through the opening credits of most series (and some I openly cannot stand). After all of these years, I still adore Boardwalk‘s opener. Watching it closely though for the first time in a long time, Nucky’s resilience and determination is made clear in it from the start. He won’t go quietly (as this season’s tagline foretells).
— Capone is always amusing. Him kicking his tailor was hilarious.
— Watch out, Capone. This episode introduced Elliot Ness, who will be his downfall (played by The Wire‘s Jim Trust Frost!)
— Everything about Mueller (I’m just going to call him that from now on) was great in this episode. From his son asking him why clouds float in the sky, to his frosty relationship with his suffering wife (he abhors her smoking, and corrects her English constantly), everything was incredible. Nothing was better though them him shouting, “why must it always be pandemonium?!”
— We didn’t get to see Rothstein’s death, did we? Sad, I liked him. And what does that mean for Margaret’s position? Didn’t they have some kind of deal?
— Nucky being called out for his bootlegging was an interesting moment. The fact that he was shown the door was even more interesting.
— While I don’t mind Nucky’s flashbacks on the whole, they don’t offer up anything we didn’t already know or could have guessed. Then again, showing how Nucky came to trust the Commodore over his father, and how the Commodore from the start was a self-interested dick, shows Nucky’s crime origins, and how deeply ingrained in him they are. I guess.
— Is Gillian going to try and write to Tommy? Lady, give it a rest.
— “The law is a shield, not a sword” – Willie.