For reasons unknown there seems to be a difficult balance between a show that’s too slow versus the kind that roars by so fast that the myriad plot points are lost as we try to lay catch up while collecting our jaws off of the floor. In the first camp you have series like Mad Men, Treme and Boardwalk Empire, which all take a great deal of time in character study, something that can make viewers impatient, especially if there are ambivalent feelings about the characters in question.
When someone asks a Mad Men fan what the show is about, there’s usually silence. What is it about? What even happens? Compared to Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy, nothing really happens … yet so much happens in ways that are difficult to describe. I once heard Mad Men described simply as a postcard from the 1960s, which seems accurate but too simple. Similarly, Boardwalk is about Prohibition and bootlegging in Atlantic City, sure, but it’s about so much more than that. While Nucky’s story is always tied into that theme, many of the side-narratives are not. Some of them are successful in keeping us interested and, occasionally, some are not. But “slow” doesn’t have to mean boring. For more on that and why you should never trust a man you can buy off in five minutes of meeting him, hit the jump.
In my preview for the new season of HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, I mentioned that the show often feels less like a traditional television series and more like a series of loosely connected vignettes with (like Boardwalk) an extraordinary number of ensemble cast members. These slices of life in a post-Katrina New Orleans that cover a sprawling number of topics vary in success — there are many that viewers would like to spend more time with, and a few we wouldn’t mind having fade into the background.
“Spaghetti and Coffee” reminded me of this narrative approach because we spent a great deal of time with two new characters (Gyp Rosetti and Gaston Means) and a few old ones (Eli, Margaret and Nucky) with varying degrees of success. Like I said last week, I like Bobby Cannavale, but his Rosetti is an irritant you nearly need a prescription for, and a persistent one at that. He took up an inordinate amount of time this week, and while I get that his role is to throw a giant wrench in Nucky and Rothstein’s machine, less is surely more.
Elsewhere, Nucky met up with Means (who has ties to Daughtery), who also had a lot of screen time for a fellow of questionable overall importance, but who cares? The man was a joy to watch, his words a fantastic craft not seen since Deadwood‘s Al Swearengen. The thick Southern drawl, the unhurried attitude and veiled barbs were lyrical. Nucky kept up with the banter with ease, the same way he did with Arnold Rothstein, with whom Means shares a brilliance for turn of phrase and the ability to maintain a calmly bemused attitude. “I so enjoy our conversations,” Rothstein tells Nucky with a sigh, to which Nucky gave an affirming smirk. Similarly, though few would argue against the fact that Mickey Doyle is one of the most annoying characters in the series and Eli, poor man, is not well liked by just about anyone except his wife and younger kids, their prolonged discussion outside of the jail was fantastic (and Eli got to ask a question I’ve been asking since Day 1 when we met Doyle, “how the fuck are you still alive?”). These scenes and discussion moved the plot forward and built up important situations for the future, but they were also delightful to watch, even if languid in pace.
Eli on his own though was less exciting. He’s a humbled man, sure — he lost a lot while he was in jail, but now he’s right back in the swing of things, not even trying to find an honest living. He’s subdued and he seems to have learned a few things about keeping his ego in check, though still wants to regain control in his house as the breadwinner. Again, it’s a quiet character study of a man you would hardly recognize from Season One, and even though it dragged in parts, it felt true and necessary.
Out there in his own orbit, Chalky White appeared this week and had his own vignette that didn’t (seemingly) connect with anyone else — it was a contained story in which Chalky was awkwardly doctored by his daughter Maybelle’s suitor Samuel, who Maybelle finds boring. Unlike pretty much any father on TV ever, Chalky actually favors the union to the point of nearly forcing it on his daughter, who is that typically rebellious, naive and spoiled girl looking for some “danger” with a bad boy. “You’re interesting,” she tells her father, pointing out that difference between a man like Chalky and her beau. Later, Chalky gives her a lesson in what “interesting” means, which a nearly vomiting Maybelle seems to agree is far more visceral and horrifying than she imagined. It’s an interesting development for Chalky, who often seems to feel patronized and out of place in his fancy home, but it showed that he knows that his children deserve to live more of his wife’s life than his own. He’s also far more honest with himself than Nucky is about where he came from and who he is now.
Even though it lacked connection (so far) to Nucky’s world, Chalky’s story was a worthy stop on our vignette-style tour of 1923, which also featured Margaret trying to do good at the hospital and getting verbally slapped for it. Her work there serves as historical reverence and shows her continued penance. But even better it showed her fiery retort to the dismissive doctor who first seemed to want to enlist her help and then ridiculed her. Margaret is a particularly layered character who is difficult to get a grasp on, and any additional time spent with her is always worth it.
Perhaps you didn’t find this week slow, but if you did, consider that it’s a long season and we’ve hardly just begun — there’s a lot of building (or tearing down) still to do. It’s an approach to TV storytelling I don’t always appreciate, but I think this week showed how it can work extremely well. Either way, for now it’s nice to just enjoy the scenery, some of which may actually have some bearing on the future, other parts of which are just there to enhance the journey.
Episode Rating: B+
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I also don’t care for Billie King, and Nucky’s possessiveness of her feels weirdly out of character. This one will not end well!
— Dr. Mason really does have a maddening way.
— “They’re just close friends … despite the rumors.” – a trololololling Gaston Means
— Nucky: “I only stole enough food for three.” Billie: “wasn’t Chaplin in that one?”
— I like Rothstein a lot and wish we saw more of him. He’s tough, smart and fair. Nucky not knowing what day it was? Sloppy.
— The awkwardness between Owen and Margaret is going to explode at some point, right?
— “Oh! I got a letter from that drunken bitch in Munsey -oops- I mean my mother” – Billie’s friend.