For some, Fall is a reminder of the passing of life, but nothing brings that idea home so viscerally as Boardwalk Empire. Last season’s premiere was steeped in violence, and the same is true this year. Really, last season was a bloodbath back to front, with some lulling episodes in between. That’s become the show’s signature: luscious sets, a somber tone, an unhurried pace and lots and lots of violence. After Jimmy’s death the show needed to redefine itself, but what it has offered so far is a hodgepodge of things, some of which have been successful (Richard’s emotional journey, Eli’s redemption) and many which have not (Billie’s arc, the splintering of the narrative across several cities, a continued focus on Gillian). Hit the jump for what “New York Sour” set up, and why it might be the best-named Boardwalk episode yet.
In a preview of this upcoming season of Boardwalk, Slate critic Willa Paskin had a great line: “Boardwalk Empire still has bullet holes where its heart should be.” When the show lost Jimmy, it lost its moral center. Jimmy struggled internally with his decisions working for Nucky, and ultimately his desire to escape from Nucky lead to his downfall. He was always a reminder to Nucky though that there were other considerations besides business … and yet in the end, that’s exactly what Nucky chose. In her piece, Paskin suggests that we are meant to believe this makes Nucky a hero when of course, it does not. So who is?
Margaret was given many opportunities to be Nucky’s moral guide over the years, but the more she attempted to become so, the more he rejected her. Now, she’s completely gone. Richard, the show’s only other character who pulls on the heartstrings of viewers, is (and has always been) a cold-blooded killer — so what does that say about us? — and even he has left Nucky’s employ to return, as we saw at the end of “New York Sour” back home, the center of his moral world.
Not only does the show lack a moral center this season (so far), but it also lacks direction. Historical figures like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein were seemingly meant to augment and complicate Nucky’s story at first, but they have been taking up more and more of the spotlight until now they seem to share equal billing with Nucky and Atlantic city. “New York Sour” checked in with everyone in New York and Chicago this week (and now Nucky seems to be considering a deal in Florida, oy), leaving the show adrift. Who’s at the helm of this ship?
But what makes Boardwalk Empire a show worth coming back to are its small moments. Eli and his son, with Nucky at dinner, was a wonderful exchange (and a great extension of their earlier conversation in the car). There there was Nucky being at first drawn in by another show girl, then rejecting her after she overtly states her purpose and slights Billie in the process. Finally, Agent Loren Knox (Brian Geraghty) looks to be a bright spot as a new character — he plays things dumb and innocent, but sets Stan up to die at Borst’s bootlegging operation (and killing Borst as well). He kept up his guise until the end though, sipping Borst’s whiskey and telling a convulsing Stan, “this has me riled.”
Interestingly, not only did we not see Margaret in “New York Sour,” we also were missing Van Alden (now George Muller). It’s odd that the show would omit two such key and memorable characters in its opening hour, and yet, it speaks to exactly the kind of fractured nature Boardwalk has been displaying since last year. What Boardwalk really needs to come out of this year is its darkness, because there is currently no hope of light. Perhaps though we can take a clue from the many pre-dawn scenes of this episode though that there might somewhere soon be a glimmer of hope that the world is not this encompassingly dark. I put the bet as 14/1.
Episode Rating: B
Musings and Miscellanea:
— The title “New York Sour” really defines the show right now, doesn’t it?
— This wasn’t the strongest of openings, but it did show an end (for now) to the gang wars that dominated last season. Meyer/AR, Masseria/Lucky and Nucky/Eli have at least reached peace … which means something bad is sure to come up.
— The scene with the man Richard kills before he goes home was awful, but I liked the part where he asked to be able to sign the card first.
— “Henry borrows coats? What is he, an orphan?” – Eli.
— Again, good and bad: we all could guess that sex between Dunn Purnsley and Dickey’s wife was going to end badly, and probably with some racism thrown in (of which there was a lot of in this episode). But Purnsley’s detailed near-decapitation was a lot for us to have to see (and who agrees that Dickey and his wife had played this pantomime before?). The good part, though? Chalky razzing “sweet back” as he dragged Dickey to his grave. “Don’t you throw that!”
— Capone-with-an-E reminded me of Anne of Green Gables: “That’s Anne … what an E!” The scene where he sets that record straight was another great moment. Capone is a terrific character, and remains the most human of the gangsters.
— “The ceiling is the same, and that’s all you’ll be seeing” – Capone to the working girls.
— Does anyone care what Gillian is up to now? I rue the day she didn’t die from that overdose, which is a terrible thing to think, but there you have it. Her trying to win back custody of Tommy is disgusting. Fight, Julia, fight!
— Showgirl: “Deliciously primitive.” Nucky: “does it bring out the beast in you?” – moments in racism.
— “I guess criminals aren’t very punctual. Maybe that’s why they have troubled being productive members of society.” – Knox