Nucky's return to the U.S. finds him conducting business as usual: murder and betrayal sparked by greed and jealousy.
So it’s not just the Boardwalk Empire audience that’s getting exhausted with the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of murders, betrayals, and murky alliances that comprise about 60 percent of the narrative each episode. Judging from Nucky’s crotchety-elder-statesman observations, even he’s getting fed up with the monotonous gangster life, too. Early on in “The Good Listener,” the Atlantic City don laments, “Year in, year out. Different dogs, same f—ing bone” (at this rate, he’ll be growling “Get off my lawn!” to the next generation of hoods by the finale). But for all his prattling about “staying alive long enough to cash out,” it’s his greed and his ego that always draw him back into the vicious, never-ending cat-and-mouse games of organized crime. This time around, it’s Nucky’s chance meeting with and subsequent envy of a certain clean-on-the-outside, dirty-on-the inside BAH-stahn businessman named Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Scandal‘s Matt Letscher), that causes him to return to his old gangster behavior.
For us, this means slogging through yet another batch of mobster permutations that get more and more confusing as the seasons progress. Trying to keep up with who’s a friend and who’s a foe has become so time-consuming that it’s impossible to have any energy left when a compelling story line—like that of Gretchen Mol’s Gillian Darmody—or even an amusing scene like the one featuring Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, an elevator, two old ladies, a dog, and one comically placed feather, sneaks up on us when we least expect it.
But, if you really want to know where everyone stands, here’s the Saved You a Click version: Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano have convinced all the old-school mafiosos like Nucky and Salvatore Maranzano that they’re at odds with each other, while in actuality, these new-generation gangsters are staging a power grab. They succeeded in taking out Joe Masseria, but their hit on Nucky in Havana was foiled by the Cuban Michael Madsen. Nucky, now back on U.S. soil, responds by rebooting the age-old mobster trope of depositing a dead body (RIP, Bobby Cannavale’s sidekick from season 3) at Luciano and Lansky’s door.
Thank you for playing this week’s round of Mobster Musical Chairs, folks. Now let’s turn our attention to catching up with the Boardwalk characters who didn’t make the season-premiere cut:
With her baby daddy (the Commodore) and son/boy toy (Jimmy Darmody) dead for nearly a decade, and grandson Tommy having been squirreled away to safety seven years ago, Gillian Darmody is the most disconnected from the ongoing Boardwalk story lines, but she remains the most intriguing character on the series. Having apparently served her time for murder of her son’s doppelgänger, Gillian is no longer in jail, but she is no less, to borrow a term from The Shawshank Redemption, “rehabilitated.” We find her relaxing in a steaming hot bath along with several other women, in an immaculate room with marble statues—one of her fellow bathers even rhapsodizes about how she would “summer in Saratoga.”
NEXT: Spa Time Is Over
At first glance, it looks like Gillian is back in her element, luxuriating at a spa along with other high society ladies, “The Good Listener” radio program emanating from one corner of the room. But this is just the first of two red herrings in Gillian’s story line this episode. Once “The Good Listener” is abruptly snapped off by an attendant, it sets off a chain reaction among the ladies, most of whom emerge naked from their covered tubs, babbling and screaming—one woman actually barks—over the unexpected silence. Nope, this ain’t no spa—Gillian’s in the loony bin. That and she seems to have caught the attentions of the head matron. Their seductive side-eyes and vaguely provocative dialogue exchanges (“May I have what I asked for?” “If I get what I ask for”) initially has us thinking that Gillian has resorted to her old business of trading sexual favors for lifestyle perks. So it’s pretty disappointing when it’s revealed that the matron only wanted to borrow one of Gillian’s fancy dresses—and Gillian just wanted contraband pen and paper. Who is she writing to? Nucky? Tommy? Dead Jimmy? Other than learning she had a habit of sending “crazy” letters to the president, the intended recipients of her correspondence remain unclear. Gillian’s time in prison obviously has not been kind to her: The onetime showgirl now sports a mousy chopped haircut and drab outfits straight out of the pages of Dust Bowl Chic, and she admits she needs to “get my thoughts straight.” Still, her tenure behind bars and in “the booby hatch” hasn’t destroyed all of the Gillian we know and love: When presented with her coveted pen and paper, she is quick to complain over it not being “proper stationery.”
We also check in with the Chicago syndicate of Boardwalk’s gangster population, where Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden (still living under the alias of George Mueller) is leading an Odd Couple-esque existence with Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham). Eli has been hiding out in Illinois since 1924, having betrayed his brother Nucky for the 85th time in the series. For seven years Eli has been the indentured servant of Al Capone, working directly under Van Alden and keeping the former federal agent’s identity under wraps.
By the end of last season, Van Alden was more himself as a criminal working for Capone than he ever was as a man of the law, but now he appears to have slipped back into his angry, repressed, uptight ways. Whereas Eli is still a living, breathing wreck after being forced to leave his wife and children—he lives in squalor, “reeks of urine” and is miserable with loneliness—Van Alden is wishing for his entire family’s demise. His children are a nuisance, and his relationship with Sigrid (Christiane Seidel) has devolved into bitter sniping over her still-poor English and her smoking habit, and his lack of presence at home. It’s upsetting to watch because he and Sigrid always seemed like a good match, and now he talks to Eli about how it’s easier to “despise” his family than it is to “love” them.
NEXT: Fun in an elevator
But the returned uptight attitude isn’t without its charms as it makes for some well-timed comic relief. After a botched stickup, where he and Eli wind up shooting two of Capone’s men, Van Alden screaming “Why must it always be pandemonium?” is a brilliant tag on a rather dark moment. Also, one of the most clever scenes so far in this new season takes place in a Chicago hotel elevator, where Van Alden and Eli attempt a serious conversation about the lost $20,000 they need to replenish (thanks to a federal raid of one of Capone’s warehouses) while being interrupted by clueless, vapid hotel patrons. Michael Shannon being asked to pet an old biddy’s little dog, Daisy, while the other lady’s long hat feather keeps getting stuck in Shea Whigham’s nostrils? Best moment of TV this week.
–Despite a decade of estrangement, Nucky and Margaret are indeed still Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. While trading pleasantries with new acquaintance Joseph Kennedy, Nucky makes an offhanded remark about being “technically” married. This legal loophole will most likely come into play for both characters sometime between now and the finale.
–This week’s 1884 flashback only served to give us more of a backstory as to why young Nucky chose the Commodore as his father figure over biological dad Ethan Thompson. After Nucky’s beloved sister Susan dies, Nucky watches Ethan take the money the Commodore offered for her burial, only to have his father ostensibly drink the cash away. Susan ends up with a pauper’s funeral in the Thompsons’ backyard.
–Seven years after his brief detour into Uncle Nucky’s seedy underworld, 25-year-old Willie Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) is now a law-school graduate who wants to make putting criminals in jail his life’s work. If anyone can give a firsthand account of how breaking the law destroys families, it’s this upstart attorney: “I know the way crime eats you out from the inside,” Willie pleads with a prospective employer. “Let me do something good with my life.” At first it’s hard to know if he’s trying to infiltrate the U.S. Attorney’s office to gain intel for Nucky, but Willie’s pensive look out the window during lunch with his uncle suggests he may be the one who ends up putting Nucky in prison for good.
–Al Capone is a full-on celebrity now, constantly surrounded by an entourage and mountains of cash—and being interviewed by a reporter from Variety in his first scene. Stephen Graham is having so much fun with the character, and it’s a delight to watch because it’s the feast before the famine. History will show that in this momentous year of 1931, Capone is about to be convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison, effectively ending his reign over Chicago. His new right-hand man, Mike D’Angelo, has already been revealed to be a federal informant.