Boardwalk Empire recap: 'Cuanto'
Nucky and Margaret play out their own version of 'Scenes From an Italian Restaurant' while Lucky Luciano's good memory spells trouble for Nelson Van Alden.
It’s pretty much a given that loyalty will end up a major theme in any mob-related narrative. In the case of Boardwalk Empire, the concept extends beyond the characters into the minds of its audience. The HBO drama has not made it easy for fans to remain faithful for all four and a half seasons, given its tendency to kill off favorite characters (Jimmy Darmody, Richard Harrow, Eddie Kessler) and muddle its story lines with tiresome plots concerning whiny, talent-free showgirls or whiny, insecure college kids. However, series creator Terence Winter rewarded those who have stuck by the Atlantic City gangsters since season 1 with “Cuanto,” an episode that brought us the return of OG “partners in crime” Nucky Thompson and Margaret Rohan-Schroeder-Thompson, as well as the unraveling of Nelson Van Alden’s decade-long evasion from the feds.
Praise must be given to Winter and fellow episode writers Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder for streamlining the focus back onto a handful of characters (namely Nucky, Margaret, Van Alden, Al Capone, and Charlie Luciano). Although, if given the choice between more 1884 flashbacks and a check-in with either Gillian Darmody or Dr. Valentin Narcisse, the latter option would have been preferable. (With only four episodes remaining and Gretchen Mol and Jeffrey Wright having appeared in one episode apiece so far, it doesn’t leave much time to resolve their characters’ story lines.) The 19th-century scenes are entertaining and informative, but perhaps they would be best served as a web series or DVD extras for the die-hard fans.
“Cuanto” continues Boardwalk‘s attempt to make up for Kelly Macdonald’s absence last season by being a Margaret showcase. Considering she’s a former member of the women’s temperance movement it was a kick watching her spend most of the episode drunk on cheap red wine in a matching figure-hugging crimson dress. Sally Wheet may have been the overall better match (both as a business partner and in the bedroom), but since she met her fate this episode at the hands of Cuban rebels, why else would Winter and Co. spend so much time bringing Margaret and Nucky back together (and killing off Sally) if the intended result wasn’t a reconciliation? After all, Margaret, like Sally, knows that Nucky can’t function unless he’s had his morning coffee. Do we want to see Margaret and Nucky start honoring their marriage vows again? Not really, but their relationship always seemed to work best when it was for their mutual benefit. And for what it’s worth, Joe Kennedy—right before officially refusing Nucky’s partnership offer (“Scotch and rum don’t really mix”) and heading out of town in his fresh-oyster-stocked private train car—immediately recognizes Margaret’s value as an asset (“Remember, sport, safety in numbers”—the man’s got a point there, Nuck. Right now, Teddy and Emily don’t exactly appear to be on the fast track to the White House; Emily’s prize for her Bill of Rights essay notwithstanding). A Gaelic-laced flirtation on Kennedy’s part hits just the right note of jealousy, and suddenly Nucky is all ears to Margaret’s financial predicament and is treating her to a leisurely Italian lunch.
NEXT: Margaret gets soused
Since Nucky probably already figured out how to appease Carolyn Rothstein and keep their names out of the newspapers before he and Margaret even left his current lodgings (they appear to be over the former Onyx Club, now called the Old Rumpus), the rest of the episode is a fun little vignette featuring an estranged couple having their first honest conversation with each other in 11 years. Nucky dangles the hope of a “solution” in front of Margaret while playfully chastising her for taking “all of the blame and none of the benefits” in her deal with Arnold Rothstein. She in turn proves a worthy sparring partner by calling him a “bastard,” drunkenly telling him to “shut up” and by blaming “Pro. Hi. Bition” as the worst thing to ever happen to her. Brutal honesty aside, Nucky looks at Margaret with a new kind of love and respect—both as a husband and as a gangster: “You shook down Arnold Rothstein.” He also commends her for spending the past seven years as an employed single mother, proving once and for all that she never needed his money or protection in the first place. The one thing that apparently remains a sore subject with both husband and wife, interestingly enough, is their mutual infidelity, which has always been the weakest element of their relationship. When Margaret mentions that his marital status “never seemed to get in the way” of finding female company, he retaliates with a cutting “You managed to pay me back.” Ooof! Someone’s still smarting from the Owen Sleater dalliance…
That evening, taking some air on the boardwalk, Margaret’s red-wine-goggles work their magic as in a moment of lucidity she offers the episode’s thesis statement disguised as her analysis of Nucky and his predictable, shady ways (before, of course, planting a sloppy smooch on her husband’s lips): “Nothing changes, does it? Men to guard you, plans within plans, things you say and things you don’t.” Just a few hours earlier down in Cuba, before being shot to death by a battalion of American-hating rebels, Sally and her Lady Gaga-esque two-tone nails was making the exact same observation (“Plus ça change…“). For all of Nucky’s endeavors to go straight, the more he remains a gangster. Why was Sally driving in the dead of night on a darkened road back to Havana? Because inclement weather and a visit from Margaret prevented Nucky from going to Cuba himself to handle a cash transaction. With Sally (and, ostensibly, the Bacardi deal) dead, his protégée wife, Margaret, dragging him back into his old ways (Nucky’s solution is that Margaret will offer Carolyn Rothstein 25 cents on the dollar instead of the full $111,000) and an S.O.S. from Al Capone in Chicago by the end of the episode, the odds are shaky that Nucky is going to make it to the series finale as a legitimate businessman.
NEXT: The FBI’s Most Wanted List
About that late-night phone call from Chicago: Capone—whose idea of a good time is screening a newsreel titled “Under the Reign of Public Enemy #1: Scarface Capone Rules Chicago With an Iron Fist”—is slightly miffed over Charlie Luciano’s recent visit and his plans to turn Capone’s kingdom into a mere province of a National Crime Syndicate. Just ask that poor Capone minion who found himself at the receiving end of Luciano’s peace offering—an Empire State Building souvenir miniature perfect for impaling outspoken goons. But it wasn’t so much Luciano’s power grab that made his Midwestern trip such a pivotal moment in the series. It was his offhand recognition of Capone’s tall, gangly thug, George Mueller, who looks suspiciously like a federal agent who arrested him and Jimmy Darmody back in Atlantic City in 1921. Michael Shannon automatically wins the “Cuanto” MVP award for his impassioned yet comedic (who else could make enunciating “I would like to say something” with a pistol shoved into his mouth the funniest moment in the series?) monologue in which he admits to every single one of his crimes (“Maybe I’m a federal agent, maybe I’m a bigamist, maybe I’m a murderer on the run”—for those of us who have been watching since season 1, we know that everything he just said is true) while appealing to Capone’s ego. Mueller is granted a temporary reprieve, as Capone decides to let him live, but his troubles are just beginning: While government snitch Mike D’Angelo is poring over a bunch of Most Wanted files, he stumbles across one for a certain Nelson Van Alden, complete with a familiar-looking photo.
–This week’s 1884 flashback establishes Sheriff Peter Lindsay as young Nucky’s first mentor. Before Nucky could ingratiate himself with the Commodore, he had to learn how the corruption game is played. It meant the bitter disappointment of not being able to just put a hit on his abusive father, but at least Lindsay’s invitation to dinner allowed both Nucky and Eli to see that it is possible for families to love and support one another. This experience, as well as Lindsay kindly addressing him as “Deputy Sheriff Thompson,” gave Nucky tangible aspirations during his slow climb out of the pit of poverty.