The Prohibition Era slice of Americana continues to flawlessly recreate a period, and populate it with characters worth spending time with.
What’s particularly impressive about Boardwalk Empire is not only its many-layered approach to storytelling, but in its ability to transition genres within the context of a period costume drama. Some episodes can tend towards pure gangster action, while others (like last week’s Spaghetti and Coffee) can purely concentrate on characters big and small. This week’s outing is inky black, and borders on the horror side of drama, filling Nucky’s dreams with dark omens and his waking life with even more disturbing turns.
Nucky’s (Steve Buscemi) story is actually the most straightforward this episode, although it is one that is signalling him losing his grip. Wife, perhaps in name only, Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) proves to be just as manipulative as Nucky in her desires to get the Bishop onside for a women’s clinic, restoring the power the character had in the previous seasons. Almost in response to this, Nucky’s obsession with Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle) grows clingy, he now being the more submissive partner in that relationship. If viewers had been thinking that his slide from illegitimate businessman to full-blown gangster had been too rapid, and completely free of remorse, his repeated visions of young boys with gunshot wounds demonstrate that pulling the trigger on Jimmy Darmody may not have been as simple as it looked. Speaking of the Darmody’s, there is a shade of Gothic (perhaps even Dickensian) horror in Nucky’s visit from Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who is upset that Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) is claiming responsibility for Manny Horowitz’s death. He states in no uncertain terms that he was avenging Angela, and that Manny had crossed the line in taking the life of Jimmy’s innocent wife.
Huston is incredibly underused in this episode, conveying a wealth of emotions in just a few scenes, all the more impressive given the restricted facial movements the actor has to work with. Like Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who also makes a reappearance this week, their stories have been sidelined by the bigger power-play. Yet like the previous week, it is the unhinged Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) who steals the spotlight. Taking offense at the slightest of indiscretions, he is the pure raging gangster that Nucky may never be thanks to the latter’s high sense of self-awareness. The title of this week’s episode comes from a garbled message of “Good luck” that Owen (Charlie Cox) attempts to deliver to Gyp on his way out of town, renewing the Sicilian gangster’s sense of rage in how others perceive him. His volatility makes him one of the more intriguing villains of the piece, and Nucky’s lack of focus means he is on the back foot from somebody that “old Nucky” would have easily crushed.
Serving an interesting parallel to both men is former federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), now living the life of a salesman in Chicago. It has been fascinating to watch Shannon develop this character from the very strange fed at war with his own faith. Ridiculed by his co-workers, impoverished and having a brush with the law, there is a growing notion of urgency in his arc. Like Nucky, Nelson is dangerously close to breaking point and it will be a frightening thing to watch when it pops. Indeed, it is terrific to see how the many threads that have been woven over the last two years or so are slowly playing out with no particular rush, but always with the feeling that this is one powder keg ready to blow at any moment.
Boardwalk Empire airs on Sundays at 9:00 pm on HBO in the US, and on Wednesdays at 8:30pm in Australia on Showtime.