Anyone who caught this week's episode of Boardwalk Empire is probably only talking about one thing: that ending. And that's really saying something, because even without its shocking final moment, this latest installment of the HBO series stands out as what might be the season's best episode. Perhaps even one of the series' altogether. Thanks to its playful but sincere tone, some intriguing stylistic choices (reminiscent of the early days of the highly experimental The Sopranos) and a wholehearted devotion to the personal and professional plagues of one Nucky Thompson, "The Pony" makes itself remarkable as one of Boardwalk's most impressive feats in a long while.
And following the bulk of this Tim Van Patten-directed ep (which, alongside Nucky, features primarily Margaret, Nelson Van Alden, Al Capone, Billie Kent, and Gillian Darmody — each armed with a gripping display of growth and development) is Boardwalk's first true "Holy s***!" moment since the killing off of our beloved Jimmy.
The late Mr. Darmody's death hangs heavy over the episode. We discover that the innocent young man — the Jimmy doppelgänger — who met his end at the hands of Gillian last week was part of Gillian's ploy to declare her son dead and inherit his properties: i.e., the brothel, and her grandson Tommy. Upon hearing the news that Jimmy allegedly "died in his mother's bathtub," Nucky is disarmed, and uncomfortable with what Gillian might be planning. This is the storyline through which Nucky enters this explorative episode, and rightfully so: his relationship to Jimmy was, and is, among the most important components of his decaying character. Even long after Jimmy's death is he still enduring qualms regarding his former protégée. In fact, it seems that Nucky accosts Gillian for her dishonest reports not only out of suspicion for what she might be up to, but out of some remnant of love and respect for Jimmy. Just as Richard and Leander Whitlock do, Nucky seems to feel that Jimmy deserves better than this. But he cannot save him anymore.
Nucky's desire to play the hero, the protective father, has been an anchor on the conflicted man since we first met him, back in the days when he'd tend amicably to a then timid Margaret Schroeder. A new object of his complex seems to be U.S. attorney Esther Randolph, perhaps brought in to replace Bille Kent, whom he has gradually begun to realize is not interested in adopting him as her savior. Teamed with Esther and Stephen Root's Tennessee Williams knockoff, Nucky approaches U.S. Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) with a ploy to take down George Remus and, by extension, Harry Daugherty, and in turn to make themselves a healthy profit on the operation of a secret distillery. When Nucky presents this plan in Mellon's country club, Mellon has him ousted publicly, calling him an "interloper" and marring Nucky's pride... later on, however, the Secretary phones Nucky to agree to the transaction. But it's that interim period that really charges a few coarse actions for Nucky.
Hurt and angry by the interaction, Nucky visits Billie at an unfortunate time: finding her engaged in some kooky tomfoolery with some mixed gender company. After some unkind words tossed both ways (Nucky rehashes the term "interloper," while he in turn is referred to, quite derogatorily, as "sir"), Billie and Nucky come to the understanding that she doesn't need him to look over her. He finally accepts this, and bids her a loose farewell, insisting still that she take a steady income from him, but that he will no longer provide the father figure motif that she resents so much. It appears that the pair's relationship is over, and then this is cemented. In that final scene.
Angry with Nucky for the whole killing-her-son thing, Gillian forms a relationship with a mutual Thompson-hater Gyp Rosetti, informing him as to where Nucky, Arnold Rothstein, and Lucky Luciano will be dining that night (sort of the 1920s version of an inadvertent Facebook check-in). To satisfy her desires and his own, Rosetti sets up an explosive in the restaurant to do away with his three nemeses. Unfortunately for his plan, Nucky and co. are detained by a talkative boardwalk urchin... the bomb goes off before they even enter the establishment. But Billie Kent, who was accompanying Nucky in a kind of bittersweet peacekeeping of their camaraderie, is ostensibly killed.
Although Billie's death won't be nearly the game changer of many of those to precede her, the hike in stakes is enough to charge the next few episodes. Some serious blood has been drawn, and Nucky can no longer ignore the nuisance that is Gyp.
Nucky's story might lead the action, but the Chicago side of the series has a good deal of riveting stuff going on as well. Following his decision to beat to death a business associate who bullied his friend, Al Capone receives what would ordinarily be an earful from boss Johnny Torrio, fresh back in town from a trip to Italy. But the vacation seems to have changed Torrio. His journey to Pompeii has instilled a zen appreciation for life, and for the decisions of his protégée. As Capone's story thus far has dealt with his shift from boyhood to manhood, this seems to be a pivotal step in that process. He has earned the identity of responsibility in his boss' eyes. Al might start becoming the Al Capone we know historically any day now. But in the kind of connection that would have occurred in a pre-island Lost flashback, Capone finds himself in a meeting with one Nelson Van Alden, who is working for florist/gangster Dean O'Banion following Van Adlen's request for O'Banion's assistance in disposing of a dead body he just happened to have in his living room. Now, Van Alden is a bootlegger... a job he is none too pleased with. But it's better than his regular job. His job where all of the other salesman mock and laugh at him, driving him to a point of madness wherein he actually attacks one of them with a hot iron. Oh yeah, that happens this week. In an amalgamation of Carrie- and The Incredible Hulk-like rage, Van Alden tears apart his office after being incessantly teased by how coworkers, running home and insisting that he and his wife hightail it out of Illinois. But Sigrid has a different idea: why Nelson was at work, she took the time to brew a whole bunch of liquor. Enough to satisfy O'Banion and to sell on their own and rake in the cash they need to live comfortably.
Sigrid is an interesting component to this world. She seems unconcerned with Nelson's wrongdoings. She is loyal to him, for no discernible reason. But she provides him with something he has never had before: support. Even as he enters the crime world full swing, Van Alden is, for the first time, secure. He has someone on his side.
Finally, Margaret, who all but admits to losing her sense of morality, her ideas of "right" and "wrong." The once impeccably conservative Margaret is now willing to help a woman obtain contraceptives. A woman, no less, who had an ad hoc abortion (something the old Margaret would have deemed evil and unholy). And beyond that, she engages unabashedly in a continuation of her romantic tryst with Owen Slater. It's not as though she has a sanct marriage to protect; she and her husband are barely a couple. But she is no longer bothered by this. She is driven by her desires and by her identity of strength... which is why Nucky can no longer be what he once was for her. Ditto Billie. Well, that and the whole she-just-exploded thing.
[Photo Credit: HBO (2)]