Over the course of Boardwalk Empire’s second season, we witnessed the periodic destruction of one character to a degree much greater than that of any other. While Nucky faltered from the peak of the empire, and Jimmy eventually met his ultimate demise, the real tragic tumbling came attached to Eli Thompson — a once prominent lawman and connected crook (his brother, after all, is the kingpin of Atlantic County crime) whose journeys robbed him of everything: his stature, his family, his freedom, even his mind. Eli’s lowest points saw him grappling with Nucky (only to incur the gunpoint wrath of sister-in-law Margaret), and murdering a colleague out of frantic desperation, nearly being caught red-handed by his own young son.
We catch up with Eli on this week’s episode, finally released from prison and retrieved by the most insulting of chauffeurs: Mickey Doyle. Throughout the episode, we see a newly stoic Eli come to recognize every air of grace from which he has fallen. Understanding that only expendable Mickey is worth the mission of picking Eli up from the penitentiary, Eli comes to understand his lost spot in Nucky’s inner circle. Losing a battle of wills with a team of local police, Eli comes to understand his lost authority as a crooked sheriff. But most importantly, Eli meets his grown son: now the family’s breadwinner and moral compass. Eli is grief stricken by just how little respect or affection his son seems to hold for him. There is no hostility, no confrontation. It’s almost as if Eli’s eldest son doesn’t consider him a father at all, but merely a visiting family friend to whom he owes politesse, but nothing else. It kills Eli. Though probably not enough for him to actually work toward a better life.
The episode sees Eli and Mickey cross paths with Gyp Rossetti, whose lack of adult reasonability seems to be his deadliest weapon. Everyone else on this show, even the scrappy Al Capone, fosters some understanding that his own ways, wants, and perspectives must be compromised with that of the forces around him. But Gyp Rossetti is an overgrown five-year-old, which makes him an especially unlikeable character and a particularly palpable threat.
Unfortunately, the former overshadows the latter. While the viewer might appreciate how great a danger Gyp might pose to Nucky and company, it’s still hard to get excited about the scenes wherein he’s onscreen. Not for fault of the capable Bobby Cannavale, but watching Gyp feels like babysitting a brat. Unless we find some presence of human character within him — some motivation to root for him, as we have seen in just about everyone else on the show (except maybe for sidelined figures like the Commodore) — then we can hope that his days will be cut short soon.
A contained, entirely personal story comes along with the family of Chalky White, a man who clearly holds no affection for the life he has chosen for himself. Chalky’s daughter Maybelle has been courting a polite, respectful young medical student. Whereas we might expect anyone involved with Chalky’s daughter to be in for some trouble, Chalky instead takes a liking to the boy, encouraging the idea that he is entering an honest, ethical line of work. But Chalky’s daughter dons her Elektra Complex this week to profess herself bored with his boyfriend. She wants someone exciting, risky, dangerous, pointing out that these were the reasons her mother married her father.
Maybelle takes her boyfriend to one of her father’s seedy clubs, looking for excitement and earning just that: a man is beaten to a bloody pulp right in front of her, and her own boyfriend slashed with a knife — Maybelle trembles in terror as her father glares at her knowingly. The story transcends beyond the confines of her character. Chalky clearly upholds an air of resentment for the life he has made for himself — one that seems to have been brought on by the father of his own wife, and a young Chalky’s eagerness to earn his approval. Few of the figures on Boardwalk ever really give their doings a second thought, but Chalky obviously wants a different future for his children, and perhaps wishes for a different present for himself.
Margaret is on her own crusade of good. Deeply disturbed by the miscarriage of a patient in her hospital, Margaret tries to invoke the partnership of an intelligent and ethical but curt doctor — think House or Perry Cox, but in the ‘20s. All of the other forces at the hospital wish not to stir up trouble for themselves; this man, though in favor of progressive steps like education women about prenatal care, doesn’t seem to trust Margaret or her intentions. But Margaret has her way with stark, noble men: Season One’s Nucky, before he fell entirely from his seat of hidden morality, then Owen Sleater. And now, pre-Depression Hugh Laurie. We’ll see how extensive of a partnership these two develop (and to whose expense… probably Nucky’s and the hospital administrators’) over the coming episodes.
Finally, Nucky himself. Engaged in an affair that he seems to be taking much more seriously than his partner (one of the entertainers at his New Years party), Nucky shows that beneath it all, he is a vulnerable, human fellow. It’s a shame that these affections are reserved not for his wife, but for a woman without much genuine feeling for him. Nucky’s most interesting stories to date have involved his vulnerability — his love for Jimmy, his soft spot for Margaret (in the early days, at least), so hopefully something substantial will come out of this apparent budding love for his new mistress. Of course, it might also symbolize his graying years: Nucky is no longer the hottest commodity in town. In his days of fooling around with Lucy Danziger, he was her top priority (at least among suitors). Now, he’s falling to the second and third tiers of the playboy game. Maybe the season is setting up for a crumbling of the other Thompson brother? Maybe, in a twist, we might even see Eli take the reins?
[Photo Credit: HBO]