Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “Sunday Best,” learn to juggle before reading on.
The theme of “Sunday Best” is revelation. Revealing facts and motivations costs any fiction writer a great deal, and let’s thank the Boardwalk writers for giving up some secrets. Including the pilot, I can’t think of a better Boardwalk Empire episode than “Sunday Best.”
We begin with Eli, father of eight and survivor of 16 months’ imprisonment. He is hiding Easter eggs; his house is well-appointed and tidy; his children are neatly dressed. (Eli’s wife June tells Margaret during the episode that Nucky has been generous during Eli’s absence.) But the brothers need to come together. Nucky finally relents to the idea that Eli is a man who conspired to kill him but can now conspire to help him. By the end, Nucky appoints Eli as a head of distribution—and seems to recognize that Eli’s almost-grown-up son William (Kevin Csolak) may emerge as a candidate to help with some of the family’s illegalities.
But let me step back. The soul of this episode lies in two breathtaking scenes. Both Gillian and Margaret finally reveal themselves.
As I wrote last week, Gillian Darmody must be the creepiest character on television. She has found a new Jimmy—a young man named Roger (Billy Magnussen)—and I thought last week that she just wanted to relive her incestuous moments with her son. (Forgive me for the 1920s pun: she wants Roger to roger her.) But Gillian is also devious. After she is coquettish, horny, and then satisfied by Roger, she injects him with a giant dose of heroin. Gillian violated her son—we learned in a previous episode that she liked to touch him when he was a baby, and of course later she seduced him—so she has no trouble violating and then killing Roger. He drowns in her bathtub.
Afterward, she puts dog tags around his neck—presumably Jimmy’s—and then lights a cigarette. She has accepted Jimmy’s death by murdering her version of him. And of course she now gets to own the house that Jimmy had inherited.
The scene with Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) is, thankfully, more subtle. Margaret and Nucky have gone to Eli’s for Easter, and she ends up in the kitchen alone with June. A confessional Margaret apologizes for “everything that’s happened,” which I think is supposed to be an apology for Nucky’s unwillingness (inability?) to save Eli from prison. June is a picture of motherly understanding. She tells us that Nucky and Eli had a beast of a father and “a wisp” of a mother. Nucky, she says, protected his brother—”held them together.”
Finally, Margaret can’t contain herself. Her version of morality has broken against Nucky’s. And rather suddenly, she says everything: “He has a mistress, an actress in New York. He’s there half the week. We hardly talk. He’s involved in doings I can’t bear to think about … I feel like the life is being pressed out of me.”
All that may be true. But June knows it’s impractical to think that way—and she has little willingness to comfort Margaret. Eli went to prison; June is raising eight kids; Margaret lives very well. And so June says nothing except that Margaret brought a pineapple upside-down cake. Margaret will have to gather strength on her own. I have no doubt she will.
Harrow remains the moral center of the show. He cares for Tommy even as Gillian is cavorting with Roger. Harrow also copes with Julia Sagorsky’s father even as that drunkard rants—and even as Harrow is trying to figure out how to woo his daughter. Paul Sagorsky and Harrow are both veterans, but one is less capable of coping. Harrow lost much of his face but not so much of his composure. When little Tommy finds some toy soldiers in the Sagorsky house, Sagorsky grabs the boy by his scruff. Harrow doesn’t scream or move impetuously but speaks simply: if Sagorsky doesn’t release the boy, “I’ll kill you.” Remember that Harrow was never in the trenches. He was a sharpshooter, a careful man.
I’m going to skip recapping the performance set piece toward the end of the show except to say that Steve Buscemi either learned to juggle eggs or that the editing was perfect. In terms of story, we know this: Nucky juggles. It was also not surprising that Margaret can’t take more of his juggling–even when they are home and he offers, kindly but too late, to teach her.
I will also skip the episode’s giant misstep: the stereotypical, overacted, and in the end ridiculous scene with Rosetti in the church.What I will say is that “Sunday Best” is an extraordinary episode of television. Beautifully written, expensively made, and finely wrought, it is almost certainly the best of Boardwalk Empire. If you disagree, please comment–but I hope that fellow fans will promote this one. If you don’t like “Sunday Best,” I don’t think you like the show.