Spoiler alert—no really, serious spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “A Man, a Plan…,” then bury yourself in the sand and watch before reading on.
Boardwalk Empire has always been free of typical television constraints because of the Hollywood royalty who back it: Martin Scorsese is an executive producer (who also directed the pilot), and Mark Wahlberg—whom I suppose counts as royalty at this point—is another producer. Tim Van Patten, the prolific and talented director of many great HBO episodes, helms much of Boardwalk. And of course creator Terence Winter is partly responsible for one of the most enduring series ever filmed, The Sopranos.
Possibly because of its magnificent backing, Boardwalk has felt free to take chances. In last season’s finale, the show killed off a favorite character, Jimmy Darmody (played with troubled insouciance by Michael Pitt). And last night we lost Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), who was to be Margaret’s way out from under Nucky and a way for the show to wind down. Instead, Sleater’s corpse was delivered in a crate to Nucky in the middle of the night.
That means Steve Buscemi will have to work all the harder to keep an audience that may be eager to see some heroes. But there are no heroes here. You should switch over to Showtime’s Homeland if you want to see people being routinely decent to one another.
We begin with the only possible hero of the show, the mangled assassin Harrow, who may finally be getting the domestic bliss he always wanted. We watch him carry ice cream cones to Julia and Tommy at the beach, where swimmers are enjoying an old-timey performance of the Neptune story. (Like so much else in Boardwalk, the costuming here is extraordinary—the swimsuits, Tommy’s sailor outfit, Neptune’s fake beard.) But the bliss is broken when we get payoff from the title sequence: bottles of whiskey wash up onto the beach, and everyone runs for them.
It turns out that Rosetti owned much of that shipment, and now he has only 24 or so crates. But a new man, cousin to Tonino, tells Rosetti—in a scene accidentally prescient of the Sandy storm (which ravaged the New Jersey coast)—that the whiskey could have been lost to “rogue waves.” Rosetti, whose character has been written as a rogue wave, asks for clarification. “Sometimes,” the cousin says, “when the wind shifts, waves crash into each other from different directions. And when they do, they make giant waves. It’s easy to lose cargo if it’s not strapped down.”
Rosetti, of course, is a character who is not strapped down—and he is the least convincing, most annoying character on the show. I understand that Darmody had to die, but we have only Rosetti—little more than a sadomasochist—to replace him. He eventually has the cousin buried in the sand so that only his head is showing. And then Rosetti beats him to death with a shovel. Enough already.
Van Alden is a far more complicated character—probably just a masochist rather than a sadomasochist—and in this episode, we see that he has become what he swore he wouldn’t: a liquor dealer. The scene in which he sells aquavit to the bartender recalled, in a slightly askance but riveting way, the scene in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables in which Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness says, “I have broken every law I swore to uphold. I have become what I beheld.” When Van Alden gets taken away at gunpoint—an arrest that turns out to be an abduction by Capone—it’s neither a legal nor a moral comeuppance. Instead, it’s a grooming: I would wager two cases of whiskey that Van Alden will be the greatest gangster of the series. Van Alden’s quoting of Job only seals the deal: he will be a patient, selfless killer.
For his part, Nucky has never seemed troubled by scruples. He is conspiring with the oily Gaston Means to kill Harding Administration aide Jesse Smith, who might testitfy against Thompson and Means in the trial of bootlegger George Remus. (Remus wants to know how this subplot will end.) Means wants $40,000 for the job, which would be more than half a million in today’s dollars (according to my trusty inflation calculator).
We first see Sleater with Katy, and—rather indirectly—he proposes to her. When she seems skeptical, he winks. Then he says, “We’ll discuss it later.” She is radiant as he leaves, but she has little idea how cruel he’s being. Sleater and Margaret are planning to run away together to St. Louis.
When he sees Margaret, they play out their act before Eddie before having a real conversation. Sleater tells Margaret he will follow her a month or six weeks after she leaves—so much later so that Nucky won’t know. If he does, they will have no place to hide. And Katy? “I’ll leave one morning, tell her something convincing—and she’ll never see me again.” Margaret seems troubled.
Sleater goes in to meet with Nucky and Eli, who are discussing palindromes—which is fitting, since Boardwalk is a show whose characters can run forward and backward at the same time. Sleater is told that Masseria goes to Turkish baths every Thursday at 9 p.m. on Chrystie Street. (Chrystie, once home to many poor immigrant communities, has changed somewhat.)
Meantime, another iniquity is at work. When Means meets with him, Smith is addled—so addled that he takes Means’ suggestion to burn $10,000 cash. When Attorney General Daugherty sees Smith’s hysteria, he cuts him off, which sets up Smith’s suicide (another actual event dramatized in the show).
This episode is dark and full of disenchantments, and now Margaret is absorbing a disappointment: “the bishop himself” has decided to terminate her women’s sexuality classes. But the doctor has prescribed a diaphragm for her, and he suggests that they could get a storefront—presumably an abortion clinic—where women could learn “anything they needed to know.” Margaret—who has plans to leave with Owen—dissuades him.
We go back briefly to Harrow and Julia, who seem to be happy apart from her drunk father, who storms in and suggests his daughter is “some mongrel bitch in heat” and that Harrow is “some sideshow freak.” Big mistake. Harrow attacks and holds down Mr.Sagorsky. Harrow removes his mask and then asks Sagorsky: “Would you pay a dime to see this?” He forces Sagorsky to apologize, and then he and Julia kiss. But I have the feeling we will see more of this problematized domesticity and that everything will become harrowing for Harrow once again.
I’m going to glide past the bocce scene with Masseria, partly because the Italian accents are so bad. But it does establish that Rothstein has played his eight ball into both corners, just in case. And I’ll skip the machinations over Rosetti’s new shipment except to say that it leads Rosetti to that brutal and slightly ridiculous extermination of Tonino’s cousin.
Every appearance of Michael Kenneth Williams on Boardwalk is welcome, so I was happy to see Chalky. Mr. White comes to Nucky with a deal to turn the wreck of Babette’s into a black club. Nucky is resistant because, he says, there’s a line. Chalky: “That line can move.”
But, at least for now, Nucky won’t move. At this point in the episode, the music darkens and then builds for the last 10 min. Smith shoots himself, and we see Sleater going into the bathhouse. Then we see Rosetti counting up his new shipment: 28,800 bottles. He also tells a story: his father smelled like sweat and died at 50. That’s not long before he beats the man to death with a shovel. It’s a beautifully shot scene. But as with most Rosetti scenes, it’s overwritten.
What is not overwritten is the final scene, the one in which we see Owen’s body in the crate. Eddie wakes Nucky, and then Margaret wakes. She finds Sleater, and Kelly Macdonald shows her talent: she beats Buscemi half-heartedly but mainly cries—and runs away with her nightgown billowing. She is spectral, not unlike her character in the last Harry Potter movie. It turns out she is pregnant with Sleater’s child—something he knows before going off to try to kill Masseria.
“A Man, a Plan…” was one of the darkest episodes in a dark series. What with the brooding music in the final scenes, I had trouble sleeping afterward. Harrow seems to offer redemption, but it will be a neat trick for the writers to find a reason to care about any of these people after last night. There’s taking risk with a show, and then there’s burning it to the ground.