Boardwalk Empire Watch: A Chaos of Spoils

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…And a chaos of spoilers: don’t read on if you haven’t seen “Spaghetti & Coffee.”

The funny thing about Nucky Thompson is that he is the most talented, least willing gangster since the young Michael Corleone. The central question of Boardwalk Empire is whether Nuck really wants to end up cooking from an iron skillet in his suspenders or ordering deaths from behind fur-lined coats.

We open this week with the emergence of Eli from prison. He’s haggard—actor Shea Whigham seems to have dropped a few pounds—and dispirited, if not surprised, to see the loathsome, giggly Mickey Doyle pick him up. Nucky is keeping his distance from his brother for various reasons, including his own physical and emotional self-protection. Eli did conspire to kill him, after all.

Doyle explains to Eli that “things have changed,” that Nucky is “harder” to get to—by which I think the writers mean that Nucky is not only a richer, more prominent gangster but also an inwardly harder man. Shooting your protégé in the head will do that.

Even as we learn that Nucky is more powerful than ever, the man who will be his adversary this season, Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), is stuck in Tabor Heights, N.J., a fictional town between New York City and Atlantic City. Last week, I found Cannavale’s Rosetti both overwritten and overplayed—too much Tommy DeVito, the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas.

But we get a nice return on that dramatic investment this week: Rosetti can easily kill the gas-station kid who has to tell him—literally—where he is in the world and even how to read a map scale. Rosetti asks, “Sometimes it’s not called that?”—the same question he asked last week before brutalizing the good Samaritan with a tire iron. Instead, Rosetti realizes the gas-station kid can help him.

Meantime, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) has more fully assumed her role as benefactress and tea-serving proto-doyenne. “Visitors are announced by name, Phillip,” she says as Sleater (Charlie Cox) walks in. Always best to stand on decorum when a former lover is approaching.

Margaret reminds me of Skyler White (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), another character whose husband has violated virtually every moral rule those women hold dear. But whereas Skyler ends up feeling trapped by Walt’s riches, Margaret is torn by the obligations of her era: her church tells her she must use the money for good; society tells her she must play the part of a good wife; and, if we can be honest, she likes that long strand of pearls and the other refinements of the early ’20s. Let’s not forget she’s playing a role that Walt plays on Breaking Bad: she’s ensuring her children will never live in poverty.

Chalky White (Michael Williams) has to do even more to ensure his children’s well-being. Thanks to his deftness as a bootlegger, his management of social unrest among poorly paid African-American workers in Atlantic City, and his fealty to Nucky, he has made a great fortune. Now Chalky seems a bit bored—we find him fixing a chair—when young Samuel (Ty Robinson) comes to ask his permission to marry Maybelle (Christina Jackson).

Just as he did in The Wire, Williams plays his character expertly. He is a man who can be underestimated as an enforcer but one who can evaluate novelists and doctors despite (or because of) a childhood unencumbered by advantage. Even as Chalky allows Samuel to examine him—his hands, his face, his chest—Chalky is examining Samuel. The aspiring doctor decides Chalky needs more leafy vegetables, and Chalky decides Samuel needs to marry his daughter. One of these decisions will end up carrying a great deal of weight.

Nucky is also measuring himself against others. When he goes to pay his standard fee for protection against federal investigation—a $40,000 fee arranged by U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty—Nucky meets Gaston Means, a shady Southerner. Like many of the characters in Boardwalk, Means was a real figure—a swindler and financier who worked for Daugherty, who was the real Attorney General under Warren Harding. Daugherty was a notoriously corrupt Washington figure. As Daniel Okrent writes in his masterful history Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daugherty kept large quantities of seized liquor in a private Washington stash. Even in the corrupt Harding Administration, Daugherty was a colossal crook, a man who helped the Prohibition Bureau become, in the words of a historian whom Okrent quotes, “a chaos of spoils.”

Chalky is a man who knows a lot about chaos and wants most of all to protect his children from it. He has decided that Maybelle will marry Samuel, but he has little idea how to speak to people without threatening them. Maybelle can’t be threatened—just as Margaret can’t. He tries to bully her, but she is the daughter he raised: smart and obstreperous. The subtlety of this scene—its complications of gender and race—is classic Boardwalk.

In a late set piece, Rosetti goes to a diner and ends up ordering “spaghetti and meatballs,” which is a slightly ridiculous idea to a Sicilian immigrant. (Primo and then secondo, per favore.) The local cops come in—and yet once again, Rosetti restrains himself from what could probably be easy kills.

Nucky is also in retreat. He seems to be falling for Lillian, which is a terrible idea—yet another young woman who won’t be as good as Margaret?—and is leaving his enterprise to Sleater, the man who cuckolded him. The final two scenes have Rosetti, rather predictably, stopping one of Nucky’s major shipments to New York and Nucky, somewhat less predictably, cooking for Lillian from an iron skillet with no seeming interest in that shipment. He gets sentimental: he cooked for his mother, he tells Lillian, just to give her a day off.

Lillian’s phone rings, and Nucky thinks it’s another one of her lovers. He doesn’t get mad, but reveals what’s really on his mind: “You know what I’d like—more than anything else? For people to be honest about what they want, no matter what.”

“Sounds a little dangerous,” Lillian responds.

“It’s dangerous anyway,” Nucky says. At which point he falls yet again: he tells Lillian he wants to stay with her forever, apparently cooking from the skillet and helping repair her leaky radiator. Nucky may be a man who gets everything, but he will never get that.