Boardwalk Empire Watch: Everyone Has a Breaking Point

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Macall B. Polay/HBO

James Cromwell on 'Boardwalk Empire'

A spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “The Pony,” heat your steam iron and watch before reading on.

Apologies for a sci-fi fanboy’s interpretation, but Boardwalk has suffered this season from a problem not unlike the Star Trek movie problem: You get a rollicking Wrath of Khan and then a dreadful Search for Spock–then the entertaining Voyage Home and then the wretched Final Frontier, and so on. There are no bad episodes of Boardwalk Empire, but “The Pony” seemed like a placeholder—especially compared with last week’s extraordinary “Sunday Best.”

One reason for the unevenness is that Boardwalk operates like The Wire: each episode is a chapter in a novel, so it can be difficult to find a unifying theme for any particular installment. (By contrast, Mad Men manages both feats: each chapter has its own melody.)

This week the camera begins on Harrow’s remarkable visage at a funeral for Roger, Gillian’s fake-Jimmy. Jack Huston, the English actor who plays Harrow, has managed to express his character’s emotion even as half his face is covered in a prosthetic and even as he must speak in a gravelly American accent. At fake-Jimmy’s funeral, Gillian covers her own face in some sort of delicate Padme-like mourning costume (again, forgive the sci-fi reference). We saw her killing Roger in last week’s episode, and now she lies about the real Jimmy: “He would reach for the needle,” she says. “[There was] nothing I could do to stop him.”

(MORE: Boardwalk Empire Watch: Finding the Easter Eggs)

Gillian is an accomplished fabricator, but her composure eventually breaks. She is a madam, a liar, and a murderer–but eventually she seems to remember that she was also a mother.When Nucky comes to speak with her, she says (correctly) that he killed her son–and then she throws a drink in Nucky’s face. Nucky has gotten far with his charm, his cash, and that constant lapel flower. But he now offers Gillian brutal truth: “You exist in this town because I allow you to.”

Van Alden’s identity is also emerging. He has whipped himself with a belt, and now he’s preparing to abuse others in the service of producing and selling liquor—a substance he had sworn to oppose. After stoically taking ridicule from his colleagues at the iron-sales company, Van Alden finally breaks. He applies one of the new steam irons to the face of a colleague who is mocking him. He then throws around a lot of office equipment; at the end of the scene, we see him bug-eyed and half-smiling.By the end of the episode, Van Alden is not only making whiskey but serving as muscle for Dean O’Banion, the flower-shop guy and a major Irish-American mobster in 1920s Chicago. (Once again, I recommend Daniel Okrent’s history of Prohibition. O’Banion was a rival of Al Capone’s. I think we all know how that competition turned out.)

Nucky seems to have a growing relationship with Esther Randolph, an assistant U.S. attorney who has been trying to enforce the Volstead Act, which was enacted after the passage of the 18th Amendment to enforce its alcohol ban. But in “The Pony,” she is willing (again) to meet with Nucky and also—this time—with the oily Gaston Means, a swindler who helped serve the corrupt Harding Administration. (A nice moment between Nucky and Randolph: he asks what she does for fun. She replies, “I run naked through the pages of the United States criminal code.”)

The politics in the scenes that follow become complicated, which is one reason “The Pony” serves mostly as a placeholder. To summarize briefly: Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (played nicely by James Cromwell) disliked Prohibition partly because it meant the end of sales taxes on alcohol—and then the necessity for income taxes. Men like Mellon—who made great gobs of income—disliked income taxes. (As Okrent points out, Mellon also drank unapologetically.) Mellon detested Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who enforced Prohibition but also took graft from those who violated the Volstead Act. Nucky strikes a deal with Mellon to oppose Daugherty, their common enemy. Nucky will oversee the Old Overholt distillery, which Mellon partly owns. Nucky will produce Overholt whiskey, make money for Mellon–and the two are never meant to speak again. Says Nucky: “All you would see is the money.”

(MORE: Boardwalk Empire Watch: The House Is on Fire)

Nucky and Billie were never going to survive as a couple, so the writers needed to remove her from the stage. They begin this process by putting her on a literal stage—one for a movie. The director says she will serve as a showgirl, a member of the chorus—”the pony?” she asks. But she nails the audition. Nucky had wanted to help her, but Billie is doing fine on her own. Later, when he finds her at home cavorting innocently with her friend Gil, he calls Gil an “interloper”—the same term Mellon had used when he had Nucky escorted from a haute New York City club.

At this point, the writing gets slightly rushed. Nucky beats Gil. That leads to an argument with Billie, who accuses Nucky of being like her father—which he seems to confirm by offering to “take care of” her so that she “won’t have to worry about anything.” He also says Billie can’t rely on the acting business. “There’s nothing you can count on,” he says, which is surely a line meant to describe his own situation. She then says she wants him to be her “gangster” (once again, you can’t be half of one of those). As rain falls on her slanted windows, Nucky seizes her in a very Don Draper way (remember the scene when Don grabs Megan after his party?)

But in the end I was confused about what either of them wanted. I guess the irresolution was the point, but Billie shows up in Atlantic City afterward. She appears in the doorway of Babette’s, the supper club. But Gillian has told Rosetti that Nucky will be dining there that night with Rothstein. Nucky sees Billie in the doorway right before the building explodes. Billie is likely dead; we leave Nucky writhing on the boardwalk.

Just a few more observations at the bottom my whiskey bottle:

Department of Great Lines

1. Leander to Gillian on the subject of her grandson: “You’re raising him in a whorehouse.” Gillian back to Leander: “It’s a health resort.”

2. Nucky to Andrew Mellon: “You may have heard of me.” A couple of beats. “Or not.”

Department of Surprises

Sigrid Mueller may turn out to be the most steely gangster on the show.

Department of Foreshadowing

When Rosetti meets Harrow at Gillian’s brothel, he asks, “You use him to scare away the mice?” Rosetti is not a mouse, but he is vermin. And I think Harrow may do more than scare him away—particularly since it seems Nucky, Luciano, and Rothstein survived the bombing. Nucky won’t be just a gangster now; he will be a warrior.

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of Boardwalk Empire