Boardwalk Empire Watch: My Ears Are Ringing

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Macall B. Polay/HBO

Ivo Nandi and Bobby Cannavale on 'Boardwalk Empire,' Season 3 Episode 9

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “The Milkmaid’s Lot,” you should have your hearing checked before continuing.

Last night’s episode wasn’t so much about revenge—although Nucky wants that—as the fog of war. Nucky can’t hear well, and his concussion makes him addled. His team is never quite sure whether he’s making the right choice or needs to be strapped down.

We begin with scenes of Babette’s ruins. It won’t all be lace and ladies on the boardwalk for some time. Nucky has tinnitus and pain, but he declines to take most of the prescribed medications. What he wants instead is to fight back. As I pointed out last week, Nucky is not only more than half a gangster now; after Billie’s death, he is a warrior.

But as his doctor points out, one of the symptoms of concussions is lack of mental acuity. Nucky gets some simple things wrong—he asks Eddie to bring him Eddie, who is, of course, present. (Nucky meant Eli.) He also asks about the pony, but he doesn’t seem to remember that the pony was a narrative device rather than an actual purchase. And he seems to confuse Chalky for a shoeshiner, which is not a good idea.

Margaret is also unsettled in the wake of the explosion. Her husband’s lover is dead, but her own entrapment continues. She can’t even get Teddy to make his bed: The maids will do it, he says. But in what I’m guessing is a bit of foreshadowing, Margaret says there won’t always be maids.

Her first stop, unsurprisingly, is to see Sleater. (She tells him the children are “a bit tetchy,” one my favorite Anglophile words.) Later in the episode, they will have what is almost surely one of the most important conversations of the season, if not the series:

Margaret begins by remarking on Sleater’s refusal of a drink: “Thats funny,” she says “Our whole lives center around it. Everything we say or don’t say—all in those bottles.”

After Sleater tells her it’s just a business, she asks a practical question: “Is business meant to be like this?”

And then Sleater gives a rather poetic answer: “Ask the man buried in the coal mine—or digging the canal—or working a slaughterhouse. No one asks where what they want comes from. They just want it. And they believe what suits them.”

Margaret: “And that’s your peace with it?”

Owen: “There’s no halfway.” Which is, of course, the theme of this season: you can’t be half a gangster. And yet Sleater takes us down a narrative path that I expect to end the season: “When I’m done,” he says, “I’ll walk away.” He says this could happen in a year or two, which is almost certainly the life of the show. But the crucial part: he invites Margaret to leave with him—as soon as now.

“It would have to be far,” she responds. Their conversation remains unresolved, although Sleater tells us something important: he’s less complicated than Margaret.

Rosetti may or may not be a complicated man, but he does have men with guns, and they return to Tabor Heights at the head of Rosetti’s considerable steam. Rosetti begins his return by using a nightstick to beat the shit out of the new sheriff. As much a sadomasochist as a mobster, Rosetti really does love instruments of pain. Another he uses is the telephone; he calls Nucky to read a newspaper account of Billie’s death. Finally, just to crush the point, the writers show us Rosetti stealing the hat from a museum duplicate of “Mad Anthony” Wayne, a Revolutionary War fighter. I think I get it: Rosetti is nuts.

That call nearly unhinges Nucky—he throws things around until Eli gives him a sort of hug—but the call ultimately focuses Nucky. He asks for a meeting with many of the prominent gangsters of his time: Frankie Yale, Waxey Gordon, Peg Leg LonerganBill Lovett. John Torrio “if he’ll come.” And of course Rothstein, who himself remains injured from the Babette bombing.

Nucky has lost any sense of pretense: “Joe Masseria is backing Gyp Rosetti,” he says. “So I’ll need to kill them both.” Sleater points out that Masseria has an army, but Nucky wants to fight it. Torrio is the only one not coming, but Nucky shows up just fine: he says he will wear Masseria’s “fucking guts like a neck tie.”

Sometimes Boardwalk Empire does get a bit too Goodfellas in its language and violence, but the Harrow character is always redeeming. His relationship with Julia has been a bit rushed this season, but both actors are carrying it off well. Harrow has always wanted to be a family man—all that heartbreakingly demure fetishizing of moms, dads and kids in innocent scenes from magazine ads. But now, in a way, he has what he wanted. He is a father to Tommy. True, Tommy’s parents are dead; his grandmother is a murderous psychopath; and he lives in a whorehouse where he just saw a john having his way with a worker. But Harrow remains a better father than Jimmy might have been. And when he dances with Julia, you glimpse the man before the war. Her kiss makes for a perfect scene.

Margaret, always the moral wobbler on the show, steels Nucky for his big meeting—but then tells Sleater that they will go “as soon as we’re able.” Maybe she’s just getting Nucky back to normal before she leaves him, but she is as least as calculating as her husband.

We end with Nucky in a bad position. None of the gangsters he has invited will back him, not even Rothstein. “I will remember this,” Nucky says. No doubt.

Department of Favorite Lines

What happens when Bible camp opens?

Bible camp’s cancelled. And I’m really not doing questions and answers right now, dear.

Department of Expensive Camp
Boardwalk is a lush production, but what must it have cost to make the scene in which Remus gets arrested? Remus wants to know.