Boardwalk Empire Watch: The War Begins

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Macall B. Polay/HBO

Steve Buscemi on 'Boardwalk Empire'

First, a spoiler alert: Load your weapons and watch “Two Impostors” before continuing.

Wars tend to start not only in anger but confusion. People choose sides; people change sides; death comes unevenly. Last night’s Boardwalk Empire—which continued an extraordinary run for the series that began a few weeks ago with “Sunday Best”—shows in tight frames and efficient scenes how the Thompson-Rosetti war begins. “Two Impostors” is taut, sad, and thrilling. The scene in which Harrow gathers his guns managed both art and fright in a way rare for television or film. In short, I can’t wait for next week’s finale.

We begin in Thompson’s darkened Ritz suite—among the first of many of Allen Coulter‘s gloomy palettes during the episode. Margaret has taken the kids to the train station; Sleater’s body has been removed; some henchmen are there to protect Nucky. Eddie also remains—loyal even though Nucky says, correctly, that “they’re coming.”

The phone is dead, and so is the score: one of the most interesting artistic decisions of the episode is that it uses virtually no music. Men come in the night with shotguns to kill Nucky. He makes it out, but the only sounds are those of gunfire and the pelicans outside on the beach. The scene in which Nucky and Rosetti’s man fight through the doorway is shot with a quiet spareness bordering on Hitchcockian genius.

Rosetti invades Nuck’s apartment and violates his space—going so far as to read Nucky’s copy of Ragged Dick, a famous Horatio Alger novel that Nucky apparently received as a gift from his mother when he was 12. “To my brave Enoch,” she wrote, although her son’s bravery remains a matter of contention. He does try to get Eddie to the hospital, where he has to remind a doctor that there’s “a fucking wing here named after me. Get a goddamn stretcher.” But Rosetti’s men have already shown up, and Nucky has to flee with a delirious Eddie.

Meantime, we also see Luciano without music. In a rain-soaked New York City alley, he offers heroin for $200 an ounce—although the buyer turns out to be a cop. Rothstein would never have let himself be caught up in a dangerous deal for just $15,000.

It is Harrow who—as usual—forms the moral center of the episode. He arrives at Artemis to find Gillian violating his privacy the way Gyp is violating Nucky’s. She has found what I call Harrow’s family porn—his images of happy moms, dads and kids in innocent situations. But one of those photos is of Harrow himself with Julia and Gillian’s grandson Tommy, whom she has come to call her own son in a typical act of vanity and deception. Her decision to turn Harrow away—to have him escorted from the premises at gunpoint—will be her downfall. Or at least I hope it will. Grethen Mol has skillfully found the outer limits of this character, and I grow weary of Gillian.

Nucky goes to Chalky, for whom he has done favors and who still wants something from him: control of how Babette’s will be rebuilt. But let’s not ignore the racial politics here: Nucky has preferred to see Chalky as a useful tool rather than simply a black man. On some moral scale, that may not make Nucky a good person—but I think it makes him not a bad person. Chalky knows this: Nucky is going to be just as brutal to him as he would be to anyone else.

The psychopath Rosetti is offering $25,000 to kill Nucky—but Chalky picks the devil he knows. When Rosetti shows up with many guns to make the cash offer in person, Chalky demonstrates a loyalty to Nucky that was a bit unexpected—but again, Rosetti is obviously a psychopath. Chalky appeals to Rosetti’s sense of sexual privacy, which was established earlier in the season: “Got a little private affair going on right now,” he says. “Your gents marching in are going to cost me more than money … I just aim to keep my johnson in its rightful place.” And so Gyp backs off.

Gillian has consorted with devils, but even she seems to understand that Gyp is unstable. Because she has little choice, she allows Artemis to be turned into a common whorehouse where one thug is openly having his way with a woman on a sofa. She then kicks out Harrow and so leaves herself exposed. Her resolve is her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. It will help defeat Rosetti, but it will leave her vulnerable.

We end with Nucky resolving to Chalky that he will stay in Atlantic City—it is, after all his town. And finally a plain, drum-based score begins as Harrow removes his weapons. Such care was taken to film this scene, which is breathtaking: seven guns in all and a determined expression on Harrow’s face. The unadorned music begins again when Nucky goes to protect his nephew from the Rosetti hordes. Instead, those hordes turn out to be the army that Eli has gathered in Chicago. Al Capone wants “a bath, some chow—and then you and me sit down. And we talk about who dies. All right?”

Cut to credits after an impressive bit of television. The finale next week—are you as excited as I am?