“Success has many fathers, dear. Failure is an orphan.” So says Gillian to her son at one point in this episode. A cliché, sure — but Jimmy, years at Princeton to the side, still needs his mom around to impart this kind of well-worn wisdom. When it comes to Boardwalk Empire’s script shop, though, the opposite may be true. Unlike last week’s mess of an episode, which featured three on-screen writing credits, this vastly superior hour comes from Terrence Winter’s desk alone. (Yes, yes: In TV there are often multiple writers who go un-credited in the main titles. But this statistic remains a useful rough guide.)
The show is still setting up all its arcs for the final run of season two episodes, but this transitional hour feels both graceful and surprising. In it, Angela gives Jimmy some real talk (and takes up with another woman); Nucky and Eli’s father passes (making the latter slightly less fratricidal-seeming); Nucky resigns (for the moment), driven by some complex blend of world-weariness and lie-in-wait strategy; Agent Van Alden makes a break with unrelenting public-facing propriety (when letting a subordinate see him take a free lunch); plus Mickey pushes his annoying shtick just one beat too hard (and … unless he’s got a stronger than average rib cage, takes his laugh into the great beyond. Or will we see him recuperating next week? Put predictions or IMDb spoilers in the comments. Wait, don’t do the latter).
A word about that final beat on the list: If in fact Mickey died upon impact with the ground floor, it’s the stone-coldest killing Jimmy has executed yet. Far from necessary, it seems he did it only to prove a point to Manny the Butcher (i.e., “don’t pester me”). Perhaps Jimmy’s finally tired of being talked into violence. Maybe he’s done being called “boychick.” Or else, newly stripped of denial regarding his loveless marriage, he’s just got the rage in him. The over-the-balcony human toss had a bit of Sopranos-esque surprise to it, in any case: a welcome deviation from the overly telegraphed violence of the last few episodes.
Let us also take a moment to appreciate Steve Buscemi’s work here. The writers haven’t often given the actor a super-wide range of emotions to work with in conjuring his character. But this episode — bookended as it is by (tastefully) brief dream reveries — sees Buscemi/Nucky giving up the emotional goods: casket-side bawling, stepping up as a capital-D Dad for Margaret’s children, plus not being too proud to seek advice from Rothstein and Torrio (in the trio’s fine, belated meet-up). Nucky also turns in a great, convincingly contrite performance in the show’s Foyer of Manliness, when he promises to return control of Atlantic City to the Commodore, Leander, and Jimmy/Gillian. The only trick Nucky misses all episode is failing to note Owen’s stammering ode-to-the-sweating-of-bullets while under questioning about which Irish person kept the bodyguard away from the scene of last week’s attempted assassination.
Stunningly, Eli’s the only one wise; no one else suspects that Nucky may be thinking a few moves ahead. Well, no one aside from Chalky White. Welcomed back to the show’s plot with some explicit encouragement to throw that general strike he’s always had in his back pocket, Chalky seems game to get in on the action. (I hope you are feeling more comfortable in your own home these days, Chalky! I was invested in that whole arc of yours and wish we’d seen more. Also: Do you still have the political sway in your own community to make a general strike happen? I was also interested in that question, a month ago, when last you saw any significant screen time.)
The prospect of a Chalky-led revolt has me looking forward to Boardwalk Empire’s next episode more than at any other time this season. Less enticing is the prospect of Nucky and Owen setting sail for Ireland, in pursuit of the still-budding fruits of last week’s (still pretty tangential) bathroom murder. But this episode showed a welcome restraint when it came to the adding of yet more characters and locations. (Only two new characters in this episode: Louise, Angela’s new novelist crush, and a nurse hired by Van Alden to look after Abigail. And we didn’t need a “new location” title card at any point. Funny how that helps a unit of drama feel unified.)
“Thank you for talking to me,” Angela says to Jimmy after they finish their depressing State of Our Marriage conversation. Nucky might have said the same to Torrio and Rothstein. Or Margaret to Nucky, after he went the Whole Dad with the children. The only character not listening right now is Jimmy, who is busy giving airy speeches and unconvincing pep talks to the moody among his crew. (Poor Harrow! You need a boss who knows that what ails your soul isn’t the state of your faceplate.) Meanwhile, bloated loudmouth Neary, he of a recent deposition about to be made available to Nucky’s lawyer, is the new town treasurer. What could go wrong there? And … was that a hint of a smile on the assistant U.S. attorney’s face when Nucky’s “you’re a peach” card was read aloud in the office? (It sounded like her kind of on-the-nose sarcasm, anyway.) After many a detour (whether brief or short) through Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, and Manhattan, all the best action is converging on the Boardwalk again.