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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Am I Interesting Now?

BOARDWALK EMPIRE episode 26 (season 3, episode 2): Michael Kenneth Williams.

The first shot of this episode brings news of the bathroom-sink draining of a goldfish bowl, helpfully located by a title card as taking place in New York City. Next, we see the goldfish itself flapping about for an uncomfortable moment in the basin, before being (lazily) rescued by a godlike hand, courtesy of a smaller glass jar.

What of this? Ours is not to understand, for now, as we then cut to another small fish flapping about amid new environs. If the ex-Sheriff Eli, newly deposited from prison and noticeably thinner and paler, looks out at the desolate vista before him with some mournfulness, it’s a state of mind he’s bound to look back on with some nostalgia, once he finds out that his ride back to Atlantic City has to be … Mickey Doyle.

“Let me ask you something, Mickey. How the fuck are you still alive?” Eli says in the car, channeling some non-trivial portion of this show’s viewership. And with this bit of real talk, a fratricidal, often petulant, insecure character is reborn as someone to root for. Mickey proceeds to fill him in on some recent details: Nucky’s hard to get to, Manny’s killing has everyone spooked, etc. etc.

But what’s most potentially interesting here, and throughout the episode, is how radically Eli seems to have changed. Prison did him some good. Not that he’s not above working in the underworld, of course. But at least he doesn’t take Owen’s offer of an extra $50 before an interstate booze shipment, saying he doesn’t want a handout. (The previous season’s version of Eli went around asking everyone why he wasn’t getting more handouts.) When confronting the fact that his eldest son has had to take on work in a lumberyard to support the clan while Good Ol' Pop was in prison, Eli doesn’t figure out a way to make himself the victim.

Later in the episode, Eli gamely tries to thank his son — and also shows that he hasn’t forgotten the birthdays he missed out on celebrating. He wants his boy to know that he read some Shakespeare in the joint — not so much as a “look what a smart guy I am” move (like Gyp Rosetti, Eli can be touchy about his lack of education), but as part of a discussion about whether his son should be back in school.

When that discussion doesn’t magically solve all the boy’s problems, or reverse his distant attitude, Eli takes it in stride. And then he shows up to his lowest-on-the-totem-pole job in Nucky’s booze concern. I like this Eli. Given how compass-less (and passionless) Nucky has always been — even when cavorting with showgirls — it’s interesting to have a character from the house of Thompson who can inspire some empathy/sympathy.

Nucky, holding up his end of the once-strong brotherhood, makes his stations of the cross in New York: He pow-wows with Rothstein (who, while playing pool, discusses all the angles of their relationship with a winning grin), and has dinner and later-evening fun with Billie Kent. I understand that news of cliché traveled rather less quickly in this era, but Billie’s facility with the easiest possible phrases — a Gus is “gloomy,” her idea of a clever double entendre is “pickling some peppers” — can be a bit wearying.

But at least Billie is smart enough to call Nucky out on his most evident falsehood: namely, that his foremost wish in life is to be relaxing with her “forever,” while his whole operation runs smoothly without his needing to pay it much attention. She also gets that Nucky is just hangdogging around because he’s jealous of whomever it is she’s spending time with when he’s in Atlantic City. (There’s a whole bit about a show-stopping number Billie would like to do, premised on an old advertising campaign from the time for bottled water — go ahead and google “White Rock Girl” — but while he’s nominally paying attention to all this, Nucky is fiddling with a razor in the bathroom and finding manly stubble, his face growing slack.)

As usual, Nucky’s having a hard time finding the fun in being a gangster. After last week’s discussion with the attorney general about needing to convert their graft-for-legal-protection scheme into a blind-cash transaction, Nucky has to wrap his mind around dropping off his $40k in payments into an … empty fishbowl! The episode comes back around to its opening image when we meet the great-grandfather of NewsRadio’s Jimmy James, who is also played by Stephen Root.

J/K: Root is just playing another character who takes devilish pleasure in ee-nuuun-ceee-aiiit-ing every vowel, which is why you ask Stephen Root to be on your TV show. (For real, just imagine Nucky as played by Dave Foley and you get a deleted NewsRadio scene. Root: “It has the twin virtues of simplicity and mystery.” Nucky/Dave: “It strikes me as idiotic.” Root: “That is your prerogative.”) Nucky, after declining to observe the secrecy part of this whole blind-transaction thing, further declines to have any fun with this special investigator for the Department of Justice as the situation is explained to him. Root’s character also invites Nucky to spy on George Remus, from the next room’s peephole, as the man drops his own protection money into the fishbowl. This is probably the only time we will ever get to see Remus without hearing him say his own name, but Nucky can’t appreciate that, or anything, so long as sexual jealousy is on his mind.

Nucky comes to see Billie’s apartment phone as a taunting expression of gentlemanly challenge from without, forbidding her to answer it in his presence. That jealous turn of mind works out poorly for Nucky at the end of the episode, when it means he misses Owen trying to call him with news of Gyp Rosetti’s surprise blockade of the Tabor Heights highway to New York. After a strong opening last week, Rosetti doesn’t make as big an impression in this episode. He’s comically villainous, whether he’s taunting a gas-station employee or else a waitress, when asking her to explain “spaghetti and meatballs” to him (the rare conversation during which he knows enough about the subject to feel superior). Still, he needs to juice the plot, and he does his bit by turning back Mickey Doyle’s convoy. Also, Eli gets his first look at this season’s antagonist — and also gets over on Doyle by being the guy Owen turns to for battlefield advice, when advising against taking Rosetti’s men on directly.

The only thing left to say about this episode is that it has probably the best standalone arc of the entire series to date. In the course of three scenes, dropped here and there amidst everything else summarized above, we have a little playlet of themes that speaks with enough sophistication to sustain a three-act play. In the first bit, we see Chalky’s daughter’s effete, medical-school boyfriend come to Chalky’s nightclub (during the day), in order to ask for her hand. After teasing the boy for a bit, Chalky asks him to “doctor him,” and, after the young man suggests eating more leafy greens in order to combat an observable mineral deficiency, Chalky decides that he should be part of the family.

In Act II, Chalky’s daughter, Maybelle, shows that she wants no part of a safely arranged marriage. First, when talking with her brother, we hear how both of Chalky’s children are in love (and justifiably so) with the works of the African-American vanguard: Maybelle wants confirmation that her Debussy-playing brother is also playing jazz, specifically “that King & Carter number,” which he satirically mocks as the devil’s music before laughing with her in a conspiratorial manner.

And her brother, in turn, promises to give Maybelle “those Claude McKay poems,” which he says “are worth a look.”

Then Chalky enters, asks to speak to Maybelle on his own, and finds that she’s resistant to being settled. To make her case, Maybelle seizes on her father’s interesting-ness, by which she means his capability for violence (which she intuits may have helped her father win over her grandfather). Maybelle wants details, but once Chalky recognizes what she’s doing with them — basically, romanticizing them to a point that allows her to throw away a chance for an easier life — the one gangster on the show who knows what he’s working for refuses to indulge her.

Chalky brings out the big guns: A doctor is going to help this family more than the addition of yet another man capable of violence. But seeing that this argument has no traction with the daydreaming Maybelle, he asks her incredulously if she really wants a rough life. “What: backseat of a car, swag a buck with a pistol? Wife two county over?”

“Why not?” Maybelle responds. “I'll write a poem about it.”

Chalky’s anger is rising to a dangerous place here, and it’s only the call to the dinner table that cuts off this conversation before it gets less convivial. Left alone in Maybelle’s room, it is all Chalky can do to call out to her that she’s going to marry that boy.

In the third scene, later that night, Maybelle and the effete doctor-in-training are sitting at a table in Chalky’s bar, while a pianist bangs out some Jelly Roll Morton-isms. She wants her date to drink and have fun; he wants her to just up and say she doesn’t want to marry him. Before they can resolve this dispute, the ritual bumping of their table by a couple dancing to the music turns to violence, as the dancing man slashes the young student’s cheek with a knife. Because Chalky’s No. 2, Dunn Purnsley, knows what Maybelle’s suitor means to Chalky, the appropriate response to the anonymous roughneck is a savage beat-down in front of the crowd.

It looks like Maybelle can’t quite stomach this violence in the flesh. Chalky, after commanding the pianist to keep playing, stares his daughter down, asking: “Am I interesting now?”

It’s enough to make the rest of the episode’s various intrigues pale by comparison — even Eli’s — though Margaret is doing her best to get back in the game by asking that one young doctor at the Catholic Hospital how they might go about improving the options for reproductive health. He’s a bit of a snot in response, Margaret avers that he has a “maddening way” — and so we’re still on track for a romance, down the line. Probably elsewhere Al Capone is doing something in Chicago. And Gillian’s whorehouse probably hasn’t gone broke yet. And surely Richard Harrow is feeling sad in ways that Nucky will never understand. But this episode is all Chalky and Eli, and is all the more interesting for their reappearances.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO