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Boardwalk Empire Recap: You Can’t Be Half a Gangster

It’s not very often that I’m won over by a TV show’s subway poster campaign. But when I first saw the latest Boardwalk Empire ads underground — the ones that show Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson sitting alone, in a grave, starkly lit close-up, next to the phrase “you can’t be half a gangster” — my heart warmed toward this third season.

Despite how I’m certain that it is actually quite possible to be a quasi-gangster, whether in the roaring twenties or today (especially when one is half-involved in politics), I read this season’s tagline as an implicit contract that says a large-canvas show like this one can’t get by with half a protagonist, which was too often what it felt like last year — as we shuffled back and forth between the House of Darmody and the House of Nucky. It was possible to feel sympathy for tortured Jimmy while being also pretty bored by his broody, twentysomething way of using an inability to get started in the world as an excuse for moral superiority.

With Jimmy’s end on the show coming in the final minutes of last season’s finale, there were, as the opening tune on this latest episode reminds us, some changes made. And to the credit of Terence Winter and the other writers, that re-ordering of the narrative store has continued apace with “Resolutions.”

“You’re a gangster, plain and simple,” the slimy Attorney General says in the course of operational negotiations with Nucky, who seems unmistakably delighted to be thought of this way (even as he enjoys spinning his last year and a half as that of a clean-nose philanthropist).

Even better, we now have an antagonist who hates Nucky’s guts just as clearly, and who isn’t comatose half the time (like the Commodore). This would be Sicilian import Gyp Rosetti: easy to insult, quick to anger, and convincing when on the attack. This guy doesn’t think about how to react for five episodes. As we learn in the opening scene, if you offer him roadside assistance with a flat tire and say one possibly insulting thing, you’re not going to make it back to your car before he’s thrashing you. (And then Rosetti will steal your dog. And then make an aggressive gift of it to the family of his next enemy as a way of saying: Hey, you’re going to have to get used to cleaning up after my anger.)

Nucky, too, is bolder with his gangsterism this season — but he still tends toward the prosaic, as we see when he lengthily interrogates a petty thief as a way of making a roundabout point to the eternally-dim-yet-pleased-with-himself Mickey Doyle (who shouldn’t have left the front door to his booze warehouse unattended). Mickey eventually gets the drift and stops giggling, and then Nucky gets to make a show of his power by ordering the killing of the thief, almost as an afterthought. Like Rosetti in front of his men, Nucky makes a show of his willingness to mete out punishment, but who do you think inspires more fear when doing so? (Also: Rosetti is bound to earn some points with the audience for doing his dirty work himself. Which is how the character we’re supposed to be rooting against can wind up being interesting to watch.)

As an ex-public official, Nucky reasons that his tough guy act still needs a soft-touch public profile, which means that he shows up to get tours of the new Catholic Hospital that his wife’s surprise scuttling of last season’s land-development plans has made possible. As Nucky suggests at another point, Margaret needs “a cause” to keep herself busy while residing in a loveless marriage — and in this scene, her cause more or less steps up and announces itself.

During the Thompson family tour of the grounds, a pregnant woman, clearly in crisis, staggers toward the doctors who are attending to the Thompsons, asks for their help, is promptly ignored so that one of the care providers can say something about this soon becoming a “teaching hospital” … and then deposits a couple pints of blood on the floor just before collapsing in that same direction.

Mrs. Thompson is (rightly) concerned enough to ask another doctor about the woman after the tour is over — and, to her credit, isn’t so put off by the young doctor’s dismissive way of relating the sad news about the woman losing her baby that Margaret fails to process his point that the hospital could stand to offer some prenatal care. And, is it just my desire to have Margaret rediscover some joy in her personal life, or does this doctor get under Margaret’s skin in just that “well never in my life have I been talked down to in such a terrible, unbearable … dreamy fashion” kind of way? I give it until, oh, sometime later this season to develop into something extra-curricular. (Recapper’s transparency/disclosure: though I have some screeners, I don’t have the full season.)

Fresh off the thematic rush, in the papers and elsewhere, of a “lady flier” piloting a long flight in the face of male disapproval, Margaret all of a sudden has herself a reason for hanging around the boardwalk. (Stray note: hilarious, isn’t it, how Philip — a male servant in the Thompson household who makes light of the pilot’s somehow needing to bob her hair before flying — is polishing the silverware as he mocks her? “The End of Men” can’t come fast enough for insecure wuss-bros like him.)

The episode reaches a head-fake climax, of sorts, at a New Year’s Eve party at Chez Nucky. An altogether grand event, steeped in what seems like period-accurate understanding of Egyptology (that is, one Pharaonic cliché after the next), is crowned when Nucky induces all of his guests to coo over a treasure chest of real diamonds and other sparklier-than-typical party favors. (In a fine directing touch, we get a sweet reaction shot of Rosetti, Rothstein, Luciano, and Lansky, all of whom are caught in a moment somewhere between wanting to start grabbing and observing Nucky’s barehanded tactics with some awe.) But the party is just prelude to the real climax of the episode: a brisk, cross-cut sequence in which we learn not merely the depths of the Thompsons’ marital contempt for one another, but the fact that Nucky is already sleeping with that new showgirl that he pretended not to know at the party.

Oh, and, Manny Horwitz also gets shot in the face, at his own doorstep, by Richard Harrow, who is searching for constructive ways to remember the fallen Darmody clan (and being frustrated by Gillian’s delusions).

Sad to say, Manny gets it right after we figure out that he’d done a nice bit of wheedling on his own behalf — by lying to Nucky about the great New Year’s party his (non–New Year’s-celebrating) wife was going to throw, and that he’d have to try to survive missing in order to kill the other petty thief over in Pittsburgh. I’ll miss this character, and William Forsythe’s way of playing him (in this episode, his pronunciation of “putz” alone, when describing to Nuck why he didn’t want to work with Mickey any longer, was worth the price of admission).

But it also made enough sense: Horwitz is part of the old Darmody wars, like Harrow, and if their number needed to be winnowed a bit to let this season flourish, well, I’d rather keep the latter one in the mix. It’s clear by the joyless way that he fires the toy rifle while squiring Jimmy’s son through the carnival that Harrow remains soulfully tortured. Here’s hoping he can muddle through until he gets a better assignment.

The promise of stronger conflict between Nucky and Rosetti even made me patient for the less-awkward-than-usual detours, in this episode, toward Chicago and Capone-world.

Quickly: Torrio is taking a fantastically convenient trip to Naples, leaving Al in charge, and thus liable to be made violently angry by an Irish bootlegger-cum-florist who also happens to stumble into Ex-Agent Van Alden/George Muller, who is now cast as a (failed) seller of home irons. Van Alden/Muller needs just a few more shoves, it would seem, from the straight world before he switches to the dark side. How long that will take depends, in part, on how long it takes the ever-ambitious Boardwalk universe to also make space for Chalky White, Eli Thompson, and a few other characters. Sometimes this show works against itself by making you long after the off-screen characters in a given week, but I’d be surprised if that was the experience most viewers had with this season premiere.

Photo: Macall B. Polay