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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Make the World Smooth for Me

We open with Nucky, in his office, as a character in his own dream. We know this for sure once the objects in his hands keep changing from shot to shot. At first, though — and plausibly enough — he’s grasping a phone, which he’s using to try to call Billie Kent in New York. Nothing doing there (apparently for days now). Signaling dreamland for sure, the operator tells Nucky: “The only thing to worry about is when you run out of company, sir.” Subtle, dream-script!

Then he’s got a frying pan full of bacon. There’s a towheaded kid in front of Nucky’s desk. So the dreamer asks, “Hungry, Slugger?” Then he looks at the kid again, who now has a nifty bullet hole on the side of his face. Nuck expresses a druggy sort of shock, as the camera swings down to reveal a revolver in the hand that was just proffering pork.

Some things for Nucky to chew over: fear of being alone, guilt over … other things, and regret over the murder of innocents. But what does all this mean together? The most charitable read I could concoct goes like so: Nucky now feels less connected than he once was in his innocent bygone youth — or even in his fledgling politico years — to the notion of being of service to others. (Remember: Nucky cooked for Ms. Kent in the last episode and also bragged about his childhood skills as a breakfast-slinger. Also remember that he murdered his onetime protégé, whose face he’ll be recalling just before he meets with his current nemesis later in the episode.)

Steve Buscemi has a pretty artful way of handling these not terribly revealing dream sequences, courtesy of a knitted-brow, quizzical air that seems imported into the dream from his conscious state, as if he were watching this with the rest of us and thinking, My character has a subconscious? Huh!

The dream stuff, though, as an organizing conceit, didn’t seem particularly useful or amazing in this episode. To be sure, the cheek-gunshot-stigmata blond kid showed up in the chorus later on, during Nucky’s Catholic Church swearing-in as a knight commander (more below). But the gravity of Nucky’s supposed torment in that scene is somewhat undercut by the fact that his chief announced discomfort at that moment is a suit that fits too tightly. So the child-as-grand-signifier was muddled in the episode.

Anyway, as luck has it, that mini-stumble of an opening dream-scene is followed by a series of well-written exchanges. When woken up to field a call from his wife (LOL), who insists she doesn’t mean “to pry,” Nucky responds with a line that we’ll have cause to remember at several key points during the hour: “There's a sentence that means its opposite.”

At this moment, all Margaret wants is for Nucky to commit to meeting with the Catholic higher-ups who are dispensing this award/indulgence for the land-gift that made the hospital a reality. She reminds Nucky that he once said appearances matter, and he asks snottily if she writes down everything he says. Though, elsewhere in life, Nucky is prone to wishing out loud that people would pay closer attention to his every utterance, as in this exchange with Rosetti at the Tabor Heights Cheesecake Factory:

Rosetti: "To whom"? Listen to you!

Nucky: I wish you’d start.

Best exchange of the night.

In any case, you might think that Margaret is driving this issue so hard because she’s (a) got her own guilt mojo workin’, and (b) is more Catholic than Nucky anyway, but it turns out (c) that she’s (correctly) understood that an audience with Top Bishop Sexist is her only chance to outflank Chief Doctor Sexist on the subject of building a women’s clinic that can do something about prenatal care. She has to haggle with an underling to get that encounter scheduled, but in that moment, we don’t know what (other than pride) is motivating Margaret.

The scene just after Nucky’s get-out-of-hell-not-quite-free ceremony wherein she plays the dupe in front of the Bishop — intimating that she was shocked by the Chief Doctor’s “modern” suggestion of attending to women’s health by arming women with information — is the best part of this episode. Also great is how Margaret doesn’t break naïve-character once the Bishop has departed (after giving his tentative blessing, and requesting to remain apprised). Margaret tells the absolutely-shocked-I-say doctor and his wife that they’ve finally trapped the Thompsons and that they’ll be glad to fund the clinic. There’s a sentence that means its opposite.

Gangster.

Thus Margaret makes lots of strides toward the realization that several other characters on the show are also limping toward: There’s a new way to do business, and it doesn’t involve pretty words or elegance so much as bald-faced lying and barely concealed hostility. The cool thing about Gyp Rossetti’s “I don’t know nuthin’ that ain’t from Sicily” act is how it contrasts with Nucky’s cultivated dandyism. To get from Boardwalk Empire to, say, the world of the Sopranos, we know that the crime underworld has to shed a lot of its attempts to seem or look at all respectable.

But in this time and this place, it’s the well-mannered and prim (and rather glum) Nucky who sets the crime aesthetic. That’s the case even at Gillian’s gilded-lily whorehouse — or, as Lucky pronounces it (awesomely), “a hooooahh-house” — that Nucky won’t frequent. Rosetti shows up to get laid and has to endure an impromptu recitation of poetry, backed with harp accompaniment. After Rosetti admits he didn’t understand “a word of that,” one of his henchmen gamely gropes toward the art of explication with: “You know, doves … ” (That’s actually how I feel after Nucky’s dreams, though, in fairness.) Rosetti wants a word with Gillian in private, and it’s there that the outline of a new coalition can be grasped. It’s not just that Gillian’s red hair gives Rosetti “an ache” but the fact that she dislikes Nucky that starts to make the Sicilian think about going back on his just-negotiated truce.

But if Gillian looks bound to team up with Rosetti, it appears that Nucky will acquire Richard Harrow as a gunslinger to balance things out. (This, at least, seems plausible based on their nighttime note-comparing on whether one remembers the people one has killed. Also, they are both annoyed by Mickey Doyle.)

The Chicago arc feels way better integrated into this episode, even though there’s not a gangster in sight there this week. It’s all George Muller/Agent Van Alden, who mostly plays the schlemiel in front of his iron-salesmen co-workers, who soil his uniform with a gag pen, mock him, tell him to “make the world smooth” for his boss, then talk him into traveling to a “speak” after work (while also still mocking him), where he’s next caught by a crooked prohibition agent who takes the lost solitary, stingingly pathetic bill out of Muller/Alden’s wallet.

So, outside of Michael Shannon’s reliably strong performance, what makes this all work alongside the rest of this episode? Sentences that mean the opposite of what they mean: when Muller tries to get along with the gang at work, rather than rage against them. Or when he tries to tell his loving wife that he still believes in himself (or can project confidence).

Like Margaret and Rosetti — and unlike Nucky — Muller/Van Alden is undergoing the consciousness-altering act of finding the world wildly wrong on its merits, as opposed to just inconvenient and in need of better management. They’ll all react differently to this dawning reality: Gyp will set a police officer on fire and decide to go back to war with Nucky; Margaret will make peace with the necessity of being disagreeable toward her social betters in the patriarchy. As for Muller/Van Alden, it’s much less clear where he’ll go or how he’ll fit in to the broader Boardwalk narrative, but for now, at least, he accepts the erotic play of his quasi-fictional wife, and not in a way that leads us to expect he will be whipping himself — to atone — later. It’s a start for that guy whose understanding of self-torment far outstrips Nucky’s.