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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Any More Second-Guessing?

Nucky finally gets someone on the other end of his phone. Too bad it’s Owen, and that the boss’s phone call is interrupting some truly fun-looking sex with Maid Katy.

If Nucky remembers sex, or fun, he’s not letting on as he commands Owen to read a newspaper and meet him at the booze factory. Owen, giving his regrets to Maid Katy, lets on that Mr. Thompson is in a sour mood. Showing a flair for argumentation, Maid Katy replies that if Nucky is in a sour mood, he won’t be able to become that much less pleasant if Owen should happen to be a bit late.

Then she looks underneath the sheets and calls Owen’s penis “Mr. Poofles.” After which, she disappears under the sheets, and Owen repeats the pet name “Mr. Poofles” as though he’s wondering whether the pleasure to be had in and around Katy’s affections is somehow fully erased by that term. He elects to solider on.

This week at Catholic Hospital, there is also some dispute over the proper way to discuss the body. Chief Sister Censor has problems with the word vagina in the women’s health materials that Margaret and Smarmy Liberal Doctor have drafted. “I’ve never enjoyed the sound of it,” the Chief Sister says, in possibly the best-ever line of dialogue written about genitalia and put in the mouth of a religious character. Smarmy Liberal Doctor says he never liked Brussels Sprouts but doesn’t deny their existence. The Chief Sister is right that that’s a weird analogy — though a pleasingly atheistic one — if only because she wasn’t denying the vagina’s existence, just contesting the merits of discussing it. Finally, though, she signs off on some language and gives notice that she’ll be attending the class, the better to make sure her instructions are followed.

Nucky gives some instructions to everyone at the booze factory, but he’s not so sure they’ll be followed. Despite Gyp’s burning of the police captain at the Tabor Heights filling station during the last episode — and the paper’s delicate framing of the news as a “tragic accident” — Mickey Doyle and the other mules are ill-disposed to use the icy back roads. Nucky is flabbergasted to hear any backtalk, but outside of yelling at people, shows no facility for making sure his point has been heard.

Eli tries to get a word with Nucky about how Mickey Doyle is stupid and will be the ruination of them all, but Nucky is still grinding his teeth over the whole attempted fratricide business and isn’t ready to hear anything from his brother that doesn’t sound like self-interested whining. Fair enough. But it comes back to hurt Nucky (and by extension Rothstein in New York) later in the episode when Eli tries to warn everyone about (another) blockade in Tabor Heights and no one listens. Everyone but Eli dies, and the episode ends with Nucky finally giving his brother a hearing.

Before we get to that climax, though, there’s a weird mini-bottle-episode arc wherein Nucky is mad at Owen and takes it out on him by following him to Philadelphia (after asking Owen if he needed to be checking his work and Owen telling him no?) to finish killing the petty thieves that Manny Horwitz was supposed to kill before he got killed, a while ago. With the help of a crooked Prohibition agent, they find the thief’s hideout, which is filled to the rafters with Nucky’s booze — and some of Waxy Gordon’s, too. While they wait for the kid thief to come back around, they tell stories and kill time. When the kid shows up, he brings a trail of Feds who are in Waxy’s pocket, and so Owen, Nucky, and the Kid high-tail it to the basement to wait them out — for over a day. (The Feds make one perfunctory search of the basement during that span of time. Okay!)

It’s a totally weird arc — one of those Boardwalk Empire dead-end specialties where a lot of screen time is expended on someone we’ll never see again. (After much vacillating on the merits of the kid’s life, Nucky shoots the thief, right after Owen has finally supposed that the young charmer may have wheedled his life back.) The point of the arc is clear enough: Nucky wants Owen to still think of him as a man of unpredictable dangers, not just a guy who’s stuck in a sour mood. Point made. But it shouldn’t have taken up half a dozen scenes to get there. Also: There’s the whole matter of Owen not being exactly the weakest link in Nucky’s operation, and thus not the first candidate for flogging along these lines. But Nucky’s also a curiously bad manager in this way.

The other gangsters on the show resolve their problems in much more effective fashions. Capone, still in Chicago, finds that his deaf son is being picked on at school and tries to teach him to fight. The boy only whimpers as Capone is yelling, and so Capone learns a lesson as he hoists his crying son onto his shoulders: Not everyone is cut out for brutality. Likewise at work, the corpulent and smelly Jake is not capable of making a good (or hygienic) appearance. Nor is he equipped to defend himself, when a miscellaneous member of Chicago’s underworld — an O’Banion sidekick, though there’s really no need to be keeping track — sucker-slugs him in a bar over a past slight. Capone goes back to the same bar and, without wasting a single breath on words, beats the aggressor to the ground, using fists, and then bashes the guy to death with a chair. That’s what Capone is good for: He might want others to be more like him, but finally, he has to stop second-guessing their respective natures and just do what comes naturally to him.

There’s an echo of this in the week’s brief gloss on the Lansky-Luciano heroin plotline in New York. After last week’s gunfight in the street with Masseria’s guys, Luciano goes for a sitdown in which he has to listen to some nakedly anti-Semitic talk from his Italian brothers. They haggle over a price and Masseria both threatens Luciano and intimates that in the future, the amount paid to keep the Italian brotherhood together will seem very cheaply bought. It’s well written and the acting is fine, but it’s a straggler arc on an episode that’s already carrying several of those. Missing from this episode are a lot of other more compelling characters: Richard Harrow, Gillian, Chalky White and family, plus the season’s main antagonist, Gyp Rosetti, who gets basically a couple of lines (they’re spent on talking about which Tabor Heights waitress he’d like to have sex with). It’s enough to make a viewer pipe up with some second-guessing.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO