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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Wish for Greater Knowledge

When Gyp Rosetti tells you he’s going to take you in the back and teach you how to make sauce, and that he’ll bring the heat (all the single ladies in Tabor Heights have had ample opportunity to observe his way with obvious language-play), it turns out what the gangster means is that you’re supposed to choke him nearly to death with a belt while he looks after his own entendre. So he’s this season’s kink-guy.

But I tell ya. Men: Do they (and/or their products) hardly ever deliver the way they advertise — or what?

Good thing the dames on this show are so devoted — or are at least resigned to their lack of options — to a degree that allows them to endure it all. Sometimes they’re even game to jump in and take part, as we see when Muller/Van Alden’s supposedly timorous nursemaid turned sorta wife just up and brains the Prohibition agent who merely wanted a refund on the crappy iron that broke after three uses. Her Nordic matter-of-factness in and around the act of finishing the poor government agent off — “I’ll hold his legs. [Long pause.] Husband!” — is the funniest part of the episode.

Nucky is also having trouble delivering on his promises. He still can’t get booze to New York like he said he would, and so has to endure the wrath of Rothstein. On another track of lies, he also tells his public-wife Margaret that he’s leaving town for a few days — and then surprises her by showing up in a store halfway down the block with his New York showgirl, making everyone upset about “bad form.”

Rothstein avers that the poor criminal show of late and the girl in New York are not unrelated phenomena; just as their argument is getting good, we cut away to look at their respective No. 2s in the adjoining room. That’s weird and anti-dramatic. Then Rothstein steams out and tells Luciano that they have to move on to other business. Wait: What? There was a good debate going on in the other room about whether or not to kill Gyp Rosetti. (Those of you who were wondering why he wasn’t just gutted and dropped into the Jersey cement mixture a month ago now have your answer: He “kicks up” to Joe Masseria, who’s already pissed at Rothstein/Lansky/Luciano for a variety of reasons, including the nascent heroin trade in Little Italy.)

But then it’s like, the audience doesn’t get to know how that dispute between Rothstein and Nucky turned out? Or what their plan is for the booze business going forward? And now there’s OTHER business? Anyway: There’s an explanation for why the narrative is presented to us this way, but it falls somewhat short of being a good reason. What happened in the room, we can infer by episode’s end, is that Nucky convinced Rothstein to pull the trigger on killing Rosetti. In fact, they hatched a whole plan in that room together, while viewers were stuck outside with Owen and Luciano soulfully each taking the measure of the other. Given how fast the plan was hatched, the end of the scene probably went something like this:

Nucky: Okay, stop being mad at me for a bunch of super-legitimate reasons for a second and just go along with my plan to kill Rosetti, even though that’s bad for your New York business.
Rothstein: Done.
Nucky: How should we do it?
Rothstein: I’ll take Lucky up to Tabor Heights with me and we’ll … I dunno. We’ll eat in that restaurant where he always is, and we’ll figure out a way to kill him. Maybe a paperboy will wander in and get invited to come to Rosetti’s hotel, and then we’ll have our young heroin-trade hothead impersonate that paperboy. Since that kid’s like A1 reliable in all situations involving violence, it should work out poi-fectly.
Nucky: Fantastic. Now I’m off to meddle in local show business.

So. We can see why the writers maybe didn’t want that conversation to play out in the show itself. But it’s a little bit unsatisfying to have the major “reveal” of the episode be entirely thanks to such a ham-fisted bit of narrative three card monte. You get to the end of the hour, and you realize that Rothstein and Nucky are still working in sync, and that Owen and Luciano and Lansky spent a lot of time being on the same page — and even that punk kid knew the full score — and you think: Oh, I guess there was a relevant end to that other scene that I was prevented from seeing, before. It’s weird.

Anyway, of course the hit goes wrong. The punk kid from New York murders everyone except Rosetti, even though Rosetti was nakedly hog-tied to a headboard as per his nightly custom and had to scramble for his revolver after using his ladyfriend (hooker?) as a human shield. Then — I shit you not — this show has the stone-cold balls to lift the legendary ceiling-POV, moving-from-room-to-room tracking shot that Scorsese used in Taxi Driver, and use it to show Rosetti surveying the carnage in the Tabor Heights motel. Now: Obviously Scorsese is an exec producer on this show, and I’m sure everyone who works on it is proud to say so. But swiping an iconic thing like that from Taxi Driver? Let us say that it is not a comparison that many filmed entertainments would be looking to invite. Still, it happened here.

What Nucky can do well is play like a big fish in the local entertainment scene. His side-squeeze is in some terrible show, and it’s going to close in previews — that is until Nucky “persuades” a slightly better singer and dancer to break a New York engagement and help redo the show. The slightly better singer is awful mad about it and starts muttering to the new side-squeeze about old Lucy Danziger. But hold on: If he’s so wise to Nucky’s history of meddling and mid-tier star-fuckery, why was he surprised by Nucky’s forceful use of Chalky White and Dunn Pearnsley to “convince” him to stay in Atlantic City? (Finally: Worst use of Chalky and Dunn ever, to sit in stone-cold unimpressed silence while the guy sings nervously, even if the singer karmically deserved the intimidation, given his mocking-blackface routine earlier in the episode.)

Other stuff that happened: Gillian still doesn’t know how to admit to herself that James is dead, and that her “house of pleasure” is failing financially. Not even a kindly Ghost of season two, in the person of Leander Rhodes, can make her see the light.

James Cromwell shows up to give voice to Andrew W. Mellon, and that’s pretty cool. There’s a Senate hearing about whether it’s gross incompetence or widespread corruption that’s making this whole Prohibition thing the definition of a legal joke, and Mellon says: “It is my experience that human nature leaves ample room for both.” And then all the suits sort of scratch at their necks and dampen their handkerchiefs at their respective foreheads, depending on how uneasy such frankness makes them.

And if Margaret has to be a wife-in-name-only in Atlantic City, she’s going to at least keep teaching that women’s health clinic class at the Catholic Hospital. The Chief Nun is still a spoil-sport about the whole thing, mocking a dwindling number of attendees but being unwilling to change the time of the meet so that it’s easier for women to come. When the Smarmy Doctor is called away by an emergency, Margaret teaches the class herself, to much Chief Nun sighing and sputtering. Good for Margaret, though. Some people in this story universe, having been kept in the dark for various lengths of time, refuse to have “greater knowledge” hidden from themselves, or from others. As a viewer, it’s not hard to look at this impulse as an entirely understandable and sympathetic one.

Photo: Macall B. Polay /HBO