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Boardwalk Empire Recap: It’s Hard to Know What to Say to You

There’s a thin howling in the air as we open, just after daybreak. Is that the phantom gypsy from last week’s Greenhouse fire? Puka? Or maybe Gyp.

The first character we see is Eli, in his robe. He’s poking around shrubs sporting what looks like a slightly sinister countenance. Is he searching for furtive messages planted in the dirt by someone the ex-sheriff can’t be seen around? You might think his affect suspicious if you weren’t somehow able to process the less-than-lethal elements at his disposal — principal among them a sodden-looking cardboard box. Not very threatening.

Finally, we get an over-the-shoulder shot of what he’s up to: Easter-egg distribution. This Eli! Such a sweet, sensitive family guy. So, it’s to be a special holiday episode of Boardwalk Empire, then? The surprise is that, even if a little light on shoot-outs and the traditional points of conflict between gangsters that this show thrives on, this episode delivers on a lot of fronts.

Some important information gets backfilled quickly: For starters, Gyp’s operation was apparently severely harmed by the Tabor Heights episode, and now he’s reduced to being yelled at by family members in New York. (It was not clear to me that this was the case after he lost a couple of body-men in New Jersey, but I can accept his need to have retreated so severely.) Gyp gets his mojo back at an empty church, where he curses at God in a little less highfalutin way than President Bartlet did (no Latin here). But instead of putting out his cigarette on the floor like Jed did, Gyp thrashes a church official and makes off with the collection plate before meeting Joe Masseria. It looks like Masseria’s about to wash his hands of Gyp — and what’s more, leave him in the company of some ominous toughs looming in the background — but then Rosetti lets loose with a torrent of desperate, anti-Semitic thought fragments concerning Nucky, Rothstein, Lucky, Lansky, et al. It warms the old man’s heart, and he comes back to the table to talk to Gyp about his plan to exterminate all the show’s main characters.

Masseria isn’t the only person who teeters on the edge of throwing a whole relationship away only to have his mind changed at the last minute. Nucky may have been roped into bringing Margaret and the children to Eli’s for Easter, but he comes prepared to rebuff any and all sincere brotherly rapprochements during the day. Steadily, though, his resistance is worn down, and he decides to credit Eli (at long last) for his Tabor Heights foresight and make him Mickey Doyle’s booze-warehouse equal.

The Thompson Family Easter is a well-constructed mini-arc in itself. It begins as Emily gamely works through her Thompson Family Procreative-Multiplication Tables, while lazy Teddy wonders about her powers of memory. Nucky comes in on them and says (sweetly) that Emily could have a future in politics. This offends the patriarchal future comforts Teddy has already imagined for himself, and so he asks about the feasibility of lady politicians. He is told that the queen is a woman. Besides hardening viewer attitudes against the lethargic and cruel Teddy, this exchange is setting up an important theme of the episode, in which women make for effective (and underestimated) operators.

Which is to say: Who knew June had it in her? She stage-manages the family like a Kennedy matriarch at a campaign announcement. She flatters Nucky relentlessly; she cries convincingly during the saying of grace, just before the big family meal; and when Margaret gives her sister-in-law, unbidden, the fullest accounting she’s given anyone of Nucky’s extra-marital activities, June at first looks stricken and like she won’t know how to respond. But after turning their talk back toward the likes of cake dishes, she places a meaningful hand on Margaret’s shoulder, saving the scene — and deepening the connection.

Eli’s lucky to have her. He’s not nearly as persuasive on his own, with Nucky. A hint of the old, entitled Eli comes out in the garage, as the brothers steal a drink away from the rest of the family. “You think I’m bottomless, don’t you?” Nucky says, and the persuasion campaign looks dead. There’s a brief connective thing missing between that beat and the next scene we see with the brothers, where Nucky is called upon to perform in a big family talent show and takes to juggling and joking with a surprising amount of grace. If it surprises the audience, it also surprises Margaret (who follows with a ditty of her own).

The looks exchanged by this “married couple” during their performances are the warmest they’ve exchanged in some time. At home, Nucky says he can teach Margaret how to juggle. Freezing up, she tells him it’s too late — and she doesn’t mean that it’s midnight or whatever. In light of that turn, Nucky’s phone call to Eli, reinstating his brother as a management figure, makes sense. It’s not too late for Nucky to save that relationship.

Whatever sadness you may feel about the unbridgeable divide between Margaret and Nucky (I hope it’s not too much; they’ve never really connected anyway) — it’s got to be way more than made up for by Richard Harrow’s new lovebird story line. Taking young Tommy away from Gillian’s whorehouse for the day, he travels to the Sagorsky house to see Julia and the sullen, atheistic father of the fallen soldier we met at the Veterans’ Hall Fight Club in the last episode. Harrow has a bunch of touching moments with Tommy (who tells Richard to straighten out his glasses before Julia answers the door, etc.).

But if you're worried that Harrow was coming on too strong with his bouquet of flowers, it turns out Julia’s also been thinking of Richard in advance of their meeting. She prepares an easily chewed Easter dinner plate of veggies, potatoes, and the like, and sets it out for him in the kitchen — not because she’s disgusted by the idea of him eating at the table, but because she (rightly) assumes that Richard wouldn’t want to make “a big fuss” out of eating in front of the others.

Judging by the grief that Ol’ Pisser Paul Sagorsky is dishing out at the table, it’s just as well that Richard gets to exempt himself from the litany. When he comes back, Paul is revealing that he voted for Eugene Debs in the last election. “You voted for a Bolshevik?” taunts one of the anonymous dinner guests. Harrow — in part of his uninterrupted campaign to become an HBO audience’s most-loved character on the show — steps up with a handy election-year reminder that “Debs is a Socialist.” (The anonymous dinner guest, imported from Tea Party America 2012, snaps back, “What’s the difference?”) Not long after this, Tommy asks to use the restroom, and Paul tells him where to go — but then the kid gets sidetracked in the dead son’s room, playing with toy soldiers. When Paul discovers him and starts yelling, dinner’s obviously over. But not before Paul spits insults at everyone and tells Julia that her brother’s memory is more important than her life.

Harrow tells Paul to unhand the kid or else he’ll kill him. Paul yells at everyone and withdraws to his son’s room to cry. Downstairs, Harrow doesn’t know how to ask Julia out on a date — so he kindly, haltingly demands that she leave the house with them. She’s happy to help him out with the date-ask and seems almost as flustered as Richard. They take Tommy to a carnival, and then she pratfalls over her insensitive reaction to the prospect of physical deformity in the “Crocodile Boy” tent — “not that I couldn't look at a Crocodile — Jesus Christ! Pardon my French! … It’s hard to know what to say to you.”

Harrow tells her she can say anything she wants to him. Really, anything? Okay, she says: “Don’t threaten to kill my father. He’s a mean drunk and a horse’s ass — but I don’t like it.” And with that, Richard and Julia immediately have the healthiest relationship in Atlantic City.

From those exalted heights of relationship communication we now descend into the end of Gillian’s (blessedly) short arc with her Jimmy stand-in. Gillian — after having faked her menstrual discomfort in the morning to clear out the whores, cooks, and Harrow — is in full mendacious swing and having fun misrepresenting her state of mind and intentions by the time “Roger” arrives. He’s so dead. They trade terribly obvious double entendres for a few hours, have sex, and talk about the value of the estate. There’s some loose talk about what they could do if they sold the house off and took the money to travel – but as Gillian notes to a not-very-perceptive Roger, she’s never been anywhere else in the world. She has to put a stake together here. She insists on giving him a bath, drags a cloth across his face. When Roger drifts off to a light slumber, she sticks a needle of heroin in his arm. He wakes and protests as long as he can manage to form words. Then Gillian drowns him.

Some questions. First, when Leander approached Gillian in a prior episode and encouraged her to have Jimmy declared dead, it didn’t seem as though they needed a body in order to do that. They just needed Gillian to acknowledge facts. After all, Leander has pull with enough various city officials, such that you’d think they could pull off the paperwork with less complication than was invited here. Second, why clear out the house so you can kill this stand-in if you leave the guy dead in the bathtub for a whore to find later in the day? And right as Richard comes back — maybe one of three living souls who could distinguish this poor schmo from Jimmy anyway? In any case, Gillian’s arc is at least moving forward.

I miss Chalky White. I bet Easter was interesting over at his house, too!

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO