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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Rogue Waves

Boardwalk Empire finally turned the trick: It brought just about all of its narrative threads under the roof of a single episode during this hour. It also doubled-down on the narrative and editing "gotcha" device that I hated earlier this season, and it felt even more bush league this time around.

But let’s do positive stuff first. The audience favorites found some screen time: Richard Harrow not only was allowed to get in a fight with the drunken pa of his ladyfriend, he actually then got to get laid by said ladyfriend under the boardwalk. (Not sure why Harrow said he wished he could kiss her after they had a kiss last week. But maybe that’s just part of his game. In any case: good show!)

Chalky White appeared with his plan for an elegant club (and an expanded understanding of the zone for black-run business in Atlantic City) to replace Babette’s, and was rebuffed by Nucky — setting in motion an unknown amount of enmity. Nucky was busy trying to kill Masseria, who was in turn fed the dirt on the coming attempt by way of Lansky and Luciano (who are eager to entice an investor, in the wake of Rothstein’s heroin-trade demurral). This whole selling-out-Nucky bit wound up with OWEN DYING, a development I expect to see a lot of static over in the comments, though it actually makes a lot of sense. (Did you really think Owen and Margaret were going to get away, and either be ignored by the show or else become another hanging thread, all the way out in St. Louis or wherever?) More about the consequences and choices of the Owen reveal in a bit.

Because elsewhere in this very chopped-up episode, Gyp was still a psycho and defensive about things as basic as multiplication, and whether waves crashing into each other are bad, and the fact that his dad was a bricklayer and not a fisherman who knew all about fancy waves and water-related things. His bury-the-victim-in-sand variant on a curb-stomp at the end of the episode was genuinely disturbing — but also low-impact in the sense that it conveyed no new information and only barely touched the outermost ring of people we care at all about. (The sad-sack victim is a relative of one of Gyp’s less-anonymous hands, who might conceivably now have reason to turn on Gyp at a later date — but this is straining awfully hard, in terms of figuring out why to care about this week’s violent outburst.)

Gaston Means got two people — Nucky and Daugherty — to pay him $40,000 to kill Jess Smith, but was so obvious in his approach that Smith was waiting to ambush him after he’d snuck into the man’s bedroom. Means couldn’t talk his way out of it, but luckily for him, Smith was so depressed to discover that his childhood friend the attorney general wanted him dead that he committed suicide.

Van Alden/Muller sold some of the Norwegian Naughty Water to a local restaurateur … who then turned him over to Al Capone, who in turn poked Van Alden/Muller with a fork and commanded him to give up O’Banion’s operation. Finally! Won’t someone make Van Alden all the way into a gangster, at long last? Everything needs to happen already on this show.

Gillian, thankfully, was absent.

Now, about the Margaret and Owen thing. The reveal of Owen’s body at the end of the episode was perfectly well done. I sort of can’t imagine why Nucky couldn’t see where it was going — did he think it was a nice toy pony in the box delivered at 4 a.m.? Though having it all play out in a well-lit foyer, before Margaret’s immediately-in-mourning face, was a great way to clue Nucky in to what had been going on. But what followed was pretty unforgivable: a solitary Margaret reflects on her last conversation with Owen, in which they talk about St. Louis and whether it’s nice or not.

I REMEMBER THIS SCENE, the audience says. Because it came very early in the episode. And here it’s being repeated, how nice. With lots of new information at the end. Because, oh yes, at the end of the scene we had to cut away from earlier — there was a very important meeting in Nucky’s office — Margaret reveals she is pregnant, and it’s Owen’s, and he’s a total gentleman about it. Swoon. And then … Mickey Doyle busts in and says Owen has to go into the meeting with Nucky next door. Well, if Mickey says so, I guess!

Meantime: Except for Margaret getting her too-late-in-coming diaphragm from the Catholic Doctor (and being told she looks pale), no other scene in the episode even seems remotely connected to the most important details in the drama. The attempt on Masseria’s life (which happens offscreen) doesn’t allow for a moment in which Owen is allowed to worry over the safety of his beloved (and their future child). Because the writers/editors of the show are engaged in a game of narrative keepaway.

Ugh. Having this drop in at the end of the episode pretty thoroughly undermines the audience’s experience of the past hour. You want to go back and rewatch how Owen approaches his bloody assignment. But when you do, there’s no hint that this guy has just been told he’s in line to be a father, or that this woman is really torn up about a pregnancy. This narrative gotcha thing wherein a scene we’re watching is cut away from BEFORE its critical information is delivered, and then we go back to it later as a sentiment-goosing way of feeling even worse about something else that happened, is just so unsatisfying. When characters conspire to keep crucial bits of information to themselves, it can be thrilling. (The Good Wife is quite skilled at this.) When showrunners do it to audiences, it feels rather pathetic. When the newly competent Eli returns from Chicago — hopefully with a lot of narrative-converging power at his disposal — let’s hope the story-upshot is delivered in a way that doesn’t make the getting there feel so mannered and pointless.

Photo: HBO