Boardwalk Empire Recap: Not Really Doin’ Questions and Answers Right Now

Photo: Macall B. Polay /HBO
Boardwalk Empire
Episode Title
The Milkmaid’s Lot
Editor’s Rating

There are lots of fine scenes and set pieces in this episode, but they don’t hang together nearly as well as those from last week’s propulsive hour. The mileage you draw from this one will vary according to how interested you may have been, during past Boardwalk Empire flights of fancy, in the dreams of Nucky Thompson. For, as he recovers from last week’s concussive blast at Babette’s, Nucky spends most of his time here waddling back and forth between states of making sense and … well, not so much. Rather like in his dreams.

Alongside a persistent ringing in his ears and a propensity to collapse, he’s also not recognizing key players like his wife or his brother — though I’m slightly tempted to give Nucky a pass over mistaking Chalky White for his shoe-shine man. (It’s been a while since anyone on the show has seen Chalky, after all. An enduring shame!)

I’ve never thought that the show was at its best when in Nucky’s dreamland. He’s more an efficiency expert than philosopher, so a confused Nucky is just a character stumbling on the way toward the next solid plan he can cobble together. Nor has his subconscious ever been particularly revealing – just as it is not here, when Nucky is basically only tripped up by such low-stakes details like the volume of people’s voices, or forgetting whether Emily’s birthday party has been cancelled and whether Margaret and Owen bought her a pony or not. (The child-playroom scenes are pretty dull here, too, though at least we do get confirmation that “the gypsy” on the phone with Teddy was in fact Gyp Rosetti.)

Occasionally Nucky snaps back into focus, with crisp asides to Owen about waking up one day and realizing “what’s going on.” This potential hint that Nucky knows he’s been cuckolded reinforces what had also looked like a head-fake in a similar direction earlier in the episode, when Nucky commanded Owen and Margaret to talk to him about “what happened.” But then that conversation wound up being about wee Emily’s not-purchased pony.

Which is precisely why Dream Nucky is such a frustrating main character to have around for a full hour. As a factual matter, Nucky either knows (or suspects he knows), or he doesn’t, and is toying with Owen (or is biding his time), or he isn’t. But the hints back and forth to the audience — predicated on the fact that Nucky’s got a ringing in his ears and can’t quite see straight — just appears like so much misdirection masquerading as suspense. Buscemi, as an actor, clearly enjoys the chance to switch up his manner — even deploying a Beavis-style grin and fist clench when manically offering to slice Emily’s birthday cake right open — but that’s not quite enough to make all the narrative hemming-and-hawing worth it.

Much better are the scenes between Owen and Margaret, when Nucky is “resting.” Owen calls Margaret’s bluff on whether they’ll ever escape to be together, and she tries to re-call his bluff that he’s only saying that because he knows she won’t go for it. But Owen is firm: They can leave immediately if she likes. (He puts this up to not being “as complicated” as Margaret.) And then still she balks: Even after having Nucky’s affair with Billie Kent thrown in her face, she builds Nucky back up enough so that he can attend to his big evening meeting.

Margaret’s help (for now), though, isn’t quite enough, as we see at the end of the episode, when Nucky is at last well enough to make his strongest possible case to the Council of Gangsters. The show adds to its legion of real-world personages by throwing Peg-leg Lonergan, Wild Bill Lovett, and Frankie Yale into Nucky’s drawing room, alongside familiars like Rothstein, Luciano, Lansky, Gordon, et al. It’s a scene both well acted and well written, as the audience may think, at first, that Nucky has eloquently articulated why this loose confederation of Irish-Italian-Jewish crooks might want to band together to oppose Gyp and Masseria. Then it makes even more sense when it’s revealed that Rothstein has already convinced everyone to wash their hands of Nucky and his problems. Nucky was always going to need to defeat Gyp on his own (this was foreshadowed as early as when the Rothstein-aided hit went awry). But it’s a persuasive way of stacking the deck against the protagonist before the last four episodes of this season.

So that was that part of the episode. There are two other big pieces of the hour, frankly, that felt like some other show. Gillian’s hoo-ah house troubles — and problems standing in as a mother for Tommy — are, well, the same as they’ve ever been. If you’ve ever found that arc compelling, you probably liked those moments here. The reason that Tommy was able to walk into the whores’ quarters in the first place was much more satisfying. Quickly: Richard Harrow took his new girlfriend to an American Legion dance, waltzed with her elegantly (including a dip!), and then got a public kiss on the lips/faceplate that brought even the least charitable among their witnesses to clap unreservedly. Great little sequence here … of precious little relevance to anything else in the episode.

The other non-Nucky thread involved Gyp Rosetti’s reoccupation of Tabor Heights. This fits in better. Gyp’s approach is way more interesting when he’s needling or mocking people — as in the library, when he buys off everyone in town for 200 bucks a month, cancels Bible Camp, and tells a Churcy Lady that “I’m not really doin’ questions and answers right now, dear.” The brute stuff with a billy club and the sheriff doesn’t pack as much punch — especially not compared to the full-octane weirdness of Gyp’s decision to snatch a tricornered hat from a Revolutionary War exhibit at the library, and wear it to the shore where Nucky’s booze operation has been fully absorbed into Masseria’s world.

Gyp’s outsized sense of himself — a “general,” per Masseria’s suggestion — is both foolhardy and interesting. And the type of intellectual insecurity he exhibits — remember this season’s initial episodes, or how he snidely says “it’s very important to read” in this one — is not something that Boardwalk Empire has typically rewarded. Last season, the intellectually defensive one was Eli; look how that turned out for him. Nucky, once he regains his health, will still be smarter than Gyp, even if he doesn’t have the muscle of his fair-weather friends. Resolving that tension should prove more exciting than the scattered portions of this episode.