Boardwalk Empire has to be the most uneven “good” show on television. While many successful dramas have playbooks and stick to them more or less week to week, you’d be a fool to guess how this show gets from narrative points A to B. You could defend this indirect, anti-intuitive approach as a sophisticate’s take on television plotting, except it’s hardly an approach that’s worked emotionally or intellectually: I wonder if any of the show’s most loyal fans would bother denying that there are weird, unedifying stretches of languor, and curious spans of time spent introducing minor characters (who usually wind up biting it in ways that feel pretty unimportant). But even if you’ve found yourself frustrated with the storytelling in this season, the consequence of back-loading the overall drama has at least one structural benefit: an hour as compelling and compact as “Two Imposters.”
The only plot strand that felt dropped in here, or tacked on for the purposes of some future episode, was Luciano’s getting pinched by an undercover cop over a heroin deal that Meyer advised against. Other than that, everything that happened in this episode felt like it truly needed to happen. And even the parts that were structurally predictable — like Al Capone’s long-delayed readmittance to the main action – came off with flourishes of surprise and energy. Look how happy Steven Graham was to have his Capone character relevant again, chewing the scenery and his vowels like that in the last seconds with Nucky, advancing with his cigar all like: “We been on the road for eighteen hours. Need a bath. Some chow. And then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies. Aaaah?” Lots of fun. Can’t wait for the season finale, boys.
But there’s lots else to praise here — not least of which is the first time Nucky Thompson can be said to have carried an episode. Some critics allege that Steve Buscemi struggles as a leading man. I think this hour proves Buscemi’s troubles have more to do with being unnecessarily constricted by the limited number of tasks the writers usually assign to his character. When he has an entire gangster’s range of action, as he does in this episode, Buscemi’s Nucky is easy to watch.
Think of all he did in this hour. First, Nucky shot a weapon under duress, and with skill, during the opening assault by Rosetti & Co. on the Ritz that injures Eddie and sets the Nucky-on-the-run story in action. Usually when Nucky fires a weapon, it’s been ceremonial — there are five guys with sawed-offs backing his play and the sucker getting planted is unarmed or has his back turned. Not this time! And, as Nucky dispenses with Rosetti’s lead team, you get a hint of all the skills Nucky must have developed on his way to the top.
Then, while on the lam, Nucky also cared for his underling in a way that led him to (correctly) understand his own shortcomings as a leader and a man. Finally, in the great sequence of scenes in Chalky White’s neighborhood, Nucky backpedaled and negotiated his way into a temporary safe haven. (Episode highlight: Chalky saying, “You safe here, for the nonce.”) That’s a lot for an actor to handle, and Buscemi did a fine job with every last bit of it.
With Rosetti’s men stationed at the Catholic Hospital, it forces Nucky to cross Atlantic City’s segregation line, where your late-night, off-book trauma surgeon might still be a medical student. All the screen-time with Team Chalky was oh-so welcome and just so satisfyingly handled. When Nucky and Eddie first drive into his side of town, looking for refuge and a doctor, Chalky is understandably still smarting over Nucky’s prior flat refusal to back a black-owned club on the boardwalk. And so he lets the big boss twist in the wind a bit, right after Eddie is situated in a back room. He asks Nucky if he’s just supposed to leap up and help like a “boy.”
While Nucky starts to retort that he’s “never” called Chalky a boy, he knows better than to finish his sentence, or to complete his vapid debater’s point. Even if one gives the concussed Nucky of two weeks ago a pass for confusing Chalky with his shoe-shine man, what’s it matter whether he’s ever called Chalky a “boy” or not, so long as he was unwilling to help Chalky diversify the boardwalk? That self-knowledge is probably impressive to Chalky, in the end: The idea of allying with a white man who’s at least capable of being embarrassed enough to shut up at the right moment simply has to look like a better long-term bet than does buying into Gyp’s brand of faux-solicitous bullshit. The audience knows, of course, how much more openly racist Gyp is from some other scenes — courtesy of asides like “it’s a fortune to a jigaboo” — but Chalky is probably able to smell this truth on him during their meeting, in which Gyp promises to treat Chalky better than he’s ever been treated. Yeah, Gyp: no sale.
In fact, Chalky’s already made his play, by bringing his daughter’s medical-student suitor in to ferret out Eddie’s bullet. (And hurrah to the writers for digging the suitor out of the grave of this season’s dead-ended storylines — and brining him back to life.) Maybelle’s suitor is up-front about the fact that he’s a student, not a doctor, and in doing so, shows evidence of a spine that may have fortified a bit since his visit to Chalky’s nightclub. He’s aware of his limitations — no impostor or pretender, he — and, by episode’s end, that humility may have served him (and Eddie) well. Contrast this with Gyp, who thinks he can be boss of Atlantic City just by sitting behind Nucky’s desk (either in the Ritz or in Gillian’s hoo-ah house).
Points also go to Nucky’s journeyman associate Eddie, whose stiff-upper-lip manner — “I tend only to you. That is all I do. That is my life.” — manages to put over the slightly implausible notion that he had a whole rich family life (now or in his Deutsche-speaking past) he’d never even mentioned in passing to Nucky before. In any case, the scenes in which Nucky cared for the gut-shot Eddie amounted to a rebirth of Nucky’s connectedness to other people. Owen, one of his closest confidants of recent months, is dead, after all. And Margaret is now gone, too, in the aftermath of Owen’s death. That’s why Nucky asks Eddie if he knew about their affair — it’s important for Nucky to believe that Eddie is untainted by the betrayal. And this is why he doesn’t just ditch Eddie, even though doing so would be more in line with the dismissive way he has usually treated his valet.
Nucky has been an impostor in so many ways — as a leader (while his power was actually in decline), as a husband (duh), and as a lover (see Billie Kent). The climactic emotional event of season three might just be Nucky realizing that he needs people now, and not merely in various instrumental, means-to-an-end ways. That includes his brother (and his nephew). It includes Chalky, who jokingly suggests they’re too old to make new friends. So: Nucky best begin making sure his present acquaintances and relationships really count for something.
Might this social sphere one day include a woman whom he can treat as an equal? I had a flash of wondering, during this episode, whether Gillian — who is very well played by Gretchen Mol — could ever be made central to the drama of this show. She’s a cold, cynical operator like Nucky, but with reserves of emotional depth. And, her moral demerits aside, she deserves better than Gyp’s terrible crew setting up shop in her house of leisure. She might actually really be a fit for Nucky, as a matter of chemistry — if only it were possible to scrub every bit of their mutual history from memory. As it stands, her screen time moved things forward in this episode heartlessly as she booted Richard Harrow from her home and his job. The goosebump-raising sequence of Harrow packing up all his guns in this episode amounted to a promise that the season finale better damn well deliver on. But for once, I’m willing to predict that Boardwalk Empire will do the obvious thing.