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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Somebody’s Always Gotta Lose

We open on a portrait of Rosetti’s men, standing outdoors on some anonymous night with hands raised in surrender. They are seen from behind, and lit with chiaroscuro effect by the car headlights beyond. As a formidable chorus of muzzle-blasts announces a mass execution, small pops of red liquid lift off the falling bodies, which collapse to the ground in slow motion. Once the firing dies down, Al Capone — making good on his closing promise in the last episode — steps forward and adds a single shot into an anonymous body. He’s one for clarity of purpose, this guy.

Atlantic City is drenched in a bloodbath. And the following montage makes clear how, opening cruelties aside, not all the losses are on one side. The sequence also gives us a (welcome) reminder that our favorite characters aren’t just charming scenery-chewers, when Chalky and Dunn murder a man in cold blood, inside a magazine-seller’s nook. These acts are intercut with clips of the mayor attempting, at various intervals, to explain the spate of murders to members of the press. There’s a note of comedy in the air, when the mayor avers that he runs the city, not Nucky Thompson.

Fourth Estate chuckling aside, though, this isn’t actually so clear from the inside. At best, Nucky controls about half of the violence. And inside his secluded base of operations, it’s all he can do to keep Capone’s Chicago faction and Chalky’s crew from tearing each other apart during their off hours. (The causal stew looks to be about two parts cabin fever mixed with one part racial resentment.) Mickey Doyle, calling in from Andrew Mellon’s apparently warehouse-sized still operation in Philadelphia, is dangling opportunities in front of Nucky that he has no way to capitalize on. At least not yet.

One thing to be said for Nucky’s team is that they’re staying active. Over at Gillian’s, Team Rosetti is falling to drink, with one anonymous thug saying, “If I’m gonna catch it, I’d rather be tight.” Meantime, Masseria is dressing down Rosetti in his office, asking what they’ve achieved for all the bodies that have been thrown at the campaign. Rosetti doesn’t seem to have a plan, outside of denigrating the black members of Nucky’s cohort. Masseria gives him a lesson in counter-insurgency, noting that their adversaries are protecting home territory, and thus motivated. But Gyp doesn’t seem to get it. Masseria hints that his patience is reaching its end, then tweaks Rosetti’s clock so that it’s in sync with his own watch. As a conversation closer, he offers: “Now you know what time it is,” then leaves. Elsewhere in the mansion, Gillian finds herself needlessly taunted by Rosetti’s thugs when trying to deliver a sandwich to her sullen sorta-child.

Across town, there’s a nice moment between brothers when Nucky offers to help Eli repair an engine that’s absorbed one too many slugs in the course of recent hostilities. Nucky recalls how he once helped Eli with his old car — apparently a junker — and Eli asks “Who sold it to me in the first place?” The warm feelings for their shared past makes Nucky philosophical; he suspects that even if they win the war, there’ll be nothing left for them in Atlantic City. Eli encourages him not to give up on his capability for playing the angles.

LIGHTBULB! We don’t see any of what follows immediately after this. And, by the end of the episode, you’ll have to have filled in a fair chunk of it for yourself: that Nucky calls Mickey Doyle back, as part of a multi-part plan involving a double-cross of Arnold Rothstein that includes Gaston Means, Andrew Mellon, and Esther Randolph. But despite what we miss, it all plays out pretty satisfactorily as drama: in part because Boardwalk’s writers decline to jack with the chronology while also leaving crucial points unseen, as they have in some other recent episodes. So here, the missing parts don’t feel like gotcha gambits so much as strategic feints that provide honest payoff.

For now, all we know is that Mickey calls Rothstein in order to suggest that he try to take over Nucky’s fallow distillery as reward for negotiating Masseria’s withdrawal of support for Rosetti. The one thing you could quibble with here is that Rothstein seems to have pivoted pretty quickly from not valuing Mickey at all to accepting that he’s had a good idea all on his own. But Rothstein also likes getting over on people — as we see when he calls Nucky back to say he’ll need 99 percent of the distillery’s future business, and also in the culmination of the Lucky-gets-pinched storyline.

Luciano, under stress of a beating, gives the cops a line on 50 pounds of heroin as his get-out-of-jail free card. That’s his stash with Meyer, who’s understandably burned up about it. When they’re both called in to talk with Masseria, they see the 50 lost pounds on his desk. Rothstein comes out of the wings, more or less bragging that he’s wholly co-opted the Meyer/Luciano plan to go into business for themselves, in part by using the cops on his payroll (yes, the very same ones who beat Lucky into revealing the location of the whole stash). Lucky fumes; Meyer restrains him, lest he sign their mutual death certificate. Now that Rothstein’s in the heroin trade, he offers Masseria back the product, at the implicit cost of his abandoning Gyp. Thus has Rothstein positioned himself to begin sitting pretty in short order. That is, if Nucky doesn’t double-cross him with perfect timing.

Back at the most depressing whorehouse in history, Gillian approaches Gyp with the idea of him letting her take off with the little kid. Gyp’s not into that, and then they go where they needed to go ever since we saw evidence of Gyp’s kinks, earlier in the season. They have a back and forth of insulting one another — shorter scene: Are you a bug? / You’re a worthless piece of shit! / Squish me. / I’m laughing at you. — which, despite the talents of both actors, all feels a little limp. Meantime, in Brooklyn (!), Margaret looks up the services of a kindly abortionist. She admits to being “at sea,” but faces down her fears of the unknown and commits to the procedure. This has the feel of writers tying something up much more than it seems to be pushing us forward into future intrigues. It’s handled fairly quickly and without placing too much drag on the other parts of the story. Back at Nucky’s hideout, he gets the call about Masseria’s coming desertion of Gyp just in time to use it to break up another white-on-black melee.

More or less at the same time, Gillian’s got a belt around Gyp’s neck, just like he likes it, and reaches for a needle full of heroin. She waits AN ETERNITY to jam it in his neck, and that turns out to be a beat too long. “I don’t blame you, Red,” Gyp says while wresting control of the needle away from her. “I really don’t. The thing of it is: Somebody’s always gotta lose.”

Ain’t that the truth. Just after Gillian nods off on the bed, Gyp hears cars outside burning rubber at the first opportunity to desert him. He goes downstairs to ask WTF, and is told that Masseria’s pulling his army out. There’s a brief bit of shouting, which probably covers Richard Harrow’s entry with eighteen guns strapped to his body. There is something exciting and also depressingly hollow about Harrow’s pitiless and efficient killing spree. You buy that he’s that good to be twisting and firing and hitting his mark every time. But the blankness on his face is troubling — as though he’s already decided that Gillian was correct in the last episode about the low likelihood of his ever having a fulfilled emotional life. He saves mute Tommy from an anonymous Gyp thug, and then deposits the boy at Miss Sagorsky’s, without wiping any blood off his face in the interim. She’s obviously shocked by this; her father encourages her to take the boy and stash him in the room where’s he’s already played with the toys. The old man has a few words for Harrow: Don’t come home bloody like this. He says he’ll have a talk with his daughter in the morning, that he’ll try to set things right for Harrow. But Richard won’t have it; he knows it’s over. At least the boy is safe.

Nucky and Eli arrive at the whorehouse shortly thereafter (they headed to take on Gyp alone I guess?) only to find Harrow’s having done most of their work for them. Nucky finds Gillian collapsed in a corner; she’s babbling something that sounds like a repressed memory of her first meeting with the Commodore (arranged by Nucky). Since Nucky’s beginning to warm to erstwhile enemies, maybe he takes her with them? (We don’t see how they leave the premises.) But Gyp has one last lieutenant hiding in a closet. After he kicks over a can and gives away his position, Eli and Nucky prepare to make their approach.

Esther Randolph takes a call from Andrew Mellon requesting action on his Philadelphia distillery, apparently commandeered by some hooligans. He requests arrests, and Randolph is surprised. He wants her to take Nucky in? “It was Mr. Thompson who brought this illegality to my attention,” Mellon replies. When Randolph looks for guidance as to whom it is, exactly, that she should expect to be arresting, the Treasury Secretary has to have the name whispered by the ever-slimy Gaston Means. (WHISPER. “Arnold.” WHISPER. “Rothstein.”) So is justice arranged.

Gyp stands on a beach, with his last few soldiers, howling about cartoons and impersonating Nucky and swearing that he’ll start up again. The lieutenant from the closet comes upon them, and they all kick their heels and wonder about that masked man. Gyp turns his back on his men and enjoys taking a leak while the guy whose brother was murdered the last time they had a day at the beach sticks a knife in Gyp’s back. (He says, “I’m sorry” while he does it, unnecessarily.) Then he doubles back to Eli and Nucky in the car and says it’s done. They warn him to go tell Masseria this war can be over or just beginning. When they’re alone, Nucky tells Eli that he only wants people around he can trust.

So naturally the next thing he does is go to a Brooklyn rooming-house to talk to his wife who just had the child of another man “taken care of.” Nucky shows he’s prepared to clear the slate; he offers her money. He says she can’t possibly want to live like this after being used to the finer things. He says money doesn’t mean anything, and when Margaret replies that of course it does, and walks back into a chosen squalor, it feels like the end of a storyline.

Back on the boardwalk, Nucky is being welcomed by the Ritz door-tenders and being gawked at by pulp-news readers looking for a jolt of the “action.” But it appears he’s not going to be a glad-hander any longer. He drops the red-flower-in-his-lapel act and goes back inside his hotel as the chords to a new Patti Smith (!) rendition of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” begin to sound. If Nucky doesn’t have anyone, that also includes a major antagonist. (Presumably Rothstein is in jail. Even if not, he’s never flashed a blood-vendetta style of management à la Rosetti.) Capone is headed back to Chicago after a last turkey-shoot of Masseria’s men. Does anyone even remember Agent Van Alden any more? Whatever happens between now and next season, the writers are going to have to set up someone new to lose.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO