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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Live With It

Anthony Laciura on Boardwalk Empire

[Spoilers if you haven’t watched the episode yet. Though if you haven’t, why you’d be reading a recap makes little sense.] Wow, good-bye, Eddie! Raise your hand if you thought his pinching, at the hands of Agent Knox (at the end of the last episode), would be the prelude to his farewell. In a typically odd Boardwalk move of axing a promising character (while keeping many more questionable parts in awkward motion), Eddie reacted to his first rat session with Agent Knox by taking a lonely leap off his balcony, leaving behind a letter in German (presumably to his disgraced family members) and a book of Schubert songs.

Maybe Knox shouldn’t have gone so hard in that last interview? Suggesting that Eddie had nothing to live for and all, now that his family in Germany had changed their names — the better to disassociate from the man who ran off with a lingerie-counter lady — might have been a bit much. Knox may have learned some German as an intelligence officer during the war (as well as a kind of ruthlessness under young J. Edgar Hoover), but he may have missed a few cues about the human condition.

In any case, actor Anthony Laciura deserves the audience’s thanks: for the comedy of the scenes with Nucky (one of the few things that reliably humanizes our protagonist); for the rowdy German beer-hall songs of last week; and for the way that he inhabits the ghostly imagination of the German folk tale, “Erlkönig,”  that gives this episode its title. As Knox toys with him (“A father rides with his son through night and wind. The child is terrified. A demon in the woods …”), it seems like Eddie is living the nightmare in real time.

He’ll be missed.

The movement in Cicero, Illinois, continues to be more promising than usual. In fact, between this episode and the last one, it’s the machinations of the Capone crew that have provided the most momentum. George Mueller doesn’t love being drafted into coke-snorting Capone’s retinue — and he almost shoots a bloodied Al during a mayoral-election-related mêlée, freezing as he aims his gun and waffles over pulling the trigger. Frank Capone, seeing this potential betrayal, reaches for his own pistol but is prevented from gunning down Mueller by a band of special Chicago detectives called in at the last second (since someone knows that Cicero’s constables have been bought off). It’s interesting to see Mueller drawn closer to Al now, without the latter knowing how close the former came to murdering him. (If they have to dispense with O’Banion, I hope they do it quickly, as he’s the least interesting gangster on the show.)

Outside of this axis, the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire is just a little bit in trouble: We’re five episodes in now, and things in Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., and McCoy’s Florida (unseen this week) and Richard Harrow’s Midwest adventure seem rather scattered. That’s not to say the show isn’t consistently entertaining — it is, thanks largely to the bankable excellence of whatever (sometimes random-seeming) subgroup of its cast is asked to perform scenes in a given episode. But the shaggy-dog nature of the overall construction, outside Illinois, is beginning to show pretty plainly. Let’s break it down by axis:

1) The Gillian Problem

Gretchen Mol does plenty of great things with this part. She has a lot of range, even within the “junkie-downfall” arc of her character: This week, she’s all dark-clouds-under-the-eyes and sallow cheeks (whereas before, she’d covered her track-marks pretty well). There’s a sad comedy to her witless propositioning of whichever child-custody official it is that’s taking care of the Tommy business this week. And her attempt to give Lil’ Darmody an “Abba-Zabba” treat at his school is equally painful. (She can’t give anyone anything!)

So the problem isn’t that Gillian isn’t an interesting character, or that she’s played badly. It’s more about this: Who really cares whether she achieves her (inconsistent) goal of regaining custody of Lil’ Darmody? It’s just not important to anything else in the show and hasn’t been since last season. The irregular appearance of Roy Phillips (as well as his unexplained disappearances) isn’t helping things, either. Is he in Gillian’s life or not? And if not, why not? And if it’s not important, why are we spending time with him?

2) The Chalky-Dunn Wind-Up

Gillian’s brief interaction with Dunn Purnsley, her heroin supplier of last resort, also raises questions. Such as: That was an awfully fast rise for Dunn, to be holding court semi-publicly in a barbershop. What’s been happening between Dunn and Chalky? The latter, along with Dr. Narcisse, is unseen this week, in another example of the show’s not being able to address a key plot axis in two consecutive episodes. A source of great tension and interest seems to have been sidelined in favor of stories going nowhere.

3) Richard Harrow, an Audience Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

In the previews for next week, it’s suggested that Harrow is on his way back to his lady love of last season, who is currently taking care of Lil’ Darmody. But even if that’s fully true, what we care about in that story axis is not going to be the little boy. It’ll be whether Boardwalk’s Harrow problem — specifically, how to get the character back in business — will be solved. (And that problem is not likely going to be solved at Lil’ Darmody’s school.)

4) Willie Thompson’s Gangster Training

Given all the talk of fathers and sons occasioned by Knox’s grilling of Eddie’s family life elsewhere in the episode, it was satisfying to see Nucky take an active fatherly role in extricating Willie from his booze-poisoning charge at Temple. The scenes where Nucky teaches his nephew how to lie — and how to look like he’s paying a parking ticket instead of standing accused of a capital crime — are well played by Steve Buscemi. (He looks more emotionally invested than he did remembering Margaret’s children in Florida, for example.) This short speech, after Nucky helped shift the blame onto Willie’s sap roommate, was particularly good:

I promise you can live with it. You worry about what other people might say. None of that matters. … [The] only thing you can count on is blood. The people who discount you, they don’t know how you are. The rage you feel — listen to me carefully. It’s a gift. Use it. But don’t let anyone see it. Know that I’m watching over you. Show me the person you intend to be.

But as well played as all this was, I remain suspicious that Willie will be anything but a drag on the rest of the season. The show has enough detours going already: If Willie’s going to be a gangster of consequence, that’ll need to happen fairly quickly. If he’s just going to stay at Temple and comfort a weeping Doris, this has mostly been a waste of our time — just another detour that interrupts our ability to keep consistent track of headline characters like Chalky and Dunn. But next week’s cast of characters looks pretty promising (Patricia Arquette’s back!), and there’s still time for this season to come together.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO