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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Florida Made Him Do It

Patricia Arquette and Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire

Nucky Thompson has often been an unusually undermotivated screen gangster — which is fine, in principle. But that quirk of antihero soul is developed and deepened in this episode by our seeing Nucky recognize this about himself. Back in Florida for most of this hour, after an abortive Penn Station layover attempt to reach out to Margaret — nicely played by Kelly MacDonald after a long absence (just the right amount of care for Nucky, and the certainty that she was right to leave him) — Nucky gives Sally the following mini-speech after a night of drinking and getting the straight dope (sort of) on the Florida real-estate shenanigans from Bill McCoy. Here’s Nucky on the subject of Nucky:

“I’m trying to build something. I don’t know why. I wonder if I did nothing at all, I’d be happier. But I can’t stop; I tried. But I just get … wound up. Fourteen thousand acres, what am I doing?”

These are some good questions! Why is Nucky doing what he’s doing? The tagline to last season was “you can’t be half a gangster,” and we saw how the events of the season (the challenges posed by Gyp et al) brought Nucky ever closer toward that bit of self-knowledge. But what’s this season addressing, other than the vagaries of feeling like you don’t know what to do with yourself sometimes?

At any rate, once Nucky can admit some of this out loud, it opens up the space for a more active character to do something interesting. And it’s here that Patricia Arquette’s rootin’ tootin’ Sally really delivers: with a couple of socks to the jaw, she not only gets Nucky out of his own head for a second (and turns a weary night of sadsack bar-room chatter into some pretty hot sex), but also earns herself a spot at the land-development table.

McCoy is chagrined to realize that he’ll only be getting a finder’s fee for bringing the Florida deal together; Sally, who chased off the criminal natives looking for answers about McCoy victim Augie Tucker, will be supervising Nucky’s side of the deal. There are other criminal world falling-outs in Florida, too; at a Gator Wrasslin’ Show, Lucky Luciano gets ID’d by Nucky’s new Cuban-connected partner, who also knows Joe Masseria.

When the new partner tells Luciano how great it is that Masseria is letting him out to play, we realize that Luciano’s broken his leash and strayed a bit far afield. Later, this leads to a bust-up between Luciano and Lansky. (But they’ve been pals since the schoolyard!) Aside from this unforeseen wrinkle, Lansky is perfection. Notice how, unlike McCoy, he’s enough of an organized pro to get Eddie’s name right, and wish Nucky well over the man’s passing; McCoy can't keep Eddy straight versus Eli. A last note about the Sunshine State: Here’s hoping that Sally, having made such an impression in her few scenes thus far, continues to factor into the season — though if Nucky’s really leaving her in charge of Florida operations, that might be a challenge.

Further north, Agent Knox pleads with Young J. Edgar Hoover for additional time to make his investigation work out, now that his star witness Eddie is dead. Hoover, surprisingly, doubts that there’s anything like an organized network of criminals operating in America; his priorities have more to do with folks whose politics he doesn’t like — including, in a nod to the world of Dr. Narcisse up in Harlem, the name of Marcus Garvey. This is a hint about how the show will bring some of its until-now isolated story strands together, and it’s an exciting one. But meanwhile, Knox remains dogged about the Thompson file, and Hoover grants him a chance to go poke his head up in Atlantic City. Hoover only hopes that Knox’s strategy allows him to keep that head.

And — what do you know! After a brief moment of weepy weakness in front of Agent Knox, Eli gets a clue that might hurt the Bureau of Investigation’s chances of taking down organized crime: The hankie Knox gives Eli bears a monogrammed inscription that doesn’t have anything to do with the surname “Knox.” By this point, Eli has already ruled out thievery shame as a reason for Eddie’s suicide (thanks to some sleuthing around the latter’s safe-deposit remains) — so it can’t be long before Eli starts to pursue the Knox issue directly.

Though Eli’s lines contain a few passing mentions of Willie up at Temple, the son is gone from this episode’s lineup. Same goes for the entire Illinois axis. What we get from the trade-off is the reintroduction of Richard Harrow, who, in a bit of narrative luck, runs into Father Sagorsky at a hospital, right after the latter has been diagnosed with cirrhosis. Sagorsky Senior’s patter basically runs like so: “I don’t have much time, so you have to get back together with my daughter. No one cares what you did. Let’s get on the stick, here.”

When Richard meets up with Julia again, it feels like the narrative is a bit in fast-forward mode after the long Midwest interlude. (Remember Carl Billings? Or Emmy?) At first, Julia is expressing some (very reasonable!) reservations about whether she can trust Richard to hang around this time and not be neck-deep in the blood of others with such regularity. (In relationships, it’s always the little things.) But then a few seconds later, she’s telling Junior Darmody — who is full of thematic references to the North Star and how to find one’s way home — that Richard will indeed be following their navigational steps. There’s a reference to Gillian, and an upcoming final custody hearing that will determine Junior Darmody’s fate. (We don’t see Gillian at all, though.)

This glossing over of plot isn’t as extreme as what’s happening over in Chalky White’s world, though. I remain a bit shocked that the show hasn’t asked him to deal with Dunn Purnsley’s obvious betrayal yet. If it’s the case that Gillian can find Dunn as a heroin dealer merely by asking around on the street (as in the last episode), it seems impossible that Chalky doesn’t have the same knowledge. It could be, of course, that Chalky feels “done” with Dunn — but he still needs to take stock of the fact that Dr. Narcisse (unseen this week) is promoting a putative rival in Chalky’s own backyard.

Instead, plot-wise, we get the first expression of Chalky’s long-telegraphed push-pull romance with singer Daughter Maitland (who is bored of her up-tempo music at the Onyx and only wants to sing depressing versions of “St. Louis Blues,” which angers Chalky up into a fervent makeout mood). If their pairing offered a ton of chemistry, it might make me forget all the power-play stuff with Dunn that’s not being addressed — but they don’t have tremendous spark.

Obviously, Chalky is unsatisfied at home; there’s a fun reintroduction of his piano-playing son, still obsessed with the era’s progressive innovations in jazz — but that’s no reason for him to lose his head for business entirely, is it? At this point, the Boardwalk Empire universe is large enough (and interesting enough!) that I’d be happy to watch movie-length episodes, just so more of the characters could have richer, longer scenes that engage all the things we already know about them.  But for now we can hope that, by the time all the story arcs converge (as they must) at season’s end, it won’t feel too forced.

Best line readings of the night:

“I wouldn’t put something alive in a box.” —Nucky, not remembering that questions of living entities stuffed into boxes might bring up bad memories for Margaret.

“Let’s go, Sparky, I’ll give you something to cry about.” —Sally, spoiling for a fight with Nucky.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO