“Why must there always be pandemonium?” asks a character after a bit of bloody business in the middle of tonight’s episode, “The Good Listener.” That’s a good question. As the second episode in this final season brings out the rest of the Boardwalk Empire gang (except for the sinister Dr. Valentin Narcisse and the shockingly still-alive Mickey Doyle, both of whom will slither into next week’s episode), it appears pandemonium follows most of them, whether they want it or not.
Nucky Thompson returns to the U.S. to look for answers after almost getting whacked back in Havana (when he’s still not trying to strike a deal distributing Bacardi Rum), and he ends up throwing down the gauntlet in an eventual war between him and the Luciano/Lansky/Siegel faction. His brother, Eli, is up in Chicago, practically numbering his days after robbing an Al Capone business associate and gunning down his goons in the street (inspiring Nelson Van Alden, his partner in this jacking, to utter that aforementioned quote). Gillian Darmody is in a sanitarium (or the “boobie hatch,” as someone puts it) that’s full of gals ready to flip out when a nurse turns off the radio. And Al Capone practically surrounds himself with so many loud cronies and yes men that he seems oblivious to the bloodshed that’s being spilled on his watch.
Written by Terence Winter and directed by Allen Coulter, “The Good Listener” crackles more plotwise than last week’s leisurely-paced season opener, setting up more action and conflict that’ll permeate the season. Thompson’s mystery of who tried to get at him was solved when former Gyp Rosetti lieutenant Tonino Sandrelli, now working for Maranzano, informs him that Luciano and Lansky (whom Nucky had an awkward run-in back in Cuba last week and who rightfully assumed he had something to do with it), working along with Bugsy Siegel, put out the hit.
Attempting to rub out Nucky was just one step in the Luciano and Lansky’s plan to take out Maranzano, and reorganize Cosa Nostra. Unfortunately, thanks to Nucky’s silent-but-deadly Cuban valet, Sandrelli gets his neck slit and his ear chopped off for this useful information. (after Sandrelli learns he and Nucky had this conversation underneath a caricature of Nucky’s late mistress Billie Kent, Sandrelli realizes he’s still a bit sore about that Gyp Rosetti business.) He’s dumped outside their whorehouse headquarters, where Lansky finds him with a “Welcome to Havana” postcard pinned on his person.
The episode ends with the camera circulating down Sandrelli’s earhole, echoing the abysmal, dreamlike wormhole that starts off this episode, as we’re slowly spun around a brief, Lynchian montage of assorted images — bare female breasts, fish frying in a pan — before we eventually see Eli Thompson lying on an office floor, awakened to the sounds of a warehouse raid downstairs. It seems the years haven’t been good to Nucky’s little brother, who gave a long-overdue, fatal beating to Agent Knox/Tolliver and ended up in Chicago, seen in last season’s finale getting into the car of former agent Van Alden/Mueller (another unhinged G-man). Now, they’re hired hands in Capone’s already-cluttered posse, making up for the $20,000 they lost in the raid by robbing returning Torrio/Capone associate Jake Guzik. But Capone is too wrapped up being a bad-boy superstar to notice, taking questions from a trailing reporter about the gangster movies — which Capone refers to as “comedies” — that are obviously modeled after his exploits. With the manic, virtually ridiculous way he lives, surrounded by an overpopulated entourage that would make Vincent Chase feel inadequate, it certainly looked like Capone was in the middle of his own farce. (Seeing the gifted Stephen Graham play Capone in his usual blustery, hysterically take-charge state reminded me of James Cagney in the Billy Wilder satire One, Two, Three.)
After last season wrapped up, Vulture critic Seitz wrote about how Thompson and Van Alden are basically two peas in a pod, fellow victims of temperament and inclination. While they may be characters whose stubborn, ambitious determination has caused them to wind up as lower-tier lowlifes, Eli is obviously the more pained and regretful of the two. As Van Alden practically admits to Eli before the robbery that he denies himself the ability to feel anything (“Sometimes, I find it easier to despise someone than to love them”), Eli is wallowing in misery he refuses to shake off. He reeks of booze and urine these days, practically soaking up his sorrow as he longs for his wife and kids. Even the sound of a goofy family sitcom on the radio leaves the man in tears.
Speaking of the radio, don’t turn it off at the sanitarium where Gillian Darmody is residing. When we first see her resting in bathtubs and shooting the ish with another lady, we assume that Darmody somehow found a way to get out of that holding cell she was in at the end of the finale and has landed in a health spa, perhaps finally finding a sugar daddy to keep her out of the clink. But once that nurse turns off the radio, all hell breaks loose and naked ladies start climbing out of their bathtubs. That’s when some stern, female superior straight out of a ’50s women-in-prison flick appears and put a kibosh on this ruckus, telling them that Dr. Cotton — whoever that dude is — wouldn’t like them getting rowdy. We also see the superior eyeing Darmody, watching her get out of the tub as they remind each other of some sort of deal they’ve made. Of course, we wouldn’t put it past Darmody to possibly get Sapphic with this stereotypically butch character in order to get something. But it’s eventually revealed that Darmody simply trades a dress or two of hers (apparently Dr. Cotton must’ve told his subordinate that she was looking too butch and needed to femme it up at work) for a pen and some paper.
We can only assume Darmody is going to use that pen and paper for a way to get out of her predicament, which — as all plans go — has a 50/50 shot of blowing up in her face. You could say that’s the case for many of the characters. From Nucky letting Luciano and Lansky knows he’s on to them to Eli stealing money from Capone so he give it back to him anyway to Eli’s son Willie, angling to become a New York prosecutor by telling a D.A. “I know the way crime eats you out from the inside … Let me do something good with my life,” but still having lunch with Uncle Nucky, it appears these characters will be spending the rest of the season making sure their plans don’t get lost in the pandemonium — or down a hole to nowhere.
Some stray thoughts:
- As this episode flashes back once again to Nucky’s childhood in 1884, this time showing the tension between Nucky’s dad and the Commodore (over a bad land deal) after his sister’s death, I feel sorry for those newbies who just started watching this season and wondering why the hell this show keeps bouncing back to the past so arbitrarily.
- I don’t know if anybody’s mentioned that Paul Calderon, who plays Nucky’s bodyguard (who I’m just gonna call Cuban Richard Harrow from now on), goes way back with Steve Buscemi. They both starred in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York nearly 25 years back.
- It’s always amusing when this show brings out actual historical figures and weaves them into the narrative. I’m sure I’m not the only one who chuckled when it was revealed that Nucky talked and shook hands with notoriously alleged bootlegger Joe Kennedy Sr. at the end of that meeting. We also learn that the agent who organized that raid is none other than Eliot Ness (played by The Wire’s Jim True-Frost), who we all know will become a thorn in Capone’s side.
- Speaking of agents, is Mike D’Angelo, the Capone enforcer who we learn is also a government agent, a shout-out to film critic Mike D’Angelo?
- Is it safe to say that Van Alden has turned into the Kramer of the show? It’s like both Shannon and the writers finally realized how eccentric and unreal a character Van Alden is. It seems more and more apparent that the character is used more for comic relief, still not getting respect from his wife (even after he verbally and sexually put her in check last season) and saying lines like the “pandemonium” one. Shannon certainly plays him that way, all spastic and exaggerated.