It’s no secret that Boardwalk Empire has a lot of secondary characters: so many, in fact, that it often takes several screen hours for the writers to follow up on promising threads introduced in any given episode. By now, HBO viewers know how patience can be a virtue — though it has sometimes felt as though the Boardwalk Empire writers have overindulged themselves in the luxury of our willingness to await the payoff (almost to a point of narrative indolence).
That’s all a wind-up for saying that, had you been on the fence about whether to continue on with Boardwalk Empire and its many, many (many) dangling narrative threads, I suspect this episode won your affections for at least the balance of this season. Payoff was everywhere: from the major characters who have seemed stranded so far this season (think of Muller/Van Alden’s apoplectic steam-iron-to-the-face revenge against the world that’s been treating him like a schmuck), all the way down to minor, more recent guest stars (that it was Means who navigated Nucky into the private club with Secretary Andrew Mellon was very satisfying, especially since the plan was hatched in sight of Esther Randolph). And we haven’t even discussed the terrorist bombing that claimed innocent lives and closed the episode …
Patience, though. It’s worth taking time to appreciate all of the well-turned moments in this episode. The women’s health clinic subplot (always enjoyable on its own terms) also seemed to merge with the macro-story-archetype of the show, in which characters make a conscious choice that the provision of contraband somehow fits with their essential natures. For the woman who miscarried on the Catholic Hospital floor to admit that she poisoned herself as a brutally primitive abortion technique was, frankly, stunning and very well-acted. It transformed Margaret’s activism from something that was a pleasant moral distraction from her home life into an active, subversive thing: the provision of birth control specifically prohibited by her church since childhood. This turn begged of Margaret more than crafty outflanking of church officials; it required her to blow past the entire Catholic moral framework. And, after transgressing that line, it made sense for Margaret to take control of her affair with Owen, telling him that he could teach her to drive “after” they had sex again.
Likewise, it was pleasing to see George Muller’s wife Sigrid tell him to stop running and stay in Cicero, after his latest violent act. (I’m going to call Van Alden “George Muller,” for now, so long as he’s planting his feet, selling booze, and allied with O’Banion.) I even enjoyed Johnny Torrio’s philosophical way of telling his Chicago rivals that Al Capone was now in charge, and even suggesting that Capone is a Vesuvius waiting to spew lava over several Zip codes.
The only thing that didn’t work in the episode was one thing it didn’t try to do: work Chalky White back into the mix. In any case, I don’t think I can recall an episode of the show that switched between all its geographical focal points of action with as much clarity, and all without sacrificing the episode’s overall feeling of momentum and suspense. Billie Kent, who I thought had already depleted her entire store of charm, came back and wowed us (and a director trying to cast his next film) during a screen test, only to become the sacrificial offering at Gyp’s terrorist bonfire on the boardwalk (meant to clear out Nucky, Lucky, and Rothstein all at once).
If Kent doesn’t nail that audition and become more than an “object” of Nucky’s as a consequence, her death in the finale of the episode would just feel like a pile-on. But she does nail it, she does become something more to Nucky than she had been, and so her death means all the more. Now the memory of Billie can really make Nucky versus Gyp something to watch. The antagonists already wanted to kill each other over the booze business. But now they both have more personal reasons. Gyp has always taken things personally, of course, but now Nucky can join him in that frame of mind. Instead of just thinking about killing Gyp via analogies to the rational way one would consider the need to “put down a mad dog,” Nucky can now presumably become a mad dog himself (as we saw in his fistfight with Billie’s scene partner).
Leaving aside any quibbles you might have had about the practicality of Gillian’s faux-Jimmy-corpse scheme, it moved her forward (at last!) into the nexus of Boardwalk Empire plots that matter. Opening on Richard Harrow’s face at the crematorium, this episode managed to dispose of the lingering doubts about that arc, this season. To wit: Gillian’s moved on, privately and publicly, about James’s death at Nucky’s hands. As a result, she can secure loans against her property that allow her to operate independently of Lucky’s manner of help-with-strings-attached. Harrow himself knows that the boy in the box headed for the flames isn’t his departed friend, but he knows he’s not in a position to challenge Gillian directly. (“Jimmy deserved better than this,” is what he says, coolly looking at Gillian when asked to offer a few last words.)
This turn does the show a world of good: It means Gillian can hash out her hatred of Nucky (by throwing a drink in his face), which in turn means she can solidify her alliance with Gyp (by giving him the location of Nucky’s dinner plans, courtesy of a dully loose-lipped Lucky). The less said directly about Jimmy in the future, the better. But Harrow can keep surveying the now-clear line of scrimmage between Gillian and Gyp and Nucky & Co. If he sees an opening to trust Nucky’s operation, he can make a strategic move. (Or, he can elope with new girl, offscreen this episode, and go be happy somewhere.)
The sheer number of personages to follow on Boardwalk Empire has often meant that we’re denied the kind of deep-dives into complex character minds that we often see on other elite cable productions like Homeland or Breaking Bad. It’s a bigger-canvas, period-piece show that nevertheless wants to be more than a “rock-’em-sock-’em gangsters” drama. The mystery of how to keep action coming while giving us believable-yet-surprising behavior from characters has sometimes been its own up-and-down meta-drama for viewers, who are apt to be surprised by the odd quiet episode or prolonged disappearance of a favorite character. But this week at least, the mystery was solved in a pretty satisfying way.