Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘The Good Listener’

Senior Television Writer
09.14.14 42 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight's “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I rob Peter to pay Paul…

“Year in, year out: different dogs, same bone.” -Nucky

By shifting the final season into 1931, Terence Winter and company have brought us into a year where Al Capone isn't just a mob boss, but a celebrity, and when Lansky, Luciano and Siegel are making moves that will turn them into organized crime legends in their own right.

The series could conceivably do a major pivot at the end and do a serialized version of “The Untouchables,” with Stephen Graham and Jim True-Frost (Prez!) standing in for De Niro(*) and Costner, and/or focus heavily on the schemes of the not-so-young triumvirate of New York wiseguys. But the show has always been about Nucky's story, right or wrong, and “The Good Listener” plays interestingly off of the ways that this show's main character has become such a minor supporting player in the big action happening in Chicago and New York.

(*) Certainly, I imagine Graham could have some fun with a “Boardwalk” version of Capone's baseball monologue, and given Tim Van Patten's facility with shooting action, this show could do its own excellent version of the stairway shootout. Also, who'd fill the Sean Connery slot in this scenario and explain the Chicago Way to Ness? Aside from being busy with “The Affair,” is Dominic West too young and/or obvious? (I asked Andy Greenwald, who suggested Sean Bean, which would be excellent on several levels.)

Capone's doing boastful interviews with Variety and ordering around the hapless Van Alden and drunken Eli, while Nucky is having fruitless meetings with old money men who have no interest in consorting with a gangster like him. Luciano and Lansky are planning something big, while Nucky just wants to make it to retirement like Johnny Torrio, and preferably without acquiring John's difficulty in swallowing. Nucky knows he's gotten too old for this game and wants to quit, but the Depression has put enough of a squeeze on his fortunes that he can't afford to walk away just yet, and that's dangerous.

The meeting with the New York money men is a reminder that Prohibition opened a short window for someone like Nucky to ascend to the ranks of high society. Once the repeal of Volstead renders Nucky's specific skills and contacts less essential, these swells have no use for him. But that scene also introduces us to a bootlegger who managed to turn Prohibition into permanent entree into the national elite for both himself and his many, many children: Joe Kennedy, played by Matt Letscher.

Everywhere he turns, Nucky is coming face to face with people who are becoming much more successful as either gangsters or legitimate businessmen (or gangsters who can pretend to be businessmen). In many of these cases, the characters will have long and fruitful careers long after the events of this series, but whether or not Nucky Thompson lives to the same old age of Nucky Johnson, his story as a relevant figure in this world is nearing its end, and that lends weight to what he's going through, even if events elsewhere seem grander and more likely to wind up in a history book.

It's Nucky whom we've been primarily following throughout the series. So while it's fun to see Capone at the height of his powers ordering Nelson and Eli around, Nucky getting revenge on Tonino for his role in Billie Kent's death – but only after first extracting intel about what Luciano and friends are up to – is a bigger piece of what “Boardwalk Empire” has been about. 

Some other thoughts:

* Gillian (remarkably well-preserved, given that she's seven years older than when last we saw her) at first appears to be in some kind of high-end spa, but instead it turns out she's in some kind of facility for the criminally insane. Similarly, there's a brief fakeout where it seems like the administrator is looking to trade favors for sex, when in fact all she wants is one of Gillian's nicer dresses.

* While Eli's off in Chicago, Willie Thompson has grown up into a young lawyer, and we're left with the question of whether he's joining the U.S. Attorney's office to get revenge on Nucky for his role in his father's downfall, or functioning as a mole in the government on behalf of his beloved uncle.

* Speaking of moles, while the press has their attention focused on Elliot Ness – exactly the kind of straight arrow Treasury agent hero Van Alden once fancied himself as – it appears the more important fed is Mike D'Angelo, who has gone deep undercover into the Capone organization.

* I still wish we had gotten to see the conversation Eli and Nelson had when they first reunited in Chicago, but these past seven years have been kind to neither of them, with Eli an alcoholic mess and Van Alden coming to deeply resent his “marriage” to Sigrid. But they're involved in some fine darkly comic moments here, from the long sequence in the elevator where they have to keep removing their hats when civilians get on (including one whose own hat keeps assaulting Eli) to the robbery that inspires Van Alden to bellow my new go-to line in life: “WHY MUST IT ALWAYS BE PANDEMONIUM?!?!?”

* Also, the stolen money Nelson and Eli have to replace would be worth about $300 grand today.

* Every now and then, the show gives us an episode like this with a distinctive visual device to bookend the hour. Here, it's the collage of spinning images (the record in the opening, Tonino's severed ear in the close), which, if nothing else, provides a visual link between the two Thompson brothers, even though they're 800 miles apart at the moment. And it's always good to have Allen Coulter's sharp eye directing an episode.

* While talking to Joe Kennedy, Nucky notes that he and Margaret are still technically married. (Their marriage is legal, even though they never see each other, whereas the “Mueller” marriage is fake, even though they're stuck together in that apartment for years on end.)

* Notable from this week's Young Nucky flashbacks: we get to see just how much Ethan Thompson despises the Commodore (and get an explanation for why), and we also get one of the most cynical character beats in the show's history, when the sheriff suggests that the Commodore try to buy Ethan's vote by paying for his daughter's funeral.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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