Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Blue Bell Boy’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I deny brussel sprouts exist…

“I know who’s in charge, Mr. Thompson.” -Owen

A couple of weeks ago, “Boardwalk Empire” gave us a terrific Chalky White story that had virtually nothing to do with the rest of the episode, but which had me once again imagining a version of the show built around Chalky. (Who hasn’t appeared since, by the way.) Tonight’s episode does a similar trick with Al Capone. Al’s all the way off in Chicago, only connected to the rest of the narrative at this point because he and Van Alden briefly crossed paths in the premiere. But Stephen Graham is so good – particularly in the heartbreaking scene where Al tries to give his deaf son boxing lessons to toughen him up, and only winds up terrifying him – that I not only didn’t mind the detour from business in Atlantic City, but began imagining a Cicero-centric incarnation of this series.

The problem, I suppose, is that Nucky Thompson, while an effective businessman (most of the time, anyway; he’s screwing up a lot lately), is far from the most dynamic character on his own show. That’s not a knock on Steve Buscemi; it’s just the contrast of this cold, buttoned-down guy with the more colorful figures who surround him. And every time we spend a little extra time with Chalky, or Capone, or Richard or any of a number other figures, it’s easy to forget that the show really ought to be getting back to what Nucky is up to, pretty soon.

In an odd way, “Blue Bell Boy” is an episode where Nucky is very much aware of how he’s viewed as somehow less important or respected than the gangsters who surround him, and begins bristling at the notion. He gets irritated when Mickey and the other warehouse guys seem to be looking to Owen for guidance instead of him, once again shuts down any attempt by Eli to assert leadership, and finishes off his time in the cellar by putting a bullet in young Roland Smith, who thought he could charm the old man out of killing him.

The problem is, Nucky’s still making the same mistakes – every time he doesn’t listen to Eli, it seems, bad things happen – and winds up spending yet another episode out of action while his guys are running afoul of Gyp Rosetti. This time it’s over other business and bad timing with the raid on Roland’s house, rather than his obsession with Billie Kent, but the end result is the same, and likely won’t go over well with Arnold Rothstein.

But even though the circumstances are different, and Nucky seems aware of how he’s viewed within the show (if not by us in the real world), it’s still a frustrating, repetitive kind of episode. As with the season so far, individual pieces work (the Capone subplot, Eli being smarter than Mickey but powerless to do anything about it), but the whole of it isn’t entirely satisfying, even as the Who’s the Boss? theme ties most of the stories together.

Eli is still being placed in a corner by Nucky, and is unable to countermand a simple and stupid order by Mickey Doyle once he realizes that Gyp is now running things in Tabor Heights(*). Margaret’s prenatal class is finally happening, but the nun at the hospital acts like she’s in charge of it, and Lucky has to go bow and scrape in front of Joe Masseria, whom he doesn’t even technically work for. Everyone’s being put in their place, in one way or another, including the Dean O’Bannion goon who has the fatal timing to bully one of Capone’s guys in a week when Capone has zero tolerance for bullies.

(*) That’s a conversation I’d kind of like to see. I’m sure Gyp is paying the cops well, but he did still burn their old boss to death, and you would think there might be some resistance.

What does everybody think of the season so far? Are you enjoying the Nucky-ness of it all more than I am? Do you think it’s clever or repetitive that so much of the action has revolved around this one little gas station? And how do you feel the show has used the supporting cast so far?