A review of tonight's “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as my wheat farm goes belly up…
“Partners in crime.” -Nucky
“Cuanto” brings us to the midway point of this shortened final season, and it's easily the liveliest of the four we've gotten so far. The hour deals a lot with partnerships being formed, or rekindled – or, more often than not, with failed reunion attempts – and as such not only deals a lot with the series' history (Van Alden's arrest of Luciano and Jimmy in season 1, Nucky and Margaret's first meeting), but gives us several terrific character combinations in both Atlantic City and Chicago, along with the best of the young Nucky flashbacks to date.
As I noted last week, the Nucky/Margaret pairing has always been greater than the sum of its two parts, and we got a long, potent and entertaining reminder of that here. With Margaret back – an older, far less timid Margaret – Nucky's inscrutability goes from a deficit to a huge asset, as the fun is in watching an increasingly-drunk Margaret try to figure out exactly where she stands with her “husband.” The push and pull between the two characters, and the obvious pleasure Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald take in working opposite each other, kept things moving at a nice clip even as not a lot actually happened during her brief trip back to Atlantic City. Nucky comes up with a solution to the problem of the Widow Rothstein, but leaves it to Margaret to negotiate, and where for a moment it seems like Nucky might invite her back to his place – and that she would accept, what with the kiss she plants on him earlier in the scene – instead he simply pays for her to stay in a hotel elsewhere in town. But the show obviously isn't done with them yet, and after seeing them together for so much of this hour, I'm glad of that.
The action in Chicago was even more of a treat. Capone has fallen deeply in love with his own celebrity – the sequence where he stands in front of the movie screen, blocking the flickering newsreel footage, was a gorgeous bit of filmmaking from Jake Paltrow and company – and is thus more erratic and dangerous than ever. Luciano travels to Chicago to recruit Al for the organized crime commission he and Meyer are plotting, recalling their own ties as former New York pals, and their season 2 partnership as they plotted with Jimmy to overthrow their various mentors. But Capone's celebrity and ego are so huge that he can't see any profit in joining up, and what appears to be Luciano's mistake about recognizing Van Alden(*) likely plays a role in Capone turning him down and instead warning Nucky about the threat coming from New York. (It also doesn't help that Luciano kept making the Wallace Beery joke, which led to two different scenes where Capone gives his doomed underling the “Funny how?” treatment from “Goodfellas” before beating him savagely with the toy Empire State Building that Lucky gave him.)
(*) Nelson talking his way out of a bullet – with a blend of fiction and absolute truth – was a fantastic blend of suspense and black comedy, and a reminder of how good Michael Shannon is at getting laughs from this humorless colossus of a man he's been playing for the last five years. “I may have soiled myself.” Poor, poor “George Mueller.”
The young Nucky flashbacks, meanwhile, shine a light on a figure who seems to be just as important to Nucky's rise as the Commodore. We've always been told that the Commodore was Nucky's mentor, but here he's the one who casually fires Nucky from his job at the hotel because he has no more use for the boy, whereas Sheriff Lindsay recognizes the dire circumstances that would lead Nucky and Eli (in the first of many criminal capers they would perform together) to break into a hotel room, and takes pity on them by inviting them to dine with his very polite and kind family. So much of Nucky's behavior is driven by envy of people who have more than he and Eli do – Eli responds to a flushing toilet like it's the Eighth Wonder of the World – and the glimpse of a family so much happier than his own is enough to make him cry, and to lead Lindsay to consider Nucky for the deputy sheriff job we know he'll have down the road. Lindsay has to this point been presented as even colder and more cynical in many ways than the Commodore, but he's nice to Nucky; given that Nucky eventually becomes the sheriff himself, will this be yet another partner he ends up betraying?
Like many of you, I'm concerned with how the show wraps up all its stories with only four episodes to go. Even leaving out characters like Chalky and Narcisse who are absent this week, there's an awful lot to deal with about Luciano's plans, the mole in Capone's organization, and Nucky continuing to lose allies, with Joe Kennedy officially passing on Nucky's rum deal, while Sally (RIP) is gunned down by the Cuban authorities. And it may be that Winter, Korder and company can't make it all work with this shorter order.
But history has taught me not to underestimate the people who make “Boardwalk Empire,” no matter how bumpy and/or slow things might seem at a season's midpoint. “Cuanto” was an excellent episode. Now we approach the endgame. I look forward to it.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com