Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Spaghetti & Coffee’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I am face to face with paradox…

“I want everything to run all by itself.” -Nucky

One of the greatest strengths of “Boardwalk Empire” is also one of its bigger weaknesses: the show has so many fascinating characters, some of whom would work well as the center of their own series. It can be thrilling when we spend a little more time with one of them than normal, but that’s also usually a prompt that they’ll now take a step back so someone else can have a turn in the spotlight.

The actual central character, Nucky, is distracted this week. He gets involved a bit with Harry Daughtery’s fixer, Gaston Bullock Means,(*) and has a meeting of the masterminds with Rothstein, but mostly Nucky is fixated on Billy Kent – and on the men she’s with when she’s not with him.

(*) Two things on Means. First, he’s another real-life figure, and without going into historical detail, some of his actions around this period fall into the “truth is stranger than fiction” category. Second, what a pleasure it always is to watch Stephen Root, here disappearing into this cryptic, self-satisfied character. 

And while Nucky’s off in New York, consumed by jealousy and dreaming of a world where he doesn’t have to take such an active hand in running his machine, the machine inevitably runs into trouble without him.

Eli gets out of prison, but he’s a diminished man now: bossed around by Mickey, mocked by the Tabor Heights sheriff, replaced as the man of the house by his eldest son. Perhaps if he were at his full power, he might have foreseen Gyp Rosetti’s stunt with the gas station, but he didn’t, and now Nucky’s people have no easy way to get Rothstein his booze.

We get quite a bit more of Gyp, too. I’m still not sold on the Sicilian accent Bobby Cannavale is doing, which seems to drift in and out from moment to moment. But Gyp’s introduction at the start of the season premiere has established a base level of tension for every scene he’s in. We know how sensitive Gyp is about how little he knows, and we never know if being reminded of it will lead to another explosion of violence, or to someone like the pump jockey getting out of the conversation unscathed.

Gyp makes an interesting parallel to Chalky White, who’s also sensitive about his own lack of education, but slightly better at controlling his temper about it. We saw him explode in family settings last year, and we see him lose patience with his daughter’s desire for an “interesting” husband like her daddy, but on the whole, Chalky is more confident in who he is and his place in the world. It’s a pleasure to watch Michael Kenneth Williams get a little more room to maneuver than usual, and the “You think you and me having some kind of discussion?” scene played very much like a couple of Tony and Meadow arguments on “The Sopranos.” I would eagerly watch a Chalky White spin-off, but for now have to content myself with his occasional showcase episode like this one.

And, of course, there’s Margaret trying to address what she witnessed in the hospital last week, while also doing her best to play the role of Nucky’s wife even though their marriage seems to be in name only these days. So we have a lot of characters so far off in their own stories, all loosely connected by Nucky, and Nucky doing his best to stay out of sight. Makes for a lot of interesting individual pieces, but we’ll have to see if they come together for a satisfying whole.

What did everybody else think?