Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Sunday Best’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I play the saw…

“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” -Richard

It’s Easter Sunday on “Boardwalk Empire,” a time of rest, reflection and family, and time for the show to pause the action a bit. Admittedly, the show also paused the action last week in the wake of Gyp Rosetti’s escape from Tabor Heights, but where “Ging Gang Goolie” felt like the show dragging its feet a bit, “Sunday Best” did what these kinds of episodes are supposed to do, which is to give me a newfound appreciation and understanding of these characters by showing them in their more peaceful moments. Characters bow their heads to say grace, and though few of them seem to actually believe in God, there’s a lot of reflection on who they are and how they got to this point.

We get a much better sense, for instance, of the Nucky/Eli dynamic by seeing their two families finally come together for the holiday, at the behest of Eli’s wife June. This is Nucky at his most sincere and charming – the juggling scene may, in fact, be the most charming Steve Buscemi has ever been on-screen – and while there’s still obvious tension between the brothers, no one’s acting in the heat of anger. Nucky has his reasons to resent Eli, and vice versa, and in the end it appears that he only forgives his brother because Margaret(*) rejected him again and he wants some part of that nice holiday feeling to continue.

(*) Though the family gathering was largely about the brothers, I also appreciated Margaret’s failed attempt to find a confidante in June, whose desire to familial closeness can’t overcome her sense of social propriety. Margaret Thompson is the kind of woman who will openly talk about her husband having affairs; June Thompson is not. Great work by Kelly Macdonald in the kitchen scene, even as she was shot out of focus so the camera could foreground June.

After spending much of the season living in denial about Jimmy, Gillian finally does something about it, and on a different scale of crazy than we might have expected from last week. Yes, she was looking at Roger as a replacement for Jimmy, but not a living replacement. She just needs a corpse with a faint resemblance so she can finally seize control of her late son’s assets. The scheme is perhaps less twisted than the entirety of Gillian’s relationship with Jimmy – which she gave her version of to Roger while describing how she met her “husband” – and suggests that Gillian is remembering how to apply her desires in more practical ways, which is scary.

I was pleased, meanwhile, to see Richard back for the second episode in a row, given the on-again, off-again use of so much of the supporting cast.(*) While Gillian has the Commodore’s house to herself, Richard has what’s an at times strained, but overall excellent holiday. Julia is not only unfazed by him, but understands him very quickly (that he needs, for instance, a private setting in which to eat, to avoid becoming the center of attention) and isn’t afraid to stand up to him (firmly requesting that he not threaten to kill her father, even while protecting Tommy). And I loved the way the “family” photograph was composed. Richard is staring at Julia, which not only captures his interest in her, but also ensures that only his good side is visible on camera. As a record of the day for his scrapbook, there’s no evidence whatsoever of the damage the war did to him. Given the usual great work by Jack Huston, my only objection at all to this storyline is that so far it seems to be pulling Richard even further away from the story, which remains Nucky’s story.

(*) MIA this week: Chalky, Van Alden, Capone, Rothstein, Luciano, Lansky and Mickey, among others.

In a way, the most impressive part of the episode involved Gyp, who’s been an at times menacing, at times cartoonish villain. Seeing him on his home turf – henpecked and mocked by his wife, daughters and mother-in-law(**), venting to Jesus about His treatment of Gyp (before stealing God’s money directly to pay Joe Masseria), and then having to grovel before the boss – it’s much easier to understand how he became this goon who takes every little comment as a slight, and any genuine slight as a deep wound demanding a vendetta. A more vulnerable, desperate Gyp is a more interesting Gyp than the guy who was holding Tabor Heights and Nucky’s business hostage, and it gave Bobby Cannavale a lot more to work with this week than he’s had for much of the season.

(**) I checked with Terence Winter on the specific relations.

My only issue at all is the usual one involving the intersection of fictional gangsters and real ones. We know what history has in store for Rothstein, Luciano and Lansky, and even though Nucky’s a fictionalized version of the real Nucky Johnson, he remains the unquestioned main character of the show. (Jimmy’s death made that abundantly clear.) So even though Gyp’s words to Masseria sound impressive, we know that he’s not going to accomplish much, if anything, of what he promises. Admittedly, this is an issue with any kind of big bad, even on shows where all the characters are fictional – Richie Aprile wasn’t suddenly going to take out Tony and become the boss of New Jersey – but it always feels magnified here because we’re dealing with some of the most famous criminals in American history.

Overall, though, “Sunday Best” was among season 3’s most satisfying outings, even as it largely set the big story arcs aside so everyone could say a prayer and enjoy the holiday.

What did everybody else think?