Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘The Milkmaid’s Lot’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as bible camp’s canceled…

“You have to understand: no matter what you think of me, there’s no walking away. It doesn’t work like that. I do it to them, or they do it to me. That’s all there is.” -Nucky

In the aftermath of the latest – and loudest – failed attempt on his life, Nucky spends most of “The Milkmaid’s Lot” drifting in and out, mentally. There are moments where he doesn’t recognize his own brother, mistakes Chalky for a shoeshine man, and can only vaguely recall that Billie Kent died in the explosion. But there are other moments where his focus is crystal clear – in some ways, more clear than when he’s in perfect health and his pride and ego are coloring his thinking. This is a more vulnerable Nucky than we’re used to seeing,(*) but also a more perceptive, introspective one. It’s a Nucky who is painfully aware of how much he needs other people in his life, both personally and professionally, and how easily they can be taken away. As he tells Margaret while preparing for the meeting with Rothstein and the other mob bosses, if he fails to get their support, “I’ll be alone, and that’s as good as dead” – and he is clearly not just talking about what Gyp Rosetti can do to him, but what will happen if the wife he pushed away leaves him, or the brother, or the right-hand man. Nucky Thompson is a man who craves respect, but he needs love, too, and he’s put himself in a position this season where both are in short supply.

(*) We’ll see what the season’s remaining episodes hold, but right now this seems an easy choice for Steve Buscemi’s Emmy submission.

So Nucky fears being alone, while other characters – Margaret, Richard, and the population of Tabor Heights, among others – find themselves trapped with Nucky or other volatile lunatics who also crave affection and respect.

Margaret has spent much of this season doing her best to enjoy the benefits of being Mrs. Thompson (money, shelter, care for the kids, political influence and the ability to do something like the pre-natal class) while ignoring the deficits (marriage in name only to a man she doesn’t trust in the slightest). But between rekindling her affair with Owen, running into Billie Kent at the dress shop and being under frequent watch from Nucky’s guards, the bad has started to outweigh the good. And when Owen begins talking about his own escape plans, it’s hard for Margaret to not listen. (When she tells Teddy in an earlier scene that “There won’t always be maids,” it’s clear she’s already been thinking the same thing.) I wondered at first why she wouldn’t simply go now; if ever there was a time to run away from her powerful, vengeful husband, it’s while he’s in such a weakened state, physically and strategically. But I do think there’s a part of her that feels for Nucky, and/or that feels guilty about walking away from him, so she stays to at least help him get back on his feet and make a case to Rothstein and the others. But hearing him rant about what he wants to do to Gyp (“I’ll wear that dago’s fucking guts like a necktie”) makes clear that this is not the man she wants to be around. I’ll be curious to see what their plan is, and how long it takes them to try implementing it.

As for Gyp himself, could the New York mob really take over a small Jersey town like this, even in 1923? I know they float the idea of paying each of the citizens a stipend to keep them from talking, but A)that figure seems like it’ll add up quickly depending on how long the war with Nucky takes, and B)surely there are people who don’t want these goons here and would consider driving to another town to alert the larger authorities, no? For all I know, something like this actually happened in the period, but right now, it plays like a lot of the Gyp Rosetti story: flashy and colorful but not quite fitting in with the way the rest of the show seems to work. We know from George Remus that a certain amount of eccentricity is accepted in this world, so perhaps Gyp’s guys wouldn’t all start plotting an exit when he turned up on the beach wearing the hat of Mad Anthony Wayne, but the guy’s a nutbar.

Much more interesting was Richard having a near-perfect night out with Julia, who even turned an attempt to embarrass him into a moment of triumph. Yet he can’t enjoy the memories for very long, because he has to come home to a passive-aggressive scolding from Gillian, who’s mad at the other whores – and specifically at the young pretty one who’s getting so much of Tommy’s attention (as we know from her attitude towards Angela, Gillian Darmody must be the only woman in the eyes of her little boy) – and taking it out on the masked freak she knows she can abuse because he loved Jimmy too much to ever leave Tommy behind. Richard is stuck with her in the same way Margaret (for now) is stuck with Nucky.

Nucky tries to make his bond with the New York and Philly wiseguys just as permanent, proposing what sounds very much like the start of modern organized crime as we know it. But the others still take their cues from Rothstein, and however ARnold may protest the accusation that he would make any decision based on emotion, his demeanor (and the way the camera lingers over his scars from the bombing) makes clear that it will be a long, long time before he forgets his near-death experience on the Jersey boardwalk.

Without Rothstein, and with the Capone/Torrio group too far away and otherwise distracted to get involved, Nucky once again seems hopelessly outgunned and outclassed. But that seemed to be the situation a year ago when Jimmy and the Commodore were plotting his ouster. Nucky may be on the verge of being all alone, but that rarely seems to be all there is for him. Sooner or later, he’ll find an angle to put the odds in his favor, and force all these people who are looking to abandon him to be stuck with him for a while longer.

Some other thoughts:

* Scratch Chalky White’s face off all those milk cartons, folks. This season has been more problematic than previous ones in terms of not having enough time to service this large, interesting cast, and of the significant local characters (as opposed to someone like Capone), Chalky has definitely suffered the most. This is only his third appearance in nine episodes, and one of those was that five-minute scene where he and Dunn intimidated Eddie Cantor. That he has interest in taking over the location that belonged to Babbette (RIP?) suggests there may be more in store for him next season, but this seems like a lost one for Mr. White so far.

* Ed Bianchi did a great job with the look of this one, which had one eye-catching sequence (Gyp’s men arrive in Tabor Heights) after another (the feds chase Remus through his bird sanctuary) after another (Margaret walks through multiple rooms filled with armed men to get back to her kids). A fine outing for one of cable’s most reliable directors.

* “Then Randolph would be very interested in seeing them.” That joke never gets old.

* Yet another reminder that “Boardwalk Empire” has a big budget: everyone sings “Happy Birthday” to Emily, when shows often resort to public domain tunes like “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to save money.

Finally, I’m told HBO isn’t sending the remaining episodes of the season out in advance, so unless that changes, this will be the last review of the season posted on Sunday night at 10. I’ll likely be writing about the remaining episodes on Monday morning.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at