Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Two Imposters’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I have to ask for your phone number…

Midway through “Two Imposters,” Meyer Lansky warns Lucky Luciano, “Everything connects, Charlie. Whether you know it or not.” It’s a line that evokes the philosophy of “The Wire,” but also one that applies well to an episode that impressively starts tying together this entire season of “Boardwalk Empire,” including parts I had long since forgotten about or given up on.

Take Sam, for instance. The Chalky story from the season’s second episode felt at the time like a welcome showcase for a character who often doesn’t perfectly fit into Nucky’s world, but not something relevant to what’s happening elsewhere. Now we get to “Two Imposters,” and the only safe harbor Nucky can find is on Chalky’s side of town, and the only man available to save Eddie’s life is young Sam, and those meatball surgery scenes become much more interesting because we’ve gotten to know Sam, know of his history with Chalky and how he fits into this world.

Or take Richard and Gillian. Again, a lot of the Richard stories this year have felt like Terence Winter and company not wanting to let go of Jack Huston but not sure what to do with one of their most compelling characters without his best friend around. Instead, we’ve spent quite a bit of time getting to witness the tug of war between Richard and Gillian over Tommy’s future, seen the romance between Richard and Julia that Gillian so cruelly dismisses at the same time she’s saying Richard isn’t “a complete person,” and also seen some of the relationship between Gillian and Gyp, so that of course he would take over the Commodore’s house as his base of operations in town. All the pieces matter, and all the set-up matters, and now when Richard’s sniper rifle inevitably plays a key role in the Nucky/Gyp war, it’ll feel earned, rather than a deus ex machina.

Ditto Capone’s arrival as head of Eli’s cavalry; Nucky’s relationship with Chicago is well-established enough that we probably could have gotten away with keeping Al in the background all year and still have him show up at the asphalt factory, but it feels more satisfying because we’ve gotten to watch him really start to assert himself in Torrio’s absence.

We’ll see whether the finale can tie everything else together – as I said last week, the hospital subplot is already starting to pay off with Margaret’s pregnancy, though I’m guessing Capone didn’t bring Van Alden (who’s known by both Eli and Nucky) with him to Jersey – but these last two episodes have been a reminder of the value of patient storytelling (and viewing) on a complex, serialized cable drama like this. I’d waxed and waned on season 3, but now it feels much stronger as a whole, and not just because the last several episodes have been so good. Now I can see most of the forest and not just the individual trees, and it’s impressive.

And I liked that that sense of connectivity came in an episode where Nucky has to deal with how isolated he’s become. It’s not just that he can’t reach either Eli or Mickey while on the run, but the realization that he doesn’t know the phone number of a man he’s been doing business with for years, or that he knows absolutely nothing about the personal life of the trusted (and often bullied) butler(*) who literally took a bullet for him. We’ve seen in the past that Nucky demands respect but isn’t always the master of personal relationships you might expect someone in his position to be. There’s a striking looseness to his final scene with Chalky in the factory office. It may just be the result of 24 hours straight of violent fugitive life, but I do wonder if Nucky might carry himself differently if (or, really, when, given who the star of the show is) he emerges victorious against Gyp.

(*) Do we have any German speakers out there who can say whether Eddie said anything beyond quoting Rudyard Kipling’s “If…” over and over again? I’m assuming Eddie’s wife and children are no longer with us, and thought there might be more of a clue to that in what he was saying. 

“Two Imposters” is among the season’s shorter episodes, clocking in just under 50 minutes, yet it builds so much on what’s happened over the previous 10 hours that it felt much denser, and more satisfying than all that had come before it. Ideally, that’s the way the HBO drama model should work, and it’s nice to see it happening here, drawing together a season that seemed in danger of flying off into a dozen directions only a few weeks ago.

Some other thoughts:

* Nucky sure isn’t half a gangster anymore. Hard to imagine the Nucky of season 1 doing so well in a desperate gunfight as he does when Gyp’s goons turn up at the Ritz.

* We got the usual great work from Huston as Richard had to swallow Gillian’s various insults, but I also quite liked the way Gretchen Mol played Gillian’s reaction both to the reality of Gyp taking over her home and business, and especially to Richard’s exit. Gillian is usually overflowing with self-confidence, but there’s a half-second after he slides past her when you can see her realizing that she may have pushed the incomplete man too far.

* I have to admit to not being able to follow all the ins and outs of Luciano and Meyer’s deal with Masseria, and then with what turned out to be an undercover cop, but Luciano was, in fact, arrested on drug charges in 1923.

* “Ragged Dick,” the book Gyp finds in Nucky’s drawer, was a big bestseller for Horatio Alger, and is the story of a working-class boot black’s rise to the middle class – if not an exact parallel of either the Nucky or Gyp life stories, close enough to hit home (assuming that Gyp isn’t illiterate like Chalky).

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at