Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘You’d Be Surprised’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I get you some Passover vodka…

“And nothing ever changes. Who doesn’t need to believe that, for a while?” -Gillian

There’s a lot of denial going on in Atlantic City (and New York, and Cicero) this week. Nucky doesn’t want to believe that he’s become fixated on Billie Kent, nor that she speaks to the same kind of savior complex that got him involved with Margaret. Van Alden’s “wife” Sigrid has convinced herself that George Muller is a good man who deserves protection from all the bad people trying to corrupt him. Gillian keeps insisting that Jimmy is alive and well, and even writes anguished letters to him. And Nucky, Rothstein, Lansky and everyone else underestimates the danger posed by Gyp Rosetti who’s so tough that he’s able to fend off an assassination attempt while naked and with a belt wrapped around his neck.

Gyp’s predilection for erotic asphyxia adds a layer of tension to Benny’s failed hit on him (without the belt, the legend of Bugsy Siegel dies in Tabor Heights) and creates a visually striking sequence at the end, as a nude, furious Gyp strides through the lodge and surveys the body count. But it also makes him out to be an even more over-the-top figure. If not for the revelation this week that he’s allied with Joe Masseria, making it complicated for Nucky, Rothstein or anyone else to simply take him out, it would be hard to fathom at this point why the combined forces of New York(*) and New Jersey hadn’t already stormed Tabor Heights to put an end to this.

(*) As a lifelong Jerseyan, I nodded in sad recognition at Rothstein’s rant about how, over “affairs in New Jersey, a state I have little interest in or affection for, you expect me to start a war, in New York – where things actually matter?” This is not an unfamiliar attitude, though it’s rarely expressed quite as bluntly.

This is the halfway point of the season, but because of the way the supporting players have been deployed, it feels like many of the stories are just getting started. Van Alden keeps jumping at shadows, and eventually Sigrid beats one of them to death, which in turn forces Van Alden to reconnect with Dean O’Bannion – and, presumably, will again put him in the path of Capone – but it’s taken us a while to get there, just as it’s taken us a while to see that Harry Daugherty may have no choice but to go after Nucky in order to get Andrew Mellon(**) off his back.

(**) Played, in an impressive bit of casting, by James Cromwell.

The stories we’ve followed most consistently so far involve Gyp, Margaret at the hospital and Nucky’s affair with Billie. And the problem with the latter is that even five episodes in, I don’t feel like I understand the obsession, even after Margaret tries to explain it to him/us. First, while Meg Steedle’s an attractive woman, I feel like we haven’t seen enough in Billie to suggest she would have this kind of grip on Nucky, and what we have seen suggests she’s independent enough that his savior complex wouldn’t be automatically triggered. Rothstein says the affair makes Nucky look weak to other crimelords, but it also makes him seem more passive than usual to us at home.

Still, that story did give us the marvelous sight of a terrified Eddie Cantor trying to perform for a stone-faced Chalky White (“Milky?”) and Dunn Purnsley, who are decidedly not in his target demographic. Halfway through the year, it feels like the individual pieces of this season have been stronger than the whole, and good enough to forgive some of the sluggish or cartoonish parts. But I’m hopeful things start tying together more as we go into the rest of the season.

What did everybody else think?