Let’s get this out of the way up front. “Spaghetti and Coffee” had no Richard Harrow, and thus the deck was stacked against it from the get go. It also had no Capone, Van Alden, Gillian, Luciano or Lansky. Boardwalk Empire is such a sprawling beast that any given episode is not just able but likely not to feature a half a dozen regular names from the credits, and it can still be a decent outing. Only Nucky and Margaret have appeared in every episode, if I’m not mistaken. And neither of them makes the strongest impression in this episode, which gives over the bulk of its focus to new characters and regulars who didn’t make it into last week’s premiere.
First we meet up with Eli (in some gorgeously composed exterior shots), having finished out the prison sentence that was his penance for trying to have his brother killed last year. He can’t simply retake his position at Nucky’s right hand, however, but he is dismayed to find out he has fallen all the way down the ladder, past the Irish immigrant whose only been in the country a year or two and even Mickey Doyle, who he can scarcely believe is still alive, much less prospering. The audience feels the same way, Mr. Thompson. Although his explanation of the Manny situation did make me chuckle along with the character for the first time probably ever. Progress!
Eli’s willing to swallow his pride and work for the mook because his oldest son has taken up the role of the man of the house in his absence, and he needs to win some bread somehow to reassert himself. Prison seems to have given him a more thoughtful quality, as he puts his head down and goes to work rather than explode at his family or Mickey as I might have expected from a character that impulsively bashed a ward boss’s skull in with a wrench when things weren’t going his way last year. His reserve seems to have impressed Slater, who immediately pegs him as the only dependable gunhand in Mickey’s crew when a crisis rears its head. As I said last week, I’m expecting Eli to rise steadily back toward the top of the bootlegging operation, where he can provide a more personal and credible source conflict for Nucky, and he’s already taking steps in that direction.
Speaking of Nucky, he is unavailable to provide instruction for that crisis since he’s mooning over his new love interest, showgirl Billie Kent. It’s hard to really feel for him here, as this development was pretty much dumped in our lap fully-formed after the year-plus gap between seasons. But Meg Steedle’s performance is so lively that you can easily see why he’d be intrigued, even if he seems a bit too worldly to be completely head over heels for this girl. Still, watching him internally wrestle with his desire to have her all to himself, even though he can recognize that she is not the sort to be tied down easily and he couldn’t even pretend to offer her that sort of fidelity in return, is not the most compelling stuff for the character.
His business dealings are more interesting, since his chats with Rothstein are always entertaining even when they’re just hashing out something we already know, like the fact that A.R. was not involved in Manny’s murder. And he/we also get to meet Stephen Root, who is continuing his dogged work to make every American TV show better by appearing on it. His Gaston Bullock Means appears to be an interim replacement for Harry Daugherty, which is fine by me as I think Christopher MacDonald is fine performer but the show never figured out a hook for his character beyond vague sleaziness. If I’m going to continue to only half-understand what Nucky is bribing out-of-town politicians for, I’d rather he bounce off this odd, verbose character who seems to have dropped into the show directly from a Coen brothers movie (not a bad thing) than someone who is so much like himself.
Gyp Rosetti, on the other hand, seems to have dropped into the show directly from a Scorsese gangster picture. He’s just an incredible asshole, but a dangerous one, and he seems to have a bigger crew at his disposal than we saw last week. And they all got guns! The standoff at the filling station was straightforward but exciting gangster stuff, and it struck me that I think his guys were the first mobsters we’ve seen packing Tommy guns. Nucky sold some to the IRA last year, and we’ve had pistol executions and scalpings and half-faced snipings and shotgunnings and Oedipal stabbings and Klan-operated gatling guns galore, but somehow for all the gangsters in fedoras and pinstripes, we hadn’t seen them use their signature weapon on the show for two full years. Not really a big deal, but odd.
I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Rosetti and his guns, since his play here is likely to piss off Nucky and Rothstein both. We’re probably in for a few more drawn out scenes of him asking confused blue collar types to carefully explain simple concepts to him as well. At least he didn’t kill the nice waitress this week.
Continuing south back to Atlantic City, Margaret is left to her own devices this week, which involves some lingering awkwardness with Slater and some new awkwardness with the obtuse young doctor at the hospital. I’m very much with her in not understanding what exactly he wants from her, as vaguely sniping at donors and offering up no explanation when pressed doesn’t seem like the most effective way of adding prenatal care options to your hospital’s array of services. Anyway, this being a TV show, though, I put it at 3-2 odds that they’re sleeping together by mid-season.
Finally, the best bits of the episode involve Chalky White and his struggle to add respectability to his family via the younger generation. Whereas Eli is having trouble connecting with a son whose insistence on continuing honest work is no doubt a response to his father being locked up on corruption charges, Chalky can’t convince his kids that the gangster life is not as attractive as it might seen. His son abandoning his classical piano training for “the devil’s music” seems relatively innocuous, but his daughter wanting to turn down the proposal of her milquetoast doctor in favor of someone “interesting” like her father is more troubling.
Chalky likes the idea of a doctor in the family, and wants better things for his girl than to be a gangster’s moll, so he is adamant that she go through with it. This culminates in the scene in the speakeasy where the doc is attacked and chief enforcer Dunn Purnsley swoops in with his whomping stick. I thought I saw exactly where this scene was going: Maybelle would be all hot and bothered by Purnsley’s brutish efficiency, and Chalky would see that this doctor was not worth much under pressure and agree to break off the engagement, secret affair ensues, blah blah. But the show puts a couple of subtle spins on it, first with Maybelle looking genuinely aghast at the violence, and then with the doc showing a different kind of wherewithal by insisting on helping his grievously injured attacker. It’s still possible that she will end up bedding Dunn (as noted before, this is a TV drama), but it won’t be till after the wedding, I think.
Overall, a solid outing that will not make anyone’s list of all-time favorites. Which is not terribly surprising, really, as the second episode of a serialized season is usually a settling-in affair, setting up the season’s conflicts after a splashier, attention-grabbing premiere. And Boardwalk Empire requires more set up for its enormous, far-flung cast and conflicts than almost any show on television (it wouldn’t even be close except for HBO’s similarly ambitious Game Of Thrones).