With the 14-month leap between season two and season three of Boardwalk Empire, the show’s priorities have shifted from the pains of explosive growth and the building of a status quo, to the cracks that begin to show once the facades have been built. Since that fateful night in the rain and mud that left a broken man defeated and a victorious man broken, characters have built new businesses, forged new identities, sparked new affairs, and we’ve rejoined the empire just after the new coat of paint has dried. With dry paint comes chips and splinters though, and it doesn’t take much to be reminded what wounds have been coated over, and it will only take a little bit of friction to bring them back to the surface.
I’m curious to see if and how this metaphor carries on in the show, as this third episode has definitely brought it out both visually and allegorically. Be it the literal ceiling cracks that distract a sleepless Van Alden and drip water down on the patrons of Gillian’s cooze house, the more poetic cracks in Nucky’s psyche, or the strategic cracks in Lansky and Luciano’s new dope scheme, it’s clear that trouble brews for everyone.
The episode opens with more illustration of the distanced but civil relationship Nucky and Margaret have forged since the land transfer deal that robbed Nucky of a new fortune. Once can still only imagine the hateful arguing and near violence that might have gone down between them when Nucky discovered the trick, but instead we see only the resultant, business-like separation. Even the loss of such a massive amount of money has at least bought Thompson a new station in the community, which this episode seals with a formal Catholic knighting.
“Consider me an admirer, Mr. Thompson. Ordinary men avoid trouble. Extraordinary men turn it to their advantage.”
So said Stephen Root as Gaston Bullock Means in the previous episode, and it remains fundamental to Nucky’s character, further evidence by him very nearly pulling off a reconciliation with the impossible-to-please Gyp Rosetti- another, quickly deepening crack in the empire. But while that sub-plot is moving along as expected (the season needs a primary antagonist after all), it is actually Margaret that finally benefits with her story actually going somewhere. Here we see her pay-off her new position in the church, her new political deftness, and her general desire to reach beyond traditional female stations of power with a clever trapping of the hospital’s head doctor between a priest and a hard place (Archdiocese, whatever).
Maggie’s sub-plot has always driven forward in a different gear than other characters- this is something she shares with Van Alden. Both are characters that have and will clearly continue to play key roles in the show’s biggest paradigm shifts, and yet their individual stories simply can’t get the attention or move as quickly as, say, Nucky’s. Nor are they relatively stable characters like Harrow or Chalky that can simply pop in and out as necessary, with it otherwise assumed they’re attending to their own affairs. Maggie and Van Alden’s next moves have been apparent since the premiere, and while the former has now made her Pre-Natal Care center happen, the latter still hasn’t pulled the trigger on joining the rum-runners.
Of course it’s always possible that Van Alden will zig instead of zag, but the show is really bending over backwards to justify why this former man of the law and moral extremist would join the dark side. So far we have a demoralizing, shitty job, the woes of poverty, and now a reminder that justice is thoroughly corrupted at every level, but I have a suspicion there might be a second pregnancy that breaks the camel’s back in store. Lest we forget- Van Alden hasn’t fucked much on the show but when he has, he’s proven a straight shooter, so to speak.
Moving from our former “villain” to our burgeoning one, Gyp Rosetti in this episode proves that he is little more than a cruel, impetuous gangster that simply can not maintain anything resembling a human relationship. He’s bordering so close to being a cartoon that one wonders how he would have ever built a racket without getting whacked by a level-headed boss, but power has a way of bringing out the latent crazy in a person, so maybe he wasn’t always so eager to char-broil cops on the side of the road. Regardless, he’s going to be a pain in Nucky’s ass with any attempts to simplify business, and there seems to be only one possible end for this rivalry- the only question is how much damage Rosetti will do before somebody takes him out . Since he’s not based on anyone historically, he can really be as much of a force of chaos on the show as the writers want.
Interestingly, as the show largely sets up Rosetti to be the underlying character of unpredictable motive, it also decidedly clarifies the motivation of Richard Harrow, which began this season as Atlantic City’s most quietly dangerous force.
Winter actually foreshadowed Harrow’s soldier’s code at the conclusion of Season 2, outright stating that he did not foresee Harrow lighting up the boardwalk in a streak of vengeance. What we have seen is him express himself the only way he knows how for the real wound of Jimmy’s death- the prelude murder of his wife Angela. By putting Harrow face-to-face with Nucky we find that the Jimmy saga really is closed as far as the war vet is concerned, and that Harrow and Nucky may have a deeper connection than originally thought. This still leaves Harrow as one of the most mysterious, interesting pieces on the chess board, and one whose moves are most difficult to predict and that we’ll all be most eager to see.
Of course, when I say the Jimmy saga is “closed” for Harrow, it’s definitely not for Nucky and Gillian, who both clearly live their lives in the shadow of loss. Nucky is now plagued by drams and daytime hallucination of the child he shepherded to death, while Gillian merely make subtle allusions to the idea of having nothing, if not your own flesh and blood. Gil was likely as eager as anyone to have Jimmy gone and his son left behind for her to raise, but without the satisfaction she’d hoped for on the other end, it’s become easier to pin her pain on Nucky rather than her own poisonous neuroses. It’s an odd relationship these two emotional vampires have, and an odd coincidence that we’ve seen them brush elbows again through Gyp, whose driver anachronistically* describes Nosferatu to his boss as he gets to raging about Nucky again for no particular reason.
We are early yet in the season and the Atlantic City carousel continues. Most will simply be content to revolve, posted in position and going with the ride- Rosetti will stay staked by his crazy pole, moving up and down as his inferiority complex demands, while Nucky will do the same on his lonely chariot. It remains to be seen what characters will move about the ride and shake things up in ways we’d never suspect, but I’m sure we’ll get an idea soon…
*Perhaps the driver saw the film on a trip to Europe? The film didn’t hit the states till ’29, after years of being lost due to a court-ordered destruction in Germany.