The midway point of “Boardwalk Empire” suddenly came explosively alive, especially in the fifth episode, “You’d Be Surprised.” An unsuccessful assassination was attempted on the hostile and unpredictably bad-for-business gangster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) by Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Arnold Rothestein’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) men, and Washington is finally trying to take accountability for the failings of the Volstead Act (national prohibition). These after effects are still rippling outward, but the curiously involving “Sunday Best” takes a sharp detour from these plot points, which will rule the rest of the season, in favor of a quieter, character-driven episode that lets all of its players interact. And while we’ve complained in the past about a lack of momentum, this chamber piece is “Boardwalk Empire” at its best — be patient, as good things are coming to those who wait.
“Sunday Best” opens on Easter Sunday with reconciliation in the air for the Thompson family (the episode opens to a melancholic version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” by Mahalia Jackson). Disgraced sheriff turned low-level bootleg worker Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) and his wife June (Nisi Sturgis) invite Nucky and his wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) over for Easter dinner. Though married for over a year, Margaret has never met Eli’s wife or nine children, but as the two brothers try and reconcile their differences (Eli betrayed him, Nucky let him live but let him rot in jail for 16 months to teach him a lesson), breaking bread seems like a reasonable entree to rapprochement.
But the road to a restoration of harmony isn’t that simple. Still bitter with his younger brother, Nucky gets annoyed when Eli begins to talk shop, gingerly complaining about his shitty new position. Both siblings are well aware that Eli is overqualified and under-utilized in this crime/bootlegging organization, but Nucky seems hell-bent on rubbing Eli’s nose in the fact that he’s only alive because the Atlantic City kingpin possessed a modicum of compassion. “You think I’m bottomless,” Nucky says of Eli’s asking and taking and asking and taking, despite the fact that Eli once joined the bootlegger’s enemies in an aim to have Nucky killed. While Eli tries to atone and demonstrate that he’s grateful for everything Nucky’s done for his family (keep them afloat while Eli did his time in jail), he yearns for more. And the younger sibling seems to have learned his place and generally wants to assist and help out. When Nucky admonishes him, Eli pulls out a gun, drops it on the shed where they are drinking alone away from the family and begs him to put a bullet in him. “Get it over with,” he says on the verge of tears. “Because I know you eventually will and I’m sick of waiting for it.” Nucky, calm and collected, takes the pistol, unloads the bullets from it and asks with his typically brotherly frustration, “Why does it always have to be a melodrama with you?”
In the house, June and Margaret attempt to get to know one another and then have a meaningful heart to heart about kids, how the eldest Willie had to grow up fast without a dad, the overall struggles of family, and again, their gratitude for helping out the Eli Thompson family while the ex-sheriff was in jail. Feeling emboldened by the conversation, Margaret shares with June that Nucky is cheating on her with a mistress. But for June, so proper and pious, the discussion is an overshare and she quickly changes the subject. It’s a heartbreaking moment — in a rare instance of raw vulnerability on Margaret’s part, June simply ignores her, turning the conversation to pineapple upside down cake.
Introduced in the last episode, “Ging Gang Goolie,” was embittered WWI veteran Paul Sagorsky (Mark Borkowski) and his daughter Julia (Wrenn Schmidt). The gentle, disfigured veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) has befriended them both and taken a particular shine to the fetching Julia. With Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), the Madame of The Artemis Club brothel, indisposed with a feigned illness, Richard is charged with taking care of her grandson Tommy for the day. And so Richard and Tommy are invited to the Sogorskis’, but an Easter dinner in this household is far more dysfunctional than the quaint and comparatively harmonious dinner at the Thompson household. As is his wont, Paul is in a bellicose mood, ranting at his dinner guest and rudely asking who in the hell Tommy is. Sogorski launches into a harangue about god and religion not being there for soldiers (his son died in the war), and meanwhile the observant and attentive Julia makes Richard a plate in the kitchen, sensitive of the fact that it is difficult for him to eat in public in front of others given his grotesque facial injuries.
Things take a turn for the worse when Tommy goes to the bathroom and then Paul catches the inquisitive boy in his dead son’s room playing with his army figurines. Overly protective of his son’s things and still mourning his loss, Paul freaks out, dangling the young boy from his collar like a rag. Julia begs him to stop, but Richard, a stone-cold killer at heart, tells the old man to put down the boy or he’ll kill him. Knowing Richard means business, Sogorski kicks everyone out of his house and breaks down crying in his son’s room. Richard asks Julia to leave with him to and escape her drunken belligerent father. He may be lacking in smooth gentlemanly charms, (he hands her flowers with a “here”), but he knows what he wants. “Don’t threaten to kill my father, he’s a mean drunk and a horse’s ass, but he means well,” she warns. Richard, Julia and Tommy go to a fair and take photos together, and something seems to be blossoming.
At the end of “Ging Gang Goolie,” Gillian Darmody, still in denial about the death of her son Jimmy (played by Michael Pitt in season two) had met a country bumpkin from Indiana named Roger McAllister (Billy Magnussen) who was a dead-ringer for her departed son. It was unclear why she was offering to connect him with employment leads, and why she was entering into a passionate affair with him (other than the fact that she had an incestuous attraction to Jimmy), but it appears that, behind her delusions, there’s a cold, calculating heart.
Being that it’s Easter and men are more likely to be with their wives and families than with whores, she sends everyone home and fakes an illness to get Richard out of the house with Tommy. Gillian spends this time with her new blond beau, sexing him up, giving him a bath and treating him like a king. But there’s been a ploy here all along. Roger finds himself lulled into a euphoric bath like a fly caught in her honey pot — she injects him with a lethal dose of heroin and drowns him in the tub. Her devious plan is complete: she’s found a body to sit in for the MIA Jimmy Darmody.
After being AWOL for an entire episode, Gyp Rosetti finally surfaces, hanging out at his mom’s house for Easter. His right-hand man reminds him that he’s lost a lot of turf and muscle after the Tabor Heights episode. He then goes to church and curses God aloud for giving him problems. Hilariously and violently, he tells the priest “I’m praying to my god,” while punching him out and then stealing the church’s money. It’s a moment both comic and vicious, and an indication of just how monstrous Rosetti can be.
But the key moment of the episode for Gyp is his meeting with his boss Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), where he comes to realize just how close he got to being whacked by his own people. Displeased with the way he’s handled the Tabor Heights incident and gained attention by killing policemen and rattling the cages of his enemy-in-truce Arnold Rothstein, Masseria tells Gyp that he’s a risky liability. He’s an “uncontrollable” dog that needs to be put down. But as Joe gives him the kiss off and walks away, Gyp fights for his life with one last passionate salvo. Fervent and loud, Gyp tells Masseria to give him a chance to destroy Nucky Thompson and Rothstein. And when that fails, Gyp lobs the Hail Mary: you can do what you want with me, but those two are building an empire “and it don’t include us.”
Gyp appeals to Masseria’s sense of Italian nationality, saying that if they don’t band together, the Irish and the Jews will wipe them out. Gyp cuts a deal for his life and vows to murder Nucky and Rothstein, thus snuffing out Masseria’s enemies and competition. “And when I’m down, they’re not gonna call you Joe the boss anymore, they’re gonna call you Joe The King,” he yells.
When Nucky and Margaret get home, they seem to be on the verge of reconciliation; Easter Sunday has been warm and harmonious. But she is still fully aware of his mistress Billie Kent, and says “it’s too late.” Meanwhile, Nucky seems to have taken his conversation with Eli to heart. Nucky calls Eli after Margaret has said her piece, and gives him praise for the way he handled the Tabor Heights situation. He promotes him to running the bootlegging operation with Mickey Doyle, and Easter Sunday has paid off for at least one party this evening. [B+]
Bits & Pieces
– Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) is a bit AWOL this season. Frankly, as much as we love the actor and character, there’s so much going on this season, to introduce a big story line for the character may be an ill-advised move.
– The same applies for Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Capone, a Chicago gangster under mob boss Johnny Torrio, does have a significant presence (he’s arguably the star of the “Blue Bell Boy” episode), but it’s a muted presence overall. However, beef is brewing in Chicago, though whether it’s fully explored in season 3 remains to be seen. Van Alden, going under the name George Mueller, doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on these days. His iron salesman job is going poorly and he and his wife Sigrid just inadvertently killed a Prohibition officer in the episode “You’d Be Surprised.” The show has already hinted that, with limited options, Mueller is likely going to have to join Chicago North side gangster Dean O’Banion’s team as muscle, and the way his life is going right now — he owes a debt to O’Banion for getting rid of the “prohie’s” body — it feels that scenario is going to be a fait accompli. It’ll be interesting to see how a former Prohibition officer can be an asset to a bootlegger, and whether his path will cross with Al Capone’s.