While the opening two episodes of season three of “Boardwalk Empire” have been characteristically languid, the drama of this season seems to be finally coalescing; albeit still at a rather leisurely pace. But the character-driven show has always been more interested in the arcs and personal dilemmas of its various players over plot and yet, the show’s disparate arcs are starting to tether a little tighter, setting the stage for some larger showdowns down the road. The gait isn’t quick, but the wheels are in motion.
If three themes are emerging this season, one of them is guilt and jealousy and the other is adapt or die. Nucky’s having nightmares and most of them revolve around some kind of subconscious contrition for the murder of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) who was killed at the end of last season. His dreams are not subtle and revolve around a young boy with a bullet hole in his face in the exact spot where Nucky shot Jimmy. The boy haunts Nucky as his dreams take on the themes of cooking — something he did for his siblings as a child — and envy; his inability to pin down his mistress Billie Kent (Meg Steedle). And as for “adapt or die,” almost every character outside of Nucky is still trying to adjust to their trying post-season 2 circumstances.
After Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) showed his muscle last episode in Tabor Heights — blocking off Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) alcohol shipment to New York, the Atlantic kingpin hears the message loud and clear. But a reasonable man, always with his eye on the longtail game, Nucky comes to Tabor Heights in the mood to see how he can assuage the mercurial Rossetti. Nucky and Gyp eventually come to an understanding. Nucky calls truce, offers Gyp a month’s supply of alcohol and a free night’s stay in Atlantic City. But Gyp is far too dim-witted, hot-headed and takes everything personally. This truce quickly erodes when Nucky makes an off-handed comment at dinner, and later, when trying to bid Gyp buona fortuna, the Italian word for good luck, and writes phonetically, “bone for tuna” which the Italian gangster takes as huge insult.
“I need his blessing to make my way in the world? I need him to lecture me?” Rosseti seethingly asks later in the episode. “Nothing’s personal? What the fuck is life if it’s not personal!” And with that. Rosseti shits on the deal made with Nucky, later lighting one of the police officers in Tabor Heights on fire in some sort of additional misguided and childish act of anger. There will be blood, but it won’t be in this episode.
Having converted the Commodore's (Dabney Coleman) mansion into a brothel this season to make ends meet, Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) is finding the prostitution business is not as lucrative as she initially thought. Trying to create a high-class joint, business is slow and her partner (and occasional lover) Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), is becoming frustrated and wants to see a return on his investment.
Meanwhile, Gyp has an eye on Gillian and her joint. While it appears to be a lustful physical attraction on the surface, Gyp might be smarter than he looks. He plays dumb, but he appears to know the history between Nucky and Gillian (Nucky murdered her son, his former liege, Jimmy Darmody). And while it’s never spelled out, it appears as if Gyp is doing some exploratory reconnaissance of Gillian and her establishment to see if they can possibly one day work together. Against Nucky? Then again, Gyp is like a bloodhound who sniffs around his enemies friends and acquaintances, looking for a sign of weakness.
Meanwhile, continuing to pose as the door to door salesman George Mueller, Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), isn’t having an easy go of things in Chicago. The former government revenue agent is now the butt of jokes at his sales job and his financial troubles are weighing down on him heavily. However his rock is the ever faithful Sigrid (Christiane Seidel), his former nanny and now his wife. Ensuring his daughter Abigail is looked after, she also empathetically dotes on George, trying to boost his confidence while easing his woes with care and intimacy.
George receives a close call later in the episode when his co-workers try and make up for their pranks. Taking him to a speakeasy, the bar is raided and a Federal agent recognizes George’s face. Luckily, the salesman’s cover isn’t blown, he’s let off with a warning, but the terror that his new life could be exposed at any moment isn’t lost on the poor soul scraping to keep his new family afloat.
Concurrently, the rift in Nucky and Margaret’s (Kelly Macdonald) marriage is growing wider and wider. He’s clearly smitten with Billie Kent (not to mention agitated that she’s not solely his girl), and Margaret’s focus is still at St. Theresa’s hospital, trying to create a pre-natal, woman’s health clinic much to the chagrin of the staff and the church that runs it. Crafty and conniving, Margaret turns an innocuous honoring for Nucky by the church (which he has no interest in) as an opportunity to create an impromptu meeting between herself, the archbishop and the hospital’s medical director Dr. Landau (Nick Wyman). While it’s not this season’s most intriguing storyline, it does show Margaret’s resourcefulness and tenacity which could surprise us later. When she finally puts the two men in the same place, she runs the room and steamrolls the idea of a church-approved pre-natal care center much to Dr. Landau’s disbelief. An adversary thus far, impressed with Margaret’s guile and her victory, Dr. Douglas Mason (Patrick Kennedy) begins to warm up to the artful woman.
Meanwhile, during the ceremony, Nucky is shaken by the visions of the young boy murdered in his dreams wandering the church. Clearly tortured by this vision (ghost?), Nucky takes solace in the arms of his mistress Billie Kent. It seems when Nucky wants to escape the world and put his troubles up, he wraps himself up in Billie’s world. The question remains though: how long can that last? While nothing has “happened” yet per se, chess pieces are being laid. With Rossetti reneging on their arrangement, it seems Nucky and the Sicilian gangster are going to come to blows soon.
Bits and pieces:
— The beef between “The Boss” Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi) and Charley Luciano and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) continues and begins to chafe. Masseria still resents the young would-be Italian gangsters for the deaths of his nephews (Jimmy Darmody killed them, but as his partners, Masseria still blames Luciano and Meyer). Trying to make their own way, the boys are trying to get a leg up in the heroin business. But as Masseria controls the territory, he gets a taste of everything and this is of course their worry. They send Benny Siegel (eventually “Bugsy” Siegel, Michael Zegen) to make a drug deal, but he’s intercepted by Masseria’s men. Fortunately, Lanskey intervenes before they can put the hit on the young Siegel. This is one beef that is just going to get ugly soon.
— Perhaps the episode's biggest surprise move was by the disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), Jimmy Darmody’s friend, bodyguard and right hand man who now works as a bartender in Gillian’s brothel. When the hyena-like bootlegger Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) tries to take credit for the death of Manny Horvitz (William Forsythe), one of his punk low-level workers overhears and tells the story to Richard. Incensed, as he killed Horvitz, Harrow kidnaps Doyle at gunpoint, marches him into Nucky’s office (Nucky being his former boss) and forces Doyle to admit that he did not kill Horvitz. Anyone who thought the WWII vet would eventually seek revenge on Nucky for killing his friend Darmody would be dead wrong. “Jimmy was a soldier, he fought, he lost,” Harrow says, admitting that he killed Horvitz because of the collateral damage death of Angela Darmody (Jimmy’s wife, who he was sweet on because of her compassion). “You and Mrs. Thompson were good to me,” he adds reassuring to Nucky that he has no further beef with the Atlantic City kingpin and his family.
— A disgraced Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), the former police chief, is still proving himself to be a more valuable asset then low-level bootlegger, but he’s almost entirely awol in this episode. As is Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and his family. Chalky isn’t a major part of the storyline this season, but some kind of redemption seems to be in the cards for Eli. Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) doesn’t feature in this episode either, but with Rossetti soon to be putting a stranglehold on the booze that Nucky is shipping to New York and Rothstein, these actions will soon precipitate a third agitation.