We won’t look this gift horse in the mouth too much, but “Boardwalk Empire” Season 3 went from a passive slow walk to a mild trot, then finally to an explosive gallop late in the game. Patient and sometimes meandering, the first half of the season took a while to get cooking, but the gloves are now fully off. Episode #11, “Two Imposters” is positively detonating, even compared to “The Pony,” the episode where a bomb killed Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) mistress Billie Kent (Meg Steedle) in a failed assassination attempt on the Atlantic City kingpin. The nearly unhinged and sociopathic mobster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) has the blessing of Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), and he’s out for blood.
Like an electric jolt, the riveting “Two Imposters” takes off like a shot, is a nail-biter throughout, and leaves the audience breathless by the end. When we last left off in “A Man, A Plan…”,Nucky Thompson’s best laid retaliation schemes against Masseria went wildly awry. His lieutenant, Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox) attempted to pull an assassination hit on the New York Italian mobster on his own, but Masseria got word of Nucky’s plot from the increasingly desperate and cavalier mobster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) who traded the info for his own ends in the heroin trade. Sleater, for his troubles, ended up dead in a box: a message to Nucky: “here’s your errand boy, and you’re next.”
So at the top of the episode, fresh from the gruesome and shocking box incident, Nucky, still stuck in his hotel digs, sends his wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald, totally absent from the episode) and the kids to safety. He knows what the box means: he’s in danger, and he tells his loyal assistant Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) — after asking him if he knew about the Sleater/Margaret affair that became obvious to him upon of her learning of Owen’s death — to leave, as it’s not safe for him either.
But before he can finish getting the words out of his mouth, they realize the phones are dead, and the unexpected elevator bell means the enemy has arrived. In the season’s most gripping and tense sequence, Rosetti’s men storm Nucky’s temporary offices, shredding the bootlegger’s paid guards to ribbons with shotgun fire. Nucky and Kessler are on their own, seemingly brief seconds away from being snuffed out for good. But in this heart-stopping sequence, Nucky’s far more resourceful than he looks, and he holds his own. While he and Kessler ultimately escape by the skin of their teeth, through some clever moves (like simply hiding behind a door) they make it out alive. On the run and commandeering a vehicle, they soon realize they weren’t so lucky — Eddie passes out at the wheel of the getaway car, having secretly taken a stray shot in the abdomen.
Desperate and panicking, Nucky heads to the hospital, screaming to himself and a half-conscious Kessler that he’ll go to Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) for help. But Rosetti, having infiltrated his hotel offices only brief minutes after the home invasion, is one step ahead of him and send sends his men to the hospital to ambush Nucky and Eddie. Babbling in German from delirium and loss of blood, Nucky tries to drop off his assistant at the St. Theresa’s Hospital where a wing is named after him. In another arresting scene, Rosetti’s men, wild and feral, let bullets fly while nuns and nurses run screaming for cover. It’s utter mayhem, and again, Nucky barely gets away. Bullets graze his temple while flying through the car, and it’s any wonder the man isn’t instantly killed in this second surprise attack. Nucky, like the audience, can barely catch his breath.
But a pause arrives, if only for a moment. Looking for a partner, Luciano meets with two new mobsters in the heroin trade — including a mute hood from Buffalo whose throat was apparently slashed as punishment for stealing chickens years ago. Luciano and the more cautious Meyer Lanskey (Anatol Yusef) argue over doing business with these largely unknown men. “Everything connects, whether you know it or not,” Lansky says prophetically, positing that they should should lie low while this war goes on. But the hot-headed Luciano doesn’t want to listen.
Life turns upside down for the disfigured WWII veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in a matter of brief days. Arriving late to the brothel, his boss Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) chastises him for shirking his duties at the club in favor of hanging out with Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt). More importantly, Richard finds her snooping in his room. She finds a photo of Richard, Julia and her grandson Tommy looking like a happy family together, but she warns him about dreaming about things that can never come to pass and “aren’t yours in the first place” — she says, alluding to the parental custody of Tommy who he has come to love. And soon, caught in a lie about where he’s taking Tommy (to Julia’s of course), Richard is unceremoniously fired.
Gillian has her own problems to contend with. With Nucky on the ropes, or at death’s door depending on who you believe, Gyp Rosetti cockily strolls into Atlantic City and sets up shop in Gillian’s brothel, much to her chagrin. Rosetti and his men bring a form of chaos to her upscale cat house, pilfering whores on the couches, drinking all the booze and generally upending its usual sense of well-managed order. Gillian has no choice but to let Rosetti have his way with the place, though the twinkle in her eye suggests she has her own plans.
With options quickly running out, Nucky takes the fading Eddie to Chalky White’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) negro neighborhood, where Nucky essentially implores Chalky for help. Chalky isn’t impressed. He knows Nucky’s down on his knees, but the mobster has turned him down before. Still, after putting Nucky through the paces, Chalky relents, hinting there will be a price to pay down the road. “This one biiiiig favor,” Chalky says as he brings in his potential son-in-law, Samuel Crawford (Ty Michael Robinson), a medical student we haven’t seen for several episodes, to try and save Eddie’s life. Maybelle, Chalky’s daughter who he has courted, must never know.
Intensity suddenly mounts as Rosetti and his men pay Chalky an unexpected visit. Assuming Thompson is inside, Rosetti offers 25 thousand dollars in exchange for Nucky. He tells them that without Nucky, business will resume as usual, but that Rosetti will make Chalky even richer. Chalky plays a good, though tense bluff and holds his ground. Ultimately, he successfully refuses Gyp entry to his house and everyone breathes a massive sigh of relief.
The episode’s key emotional moment centers around Eddie. Chalky asks Nucky if his dutiful assistant has a family, and Nucky is ashamed to admit he doesn’t know a thing about the man who works night and day for him. Nucky, watching the loyal Eddie die in front of him, is grief stricken and emotional. He asks about his family, and Eddie in his delirium manages to tell him he has a wife and two sons, much to Nucky’s shock. But before Eddie can tell him where they live so that they can be contacted, he becomes incoherent again. The bootlegger asks Chalky to help him escape from town.
Meanwhile, Luciano’s business contacts from Buffalo turn out to be undercover cops, and they bust him. Certainly this will have repercussions later since Luciano has gone both to Masseria and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) to help him front his heroin trade for a slice of the profits.
Nucky, Chalky and Chalky’s right-hand man Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) narrowly escape capture when Masseria’s men pull over the delivery truck that Nucky’s been hiding in on their way out of town. Again, by the skin of their teeth and some smart wits, they survive a shootout before it can even properly begin.
But instead of hightailing out of Atlantic City, Nucky decides to take a stand, which Chalky views as some kind of suicide mission. They take shelter at the warehouse where Eli Thompson’s (Shea Whigham) son Willie works. Nucky makes Chalky an offer. If they get out of this alive and Nucky gets Atlantic City back, Chalky gets his African-American club on the Boardwalk he desires so badly. But if this doesn’t work, Chalky’s going to have to make some new friends. “I think I’m a little too old to make new friends,” Chalky says with an in-it-to-win-it, do-or-die attitude. He’ll go down this road with Nucky for better or worse. Then suddenly, cars pull up. Before Nucky can size up these enemies, he realizes its Eli, who has brought a cavalry. The men part like the seas to reveal Al Capone (Stephen Graham) who cheekily chews on his cigar and says to Nucky, “let’s you and me sit down and talk about who dies.”
Bits And Pieces
– There aren’t many. For a show with many, many threads, the writers have wisely pared storylines down to three basic tales — Nucky on the run, the Luciano affair, and the Richard and Gillian tale in the Artemis club.
– But there are a few eye-opening moments. Richard Harrow is seen, briefly, at home, preparing for some kind of war. His various arms and weapons laid out, while a military beat pounds out in the background. As suggested, Gillian seems to have a plan to get Rosetti’s men out of her home and business. And Luciano’s fate seems like it will be much more than an arrest once Masseria and Rothstein get wind of his misfortune.