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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 5 Episode 2 ‘The Good Listener’ Breakdown: Behold, The Most HBO Death Scene Ever

'Boardwalk Empire' Season 5 Episode 2 'The Good Listener' Breakdown: Behold, The Most HBO Death Scene Ever

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

In Episode 2, Nucky Thompson is scrambling to do what, in a sense, he has always mastered: bridge the gap between the crooked world and the legitimate one, fighting for survival in both. After having survived an assassination attempt in the first episode, Nucky the gangster begins his hunt for whomever arranged for his would-be untimely end, settling his eye on Lansky and Luciano. Meanwhile, with the country dying for a drink, Nucky the businessman continues trying to build a foundation that would prime him for dominating the alcohol business if Prohibition is repealed. When assured that no one intends to compete over control of his town, Atlantic City, Nucky vaguely and discontentedly jests, “I can keep what’s already mine. How exceedingly generous.” “The Good Listener” has set a high-tension groundwork for the rest of the final season.

What We Learn About Nucky This Week

Since the beginning of “Boardwalk Empire,” the corrupt but harmless County Treasurer Thompson has “buried” a lot of his friends and enemies. In the flashbacks Season 5 is providing us, we find out that he literally buried his sister, who died young of tuberculosis. Even though the Commodore offered to pay for a proper burial, Nucky’s abusive and alcoholic father made the boy do it, something that undoubtedly has affected Nucky ever since. 

READ MORE: What Makes ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Great, And What Keeps It From Breaking Out?

Most Shocking Moment of Violence

In Chicago, a plot is developing that is on a collision course with Nucky’s affairs and rivalries on the east coast — Al Capone, by now (1931) the world’s most notorious gangster, has George Mueller (a.k.a. the enforcer-formerly-known-as Nelson Van Alden) and Eli Thompson working under him. In a panic to pay Capone back, the two execute a high-risk robbery. After assuring themselves it would be quick, the plan goes awry and Eli empties his gun into two already-injured men.

Most Flagrant Flaunting of the Law

Willie Thompson, Nucky’s nephew, is both willing and able to do whatever it takes to get to the top, and for him the top means Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In a job interview with New York District Attorney Robert Hodge, Willie gives a speech about not being able to choose your family, and about how crime has ruined his. No one who has seen this show would disagree with his, but what is most striking is how casually he then enjoys a meal with Uncle Nucky, from whom he keeps details of the interview. What angle is Willie playing: Nucky’s eyes in the DA’s office, or the other way around?

Most Memorable Dialogue

HBO’s “The Sopranos,” co-written and co-produced by “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terence Winter, once had its protagonist utter this foreshadowing: “There are two endings for a guy like me — dead, or in the can.”

In “The Good Listener,” Nucky and John Torrio have a similar conversation: “Most guys in this business,” warns Torrio, “They get their retirement papers straight from the grim fuckin’ reaper.” Nucky then reflects on a few people who have met that fate, including his associate Arnold Rothstein and the recently departed Joe Masseria — as Torrio says: “Joe the Boss, richest man in the cemetery.”

One alluring element of “Boardwalk Empire” is that history can tell us what was made of Nucky’s rivals, such as Luciano and Capone. With those odds, maybe Nucky should heed Torrio’s advice and get out while he still can.

Smartest Editing Choice

After a meeting between Nucky Thompson and Tonino Sandrelli, in which Sandrelli confesses fear that his captains in New York might decide his time has come, “The Good Listener” cuts to the lowering of the Thompson sister’s coffin into the ground. The comparison did not bode well for Sandrelli, and by episode’s end, that prophecy had been fulfilled.

Where Story Meets History

At an otherwise obscure moment in “The Good Listener,” a Chicago treasury officer makes a flamboyant speech about fearlessly pursuing the mob and Al Capone. This is Elliot Ness, the official whose team proved so incorruptable they became known as the legendary “The Untouchables.” (Ness was played by Kevin Costner in the movie of the same name, and is here played by Jim True-Frost of “The Wire.”)

“The Good Listener” may also be the last we see of Luciano as merely a right-hand man. Because of Nucky’s threat at the end of the episode, it may be time for them to move on Maranzano — who was assassinated on September 10, 1931.

Best Musical Interlude

After a lie-filled conversation between Willie and Nucky, the soudtrack rises to a wild rootsy-jazz tune whose lyrics are indiscernible jibberish. Willie has just lied through his teeth to Uncle Nucky, a man who is a certified expert in the art of deception, so the interaction, much like the score, is probably just a slew of nonsense.

The Biggest Flopperoo

Given how he met his end, it is probably too easy to say that Tonino Sandrelli earned this title in “The Good Listener,” so I’ll look to his partners. Lansky, who should have done a better job staying out of Nuck’s line of sight in Cuba, has won himself a powerful new enemy. He and Luciano have pretended to have had a falling out, and now they and Sal Maranzano have targets on their backs (which is better than having a postcard on your back, I guess).

The Best, Most Killer-Diller Moment

Sandrelli, may he rest in peace, went out in the most “minor recurring character on an HBO show” way ever: bloodied-up, with a knife in his back, a symbolic message and a fall into a cat house. Oh, and to add a unique spin, he arrived in George Weasley-style, which is to say missing an ear. This is the second straight week of ear stealing in “Boardwalk,” making it the weirdest motif in television.

Grade: B+

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