Boardwalk Empire "Sunday Best" Review: Holiday Blues

By Cory Barker

Oct 29, 2012

Boardwalk Empire S03E07: “Sunday Best”

Holidays are kind of the worst. The hope is that we will come together with our families, enjoy some great food and even greater company, and be almost revitalized for the time being. Every holiday has its own specific meanings, but there are underlying themes of celebration and unity running through them all. Unfortunately, we all know better. While sometimes they turn out like we intend, most of the time, we end up engaging in too many awkward debates or drudging through too many past events before complaining our way through a car ride home.

Although “Sunday Best” was not the most exciting episode of the season, and yet another minor stall after a pretty enthralling offering last week, it did a fine job of showing us some of the varying frustrations that can pop up when families and individuals have to fake-smile their way through another holiday picture.

Most notable here was that for the first time ever, Nucky’s and Eli’s respective families sat down to break bread with one another, resulting in some very engaging, but quiet scenes between the two of them. There's a whole lot of water under that bridge, and Nucky is still very willing to consider letting Eli drown in it, but nothing brings a fractured family together like the holidays, right? Nucky was able to put his past issues with his brother aside long enough to be nice to sister-in-law and entertain the children with a somewhat painful comedic act involving juggling, but once the two brothers were alone, all the tension that Nuck had been trying to ignore bubbled to the surface.

The conflict between the two is deep, but clear: Eli believes that he has paid for his sins after spending almost a year and a half in prison and is ready to take on more responsibility, beyond just loading trucks with that dolt Mickey Doyle. Unfortunately, Nucky is still quite upset with Eli for joining up with Jimmy, Gillian, and the Commodore and, you know, trying to strip his power away and probably kill him. If we think back to earlier in the series, it seems like Eli has always felt unappreciated by Nucky, but in one of this season’s better scenes, Nucky verbalized a similar frustration with his brother, noting, “You think I’m bottomless... and you just keep reaching in there.” And when Eli told Nucky to just kill him and get over with, Nucky more or less rolled his eyes at his brother’s drastic measures.

But despite all of this, we got the sense here that Nucky was somewhat moved by this family time, and for whatever stress Eli has caused him, he is still family. Nuck is finally willing to admit that Eli made the right call about moving the trucks through Tabor Heights a few episodes ago, and he ultimately decided to put him in a co-leadership role with Mickey.

It’s hard for me to truly pick a side in this brotherly squabble, and I’m not sure the show even wants us to anyway. As I’ve said consistently this season, Nucky is hard to pin down, and probably even harder to feel much sympathy for, but Eli did plot against him. Losing a job and spending a lot of time in jail was a quality penance, and apparently just enough for Nuck, but neither Thompson brother is that admirable. Nevertheless, Nucky cares, no matter what he says, and I think he can’t not help his brother—even if it means he’ll get to hold the past over Eli’s head some more.

And although Nucky begrudgingly breathed some life back into his relationship with his brother, the same cannot really be said for his marriage. What’s interesting about this is that, throughout Easter Sunday, Margaret almost started to recognize the man she fell in love with, mostly through secondhand accounts of his greatness from Eli’s wife, but also through an admittedly more appealing and charming Nucky (the dude is good with kids, that’s for sure). But once the two arrived back home and Nucky, again almost like he was riding the Easter high or something, tried to flirt a little with Margaret, it went nowhere. He offered to teach her to juggle, to which she replied, “It’s just too late.” Obviously, she wasn't just talking about it being her bedtime. Hey, sometimes, holidays bring families back together. Other times, they simply reinforce how broken a family actually is.

Meanwhile, Gyp was back in New York and didn’t seem too happy to be there. He spent Easter with his family full of women (I assume a mother and some older and younger sisters), all of whom sure enjoy busting his balls. No wonder he has a little bit of an inferiority complex—and some issues with the lord and savior. And even when he can get away from his blood family, he struggles to convince his crime family that he is a valuable, trustworthy asset. He’s ready to throw down with Nucky and Rothstein, if only his boss will let him.

As bad as visiting your dysfunctional family can be, it’s probably worse to be home alone on a major holiday. That’s where Gillian found herself and instead of trying to fix her problem, she exacerbated it by sending all the girls away and asking Richard to watch Tommy for the day. Though she claimed to be sick, it was clear that Gillian is still struggling with the realization that Jimmy is really, truly gone. And just when it seemed like things were improving for her when the Jimmy-clone boytoy showed up for an afternoon of fun, Gillian’s condition worsened in a lot of ways. The boytoy asked her about her former husband and she basically described Jimmy (not the Commodore), and then proceeded to stick the guy with heroin so that he’d pass out in the bathtub and drown.

That’s pretty extreme—and frankly, awful—behavior, but by the end of the day, Gillian had made some “improvements,” you could say. She was willing to admit to Richard that Jimmy is dead and that she doesn’t know how to live without him, which I guess is a step beyond taking all the pictures down last week. Maybe she won’t get distracted by another clone on the boardwalk.

And finally, there’s nothing quite like the uncomfortable tension of meeting someone else’s family for the first time, which is sort of what Richard faced in this episode with his little dinner date at the home of the drunk veteran Paul. It didn’t go particularly well, mostly because Paul’s a drunk, angry old man, but Richard did make up some ground with the daughter, who is cute, awkward and frank in an interesting way.

This episode felt like the show taking its foot off the gas yet again, but I’ve grown to appreciate and admire the kind of low-key character work Boardwalk Empire has being doing this season. It was about time that Nucky and Eli had a substantive talk and even though neither thread is relevant to the main plot, both Gillian and Richard’s stories are compelling and well-acted. Even the short scene with Gyp at home really gave us some great insight into who that character is and where he is coming from, so there’s value here. I still find that the show is disjointed when you line up all the episodes, but on an individual basis, Boardwalk Empire is succeeding in texturing these characters.


– I have to admit, I forgot that Margaret’s daughter battled polio until this episode. And I think the show might have, too.

– Eli would suck at hiding Easter eggs.

Gangster Power Rankings

1. Nucky (previous rank: 1): It takes a real man to swallow some pride and do the smart (and arguably, right) thing in bringing Eli closer to the inner circle. The juggling alone meant Nucky was going to keep this spot.

2: Gillian (previous rank: 3): She’s very troubled, very intelligent, and very manipulative. That’s a dangerous combination.

3. Gyp (previous rank: N/A): He’s back after a little time away. He took some major guff from his family, screamed at God, and then convinced a crime boss to let him blow up some major relationships. This guy.

4. Margaret (previous rank: 4): For a few minutes there, it seemed like she was thinking about taking Nucky back—whatever that would entail—but instead, she spilled the beans to Eli’s wife. Not sure why, or if she has a larger plan, but I’m quite curious to find out.

5. Richard (previous rank: N/A): Sometimes, all real gangsters have to do is quietly say they’ll kill you. Richard Harrow is that kind of gangster (also: he’s a great caretaker).

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  • SaritaSikka Nov 11, 2012

    The woman yelling at Gyp at dinner is actually supposed to be his wife, and the 2 younger girls, his daughters. The scene where he's in the church, despairing at his life, and being unloved makes more sense once you're aware of this. His marriage is clearly dead in the water.

  • Shreela Oct 31, 2012

    "...then proceeded to stick the guy with heroin so that he'd pass out in the bathtub and drown" - with her hand holding the sponge over his mouth and nose, forcing him back under water as he attempted to come up! And I think she indulged herself about Jimmy, until not having control the house forced her to accept reality, then she went hunting for a look-alike with full knowledge of what her plan was. But luring look-alike to her "lair" involved seducing him, which was creepy in a pseudo-incest way.

    I'm very surprised Margaret shot down Nucky the way she did. Women in those days had fewer opportunities to earn a decent living to provide for two children -- one who has medical expenses -- if their marriage fell apart, plus Nucky is too scary to consider divorcing IMO. Her turning Nucky down will probably send him running back to the actress' arms.

    But maybe Nucky will be too busy staying alive with crazy Gyp getting the Don's blessings to go after Nucky.

  • The3rdEye Nov 01, 2012

    I agree. Gillian has always been much too clever and manipulative for this all to have simply been a plan of convenience. She took down the pictures because the plan of finding a look a like of Jimmy was already in the works. It would do no good to have someone notice that the pictures don't quite match the man dead in the bathtub. The entire love affair with the younger man was her twisted farewell to Jimmy. Remember that she slept with her own son last season. Finally, the last scene where she is sitting on Richards' bed telling him that she has come to terms with her son being gone had two meaning to me. In one hand she is mourning the passing of her son in the other she is letting Richard in on her little ruse.

  • WilliamTrembl Oct 31, 2012

    I'm enjoying this season so far, but I have to say... I'm a little disappointed by Chalky White's near-absense. We've passed the halfway mark for the season, and he only had two appearances: trying to get his daughter to marry Dr. Scarface, and intimidating Eddie Cantor. He's such a badass dude and I'd hate to not see him get his hands dirty this season.

    And I was hoping Dean O'Bannion (the Chicago flower shop owner) would have more screen time... He was a big player in the Chicago bootlegging game at that point and he had some interesting battles with various people in that area. Wish we'd see more of him too.

  • klotensen Oct 31, 2012

    "Why does it always need to be such a melodrama with you?"

    LOL.Nucky is the best. Him and Rosetti.

  • songokou77 Oct 30, 2012

    Yeah knew the Jimmy Clone, Roger was gonna die. I don't see it as a way to get Jimmy getting a legit death confirmation for the certificate etc. I mean it is, but Gillian was too weird all along, too happy, sad,c controlling etc. In the end I think it was more a way to let go than anything else.

    I also LOVED! the Gyp church scene. His "prayer"!, OMG amazing acting from Bobby Cannavale. The sides to this character. I mean they all stick together, but we have psycho Gyp, weird/sex Gyp, Frustrated Gyp, Busted Balls Gyp and Vulnerable Steal in church Gyp. I felt for the guy in that scene, felt his frustration. Great stuff. I disagree that this episode was slower than last weeks, it didn't have a lot of action, but sure felt intense.

  • theopratt Oct 30, 2012

    This was a great episode because it allowed many of the characters to regroup, strengthen weak allegiances, and gain power. This mainly applies to Nucky, Gyp, and Gillian. Nucky strengthened his bond with Eli. Eli is of course gaining from this situation, and has manipulated Nucky to get back on his good side. If you recall, in last episode's gangster boss meeting Eli did that thing where he started to say something and then said "sorry, Nucky, I overstepped my bounds" to which of course Nucky then let him say what needed to be said. This is a classic of publicly showing a group that you are respectfully subservient to someone, yet still you show that you are smart and necessary to the team. Still, the growing bond between Nucky and Eli does benefit Nucky's enterprise considerable, as Eli is a good man to have in a fight and at strategy sessions. And Nucky certainly needs more of these people in his organization.

    Gyp similarly strengthened a certain allegiance, that between him and Masseria. After starting a war that led to a massive loss in Tabor Heights, Masseria was going to have Gyp killed. But that resourceful rascal managed to talk himself out of a bullet to the brain, and he got Masseria's blessing along with the manpower to make Gyp a credible threat once again.

    Gillian, in my opinion, experienced the greatest rise of all this episode. Now I know that she spent most of it having sex, bathing and killing her son's lookalike, and crying; but, she did get herself out of this fantasy that Jimmy is still alive out there. And now that she's pulled herself out of that pit, she can declare Jimmy dead. With that done, she'll have money and resources and all that stuff she's been trying to get this season. But most importantly, she can move her sights away from the past and move them squarely into the present. That means getting revenge on the people who killed Jimmy, and that's pretty much Nucky. So while Gyp will come at Nucky, Rothstein, and Lucky with men and guns, Gillian will come at mainly Nucky with sneaky deception and backstabbing. Gyp will be the villain who takes up most of Nucky's time this season, but Gillian will be the one who gives Nucky a heavy blow in the finale.

  • SinspaW Oct 30, 2012

    More Richard. We need more time with Richard. Also, let him use his shotgun more often. Not on Julia's dad obviously, but I wouldn't mind Gillian taking a couple of pellets to the face. At least it would put her out of her misery.

  • BillPeterson Oct 30, 2012

    Am I wrong, or was Masseria about to have Gyp killed? It seemed like a subtle scene, but when he said he couldn't control him (and those dudes in the background started to get up), it seemed like Gyp became very uncomfortable.

  • songokou77 Oct 30, 2012

    It quickly reminded me of one of my favorite scene from movies. The restaurant hit in Godfather where Micheal gets his hands dirty for the first time. Instead here it almost happened. Still Gyp knew it was coming, maybe was ready to burst. But Masseria constantly repeating that he couldn't control him as an answer to everything was ominous jaja

  • dazednconfuuzed Oct 30, 2012

    I enjoyed this episode, at times it did seem to drag a little bit but I do appreciate the character development. I disagree about Gillian being distracted by the Jimmy clone guy, on the contrary I saw where this was going as soon as she picked him up on the boardwalk. I knew she was going to kill him to produce a body to have Jimmy declared dead so she could take the Commodore's house and assets. For a couple moments I considered her trying to involve the Jimmy clone is some kind of plot to pretend he was Jimmy but there was just too much wrong with that plan.. for one there are LOTS of people in town that would have known he wasn't James not to mention that if they had succeeded, this guy she hardly knew would have had control over everything..Not a good thing. So inevitably this was the only way that scenario was going to play out. Gillian is such a sick lil pup tho...she has appalled me from the first moment she appeared on the show, however she does have some kind of magnetism as well. As for Eli and Nucky, haha everytime I start feeling bad for Eli I stop and remember that he tried to have his brother killed pretty much..And then I understand Nucky being kind of an asshole. I had more sympathy for Jimmy (I miss Jimmy sososo much) because he was kind of tricked into what he was doing by his mother, the Commodore, and others. Yes I don't absolve Jimmy completely of his actions but the way it was all portrayed I just ended up feeling much worse for him then any of the others involved.

  • theopratt Oct 30, 2012

    While I agree with most of the things you said, I don't actually think Gillian knew she would kill the Jimmy clone from the start. I think at first she wanted to convince herself that he was Jimmy, or at least make him as Jimmy like as possible so that he could replace Jimmy. But, while he was (very unlike Jimmy) more than willing to be her lover (Jimmy only had sex with her once and their relationship was very awkward from that point onward), he couldn't give her everything she wanted. And so she realized, as she said at the end of this episode, that nothing could bring her Jimmy back.

    No I completely agree with you when it comes to using his body to declare Jimmy dead. That is certainly one reason why she killed him. Though it might be tricky, she is his mother and you only need one person to identify a dead body, so she should be able to get him declared dead. However, there was much more to the bath/murder than just having him declared dead. I think that that was her way of saying goodbye to Jimmy. She was able to wash him and make him feel happy (much like when he was a baby boy), and then she overdosed him on a pleasant drug before drowning him so that he could drop off into a nice, pleasant sleep. Killing the Jimmy clone was just as important to Gillian's psychological state of mind, as it was to her plan of getting Jimmy declared dead.

  • CoryBarker1 Staff Oct 30, 2012

    WOW, that point about Gillian and the doppleganger makes so much sense. I didn't even think of that.

  • klotensen Oct 30, 2012

    You're kiddin', right? Like dazednconfused wrote it was either to kill him or posing him for Jimmy because she was only eligible to the money with Jimmy still alive or declared for dead. But with no body found it takes some time before someone's status changes from missing to deceased so she needed a quick solution.

  • PontusLundkvi Oct 30, 2012

    Wasn't the question (answered in this episode) rather wether she was out of her mind or if she had a plan?

  • LilyGabrielle Oct 30, 2012

    Two weeks without Van Alden. I am not a happy girl.

  • WilliamTrembl Oct 31, 2012

    Yea, we never found out what happened with Van Alden, Dean O'Bannion, and their little dead agent friend! Surely that was going somewhere, with Van Alden getting wrapped up in O'Bannion's business (O'Bannion was a major player in the bootlegging game back then, in real life)

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