Boardwalk Empire "The Pony" Review: Boom.

By Cory Barker

Nov 05, 2012

Boardwalk Empire S03E08: “The Pony”

Even though Boardwalk Empire is about gangsters, the show’s characters spend a great deal of time talking—consistently in threatening tones, but talking nonetheless. My impression is that this is the reason, at least in part, for the general lack of enthusiasm for the show from viewers. For some, a gangster show shouldn’t include so much empty posturing and should include a heck of a lot more “action” (whatever that means).

I can see that point, particularly during episodes that seem to be trying too hard to run away from generic expectations. But what I think an episode like “The Pony” proves is that Boardwalk Empire’s lack of consistent high-octane thrills allows it to sneak up on us and then drop a handful of big, powerful moments all at once. The show did this a few weeks ago with the big shootout in Tabor Heights, but the conclusion of “The Pony” was one of the more shocking things the series has done in its three years on the air.

And perhaps more importantly, this episode featured a handful of moments that showed us that when characters on this show do take action or make big moves, horrible things can happen. It set up all sorts of drama for the final four episodes of the season (at this point, there isn't enough time left for the writers to get distracted or stall again, right?).

The most compelling development of "The Pony" wasn’t really a development, but more like a realization: Gillian might be Nucky’s biggest threat. There was some question as to what the show was doing with her earlier in the season, but now, she’s an extremely crucial part of the season’s endgame.

Shout out to TV.com reader @dazednconfuuzed, who pointed out in the comments of last week’s review that Gillian picked up the Jimmy doppleganger so she could kill him and then declare Jimmy dead in hopes of obtaining full ownership of the property. That all happened in this episode, and while I think there was some question a few weeks ago as to whether Gillian actually had a plan or was just in a stupor, that was an insightful point and it makes the character so much more intelligent and cunning.

But Gillian isn’t just interested in controlling her house and business, she’s out for a little revenge as well. When Nucky showed up offer platitudes, Gillian did something we’ve been waiting for someone to do all season: She accused Nuck of murdering Jimmy. She wasn't going to listen to Nucky’s empty condolences, nor was she particularly intimidated by his threats about what could happen should she start broadcasting her accusations elsewhere. It’s interesting that the show spent so much time building up the relationship between Nucky and Jimmy when really, there’s arguably just as much history between Nucky and Gillian. Plus, she’s certainly more formidable as a foe—and frankly, she's more interested in being one.

Gillian’s frustration with Nucky led her to cut ties with the worthless Lucky and cash in on Gyp’s itching trigger finger by not-so-subtly mentioning Lucky, Nucky, and Rothstein’s dinner plans. And as a result, the payback we’ve been waiting for from Gyp—and the payback Gillian’s probably been waiting for much longer—came to pass with a massive explosion on the boardwalk. Apparently fed up with all the talking and posturing, Gyp did what he does best in blunt force. Of course, this is television and so not one of those three targeted men actually ended up dead—or was even really that injured—but with that move, both Gillian and Gyp delivered a (or, yet another) message to Nucky.

What I liked about this move, aside from the explosion being very impressive on a technical front, is that it felt like a line in the sand of sorts. Nucky and Rothstein are dedicated to being the nicely dressed, smart, and politically connected kind of gangsters, but Gyp, with Gillian in his ear, doesn’t care about that front at all. He knows what he is and he knows when it’s time for something more than a stern talking-to. And Gillian’s vendetta against Nucky goes back quite a while, so she’s absolutely willing to take drastic action.

You would think that this explosion, especially since it presumably led to the death of Nucky’s sidepiece Billie Kent*, would actually push Nucky to realize that, while his charms and intellect might work on the bigwigs in government, it doesn’t necessarily appease those who are willing to end dozens of innocent lives just to prove a point. I hate to go back to the “full gangster” rhetoric again, but all season, Nucky’s been avoiding having to really become one. Now, Gyp and Gillian have made it personal and it seems like Nuck doesn’t have much of a choice. Ultimately, then, the big explosion succeeded on two levels: as a nice, surprising caper to “The Pony” and (hopefully) as a catalyst for Nucky to make some bold choices of his own in the coming weeks.

* I can’t say I’m that disappointed to see Billie (again, presumably) say goodbye. I appreciated what she represented in Nucky’s life, but his infatuation with her was not only distracting for him, but also for the show. Nucky thought she’d be used up and spit out by the film industry, but he seems to forget that he has that exact same impact on the women in his life.

I guess it’s too bad that Nucky had so much trouble on the homefront, because he spent much of this episode working on his political problems (you know, the ones he likes to dedicate much more of his time to). Gaston Means hooked him up with Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell), the guy we saw urge for the end of Prohibition a handful of weeks ago. It turned out, unsurprisingly, that Mellon actually owns a distillery that he’d love to make some money on. Nucky convinced Mellon that it’s worth taking down George Remus as a way to get to Attorney General Daugherty and agreed to get Mellon’s distillery up and running.

I’ve enjoyed Nucky’s political pursuits this season, especially in comparison to how messy they were last season, but these scenes always feel too simple to me. We barely know Means, and he hooked Nucky up with Mellon, who we also barely know, in an instant. And then, Mellon agreed to take down Daugherty with only a little bit of hesitation. That story is already so disconnected from what’s happening on the boardwalk that it’s tough to be totally invested in it, so I wish the show would commit a little bit more to telling it better. It’s almost as if Terence Winter and company just want to keep that thread around for some nebulous future, so they address it briefly every couple of weeks. They could do better.

Although disconnected from the main action, both Margaret and Van Alden also made bold choices this week. Margaret learned that the woman who lost her baby earlier in the season caused the miscarriage herself because her husband won’t stop forcing himself onto her, and it was then that the sexual health class finally became worthwhile. She urged Dr. Mason to obtain a few diaphragms, one for her peer and one for her. You know, because at this point, Margaret doesn’t care about the binds of marriage, she just wants to get it in with Owen. Margaret’s story has been a little start-and-stop this season, and I can’t yet tell if she’s been inspired by the class to take control of her sexuality with Owen or vice versa, but there is at least some self-empowering going on here.

And finally, it took eight episodes, but Van Alden finally snapped. Forced to make booze for O’Banion as payment for the disposing of that agent’s body a few weeks back and constantly mocked at work, Van Alden decided it was time to put an iron on a co-worker’s face, break some typewriters, and scream like a crazy person. As terrifying as he was in that sequence, Michael Shannon was even better in the following scene, when Van Alden returned home to tell his wife they needed to flee and noted that they could go anywhere, “Except New Jersey. Or New York. And obviously Illinois.” The way Shannon delivered the line is probably my favorite part of this entire season. It’s very weird that Van Alden is the only character who produces any laughs on this show.

Of course now, Van Alden is making and selling booze for money. His wife is excellent at it, and hadn't realized how easy and lucrative it is. My fingers are crossed that this puts the character back on the radar of someone on the East Coast, because he’s too good to be trapped in (admittedly amusing) side plots.

There are four episodes left in Season 3 and it finally feels like the slow-burn might be out the window. I’ve enjoyed this season’s build quite a bit, but after some big, bold choices in “The Pony,” Nucky—who for better or for worse, drives the action—will have to make some major choices of his own that will likely dictate what kind of energy these final four hours have. Hopes are high.


Notes


– Eli is back at Nucky’s side. That was a small—but nice—touch.

– The episode got its title from Nucky’s (well, Owen’s) search for a pony for Margaret’s daughter. That story went places.

– Richard didn’t seem to like Gyp, and vice versa. Could we see Mr. Harrow joining up with Nucky?

– Remember when Chalky White was on this show?



Gangster Power Rankings, Week 8


1. Gillian (previous rank: 2): Grew more financially independent, stood up to Nucky, and easily convinced Gyp to take out her enemies. Not a bad stretch. There’s a reason she keeps finding herself in powerful positions in this town.

2. Gyp (previous rank: 3): Gillian might have urged him on, but it certainly takes some guts (brains, not so much) to blow up a public place on the off-chance that your targets are hit. Gyp really, really doesn’t like being disrespected.

3. Nucky (previous rank: 1): Almost got blown up, sure, but still managed to make some major in-roads with his political problems and beat the hell out of a guy twice his age.

4. Van Alden (previous rank: N/A): Did you see that guy’s face after Van Alden pulled the iron off it? Yow.

5. Margaret (previous rank: 4): Can’t keep my girl out of the GPRs, especially when she’s advocating for a women’s right to birth control. How timely!

  • Comments (31)
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  • klotensen Nov 08, 2012

    Now that I finally skip every scene with Margaret in I can finally enjoy BE to the full extend.

    Interesting to see if Nucky's personal beef with Gyp is going to cross his plans to get rid of the attorney general.

  • coutterhill Nov 08, 2012

    That picture you put up of Nucky in a daze made me laugh. LOVE Van Alden, but I love Micheal Shannon anyhow. Love how he delivers his lines.

  • LilyGabrielle Nov 07, 2012

    This episode was fantastic. I watched it twice, and I very rarely do that with TV shows. It was as if every major character finally awoke from the stupor they'd been in the first half of the season.

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 07, 2012

    People really love Van Alden, huh?

  • dazednconfuuzed Nov 07, 2012

    I have loved Van Alden from the moment he shoved his hand in that guys wound to get info from him in the first season...Michael Shannon just does crazy so well.. And the baptism scene..classic.

  • patsully Nov 07, 2012

    It was pretty satisfying to *finally* see him take some action... but only because they built it so slowly.

  • YiWernYoong Nov 07, 2012

    Van Alden's wife should be in the gangster ratings...she's badass!!!!

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 07, 2012

    That's a great point. She's so weird, and awesome.

  • KarenPuzio Nov 06, 2012

    I would also like to know where the second kid came from at Van Alden's place...

  • coutterhill Nov 08, 2012

    he had a kid with the new lady..

  • Devon39219 Nov 06, 2012

    Yay! Finally a good episode with Al, Van Alden and.. well, kaboom.

    Finally someone who points out how crazy Gillian is.. Her scenes are boring anyway. It was just a matter of time before she was going to help Gyp, everyone could see that one coming.

    I didn't really like Billie, up until now, her audition was very cute. Poor Billie, just when I started to like her..

    FINALLY Van Alden flipped out. with his awesome crazy eyes and smile. I'm waiting for him to become the great killer in the name of the loooord, carrying around his bible and punishing people who have to repent with his cross-knife. or something :) I've watched too much anime.. But where did the 2nd baby come from in his house? Maybe I missed something..

    Nucky's fight with Gil was hilarious.. just like two little boys fighting.

    All in all, great episode!

  • dazednconfuuzed Nov 07, 2012

    You know I was wondering the same thing about the 2nd baby too lol..If anyone could shed light on this I'd be much obliged.

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 07, 2012

    You think Gillian is boring? It seems to me that she might actually be Nucky's biggest threat moving forward. She's smart, cunning, and manipulative as hell.

  • Devon39219 Nov 07, 2012

    to be honest I don't really care for Nucky either this season. Gillian was too busy with her weird reversed Oedipus complex, that her story kind of dragged on a bit. I care more for Richard, Van Alden + wife, and Al. I like the fact that she's finally stirring something up so that's a plus. She is good in combination with other strong characters, such as Gyp in this case.

  • MightyMad Nov 06, 2012

    Watching Van Alden getting put down, again and again, all season by his stupid co-workers was like watching dumb kids poking a sleeping rottweiler with a stick - you knew eventually that dog was going to wake up and someone was going to end up crying in pain.I was waiting for V.A.'s transformation, from true G-man to badass gangster, to be way faster than how it went down, but he's finally there (kinda), and, for that, we mainly have to thank her delightfully pragmatic (and kinda hot!) new wife. Way to finally pick the right girl, Nelson.

    I actually understand where Margaret is coming from, with her infatuation with Owen - 'didn't last season, but it makes complete sense right now. However, I do not understand at all what the hell Owen is doing. It's not as if he's even entertaining the idea of being Nucky in place of Nucky or is using Mrs. Thompson as a chess piece. No, the man is just screwing his boss's wife... just 'cause he was to screw her? That's completely insane, especially since they will eventually get caught (Atlantic City just ain't bigger enough for people not to notice something's up with them). So why would this seemingly bright man sacrifice his livelihood and, well, HIS LIFE, over a married piece of tail? 'Absolutely have no idea.

    Who's crazier: Gip or Gillian? The whore has always been the most unstable character in the whole series, and the fact that she only made smart, well though-out decisions this episode doesn't change how pants-crapping bananas she truly is. Gotta give her props, though on her meeting with Nucky - she took a whole lot of bullshit from him before finally snapping and laying all the cards on the table. That move on Gip made complete sense, but, frankly, I'm shocked she managed to connect the dot so quickly. She knows how to use men, that's for sure, and will definitely be Thompson's biggest tormentor in the coming weeks, especially since I bet her whole involvement with the boardwalk hit will probably never be revealed. As for Gyp... Lord is he nuts. Love the character, but, really, if he managed to survive until the season finale, it would simply be a goddamn miracle.

    Couldn't care less about Billie's demise (because, yes, she's dead).

    It sure feels like Torrio is passing his business over to Capone, doesn't it? You always heard of old bossmen moving out of the life to do something else with the rest of their days, but rarely do you see any gangsters in movies or TV actually managing to survive long enough to get to retirement. Here's hoping that Johnny managed to get there... before getting his head blown up by a baseball bat.

    Does Nucky has what it takes to take down someone like Gyp? Probably. But will he be willing to actually go all the way there - now that's the question. Let's see what happen next week...

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 07, 2012

    I don't really think it's necessary to call her a whore, is it? She's a pretty powerful, smart woman. It seems to me that she's actually not unstable, but was playing possum just a bit, no?

  • Devon39219 Nov 08, 2012

    technically she IS a, ahem, whore madam :)

  • gericom Nov 07, 2012

    no. she's nuts. she slept with her son, and then with his look-alike before killing him... case closed. also, I don't think she's really all that powerful and smart, her "dream-house" didn't do that well either... I'd even doubt that she survives this season. once nucky finds out she was involved (and he will), she's gone. that's actually one of the problems of the show: eventually, with the way his character's developing, nucky should logically be bound to somehow get rid of most the people on this show. I hope that doesn't happen though.

  • redorb1 Nov 06, 2012

    I am also excited about the turn by Johnny Torrio and Capone. Now it looks like Capone will be allowed to become the true boss in Chicago. Hopefully this storyline will connect with the boardwalk, and quick.

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 07, 2012

    The Chicago stories are always so disconnected. You'd think that after three seasons, Winter and co. would know how to improve that part of the show, but I don't see it. I like them, but they're so underdeveloped.

  • dazednconfuuzed Nov 06, 2012

    Loved loved loved this episode! Things are happening now people, this crazy train is going off the tracks and there's not a damned thing that can stop it!

    Must say I had to do a double take when seeing myself pop up in the review, but thanks for the shout out :)

    I was actually kinda surprised that Nucky had the balls to show up over at Gillian's like that..he should know by now what conniving bitchery that woman is capable of. Why provoke her even more? I have a feeling this will end in her demise though, and I'm more then pumped for it.

    Loved the Van Alden scenes..I had especially missed batshit-crazy Van Alden since his uhh.. "baptism" of his former partner. I'd been waiting for him to pop one off on those d-bags he works with and this did not disappoint.

    In a way I can't believe that Gyp is just turning shit all upside down over practically nothing...he's like a giant child stamping his feet all around and I cannot wait for someone to put him in his place.

    The explosion was great though, I really didn't see that coming and I was pretty taken aback by it..though I, like the reviewer, wasn't really that sad to see Billie go. I had liked Billie but didn't really like the way Nucky was acting in relation to her.

    All in all a great episode, and sets the bar very high for the rest of the season..I'm certainly on board!

  • CarloRomano Nov 09, 2012

    I feel like Billie Kent is being thrown under the bus a bit unfairly. Sure she was a big reason why the Nuckster was distracted from being very gangster-like in the earlier episodes, but she might end up being the catalyst for whatever fireworks that might be in store for the last 4 episodes. I think Nucky was genuinely falling for her especially since she was a woman that didn't "need saving," and was with him purely because she wanted to, not because she needed to (unlike Margaret, Danziger, and whoever else came before them).



    Then there's Gyp, who I agree does act like a "petulant child," and responds in an extreme fashion toward just about any and all perceived slights (except when they come from his mama). But I don't think that is the only thing that's fueling his actions at this point though. Let's not forget that he narrowly escaped from an assassination attempt that killed everyone in the building except him, and, more importantly, he's doing this because he had to come up with something to keep Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria from disposing of him back when they were talking in his restaurant. Masseria said that he couldn't "control" or "afford" Gyp, so as a last-ditch effort, Gyp promised Masseria that he'd help him become 'Joe the king' by taking out Rothstein, Nuck, and the rest of the fat cats.

  • CoryBarker1 Nov 07, 2012

    No problem. You were correct.

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