In last week’s great episode of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky, in the midst of a large bout with post-concussion syndrome (among other things, probably), gave Margaret the old “everything I touch turns to stone” speech. But he also noted that “I do it to them, or they do it to me.” This was a moment of real honesty from a guy who barely seems to know who he is, but the second part was also a bit of a rallying cry. After weeks of a distracted existence, Nucky now knows what he has to do. It has been occasionally frustrating to watch him ignore certain responsibilities (or just generally fart around), but few people are more dangerous when their backs against the wall than Nucky Thompson.
However, despite Nucky’s newfound productivity, which was perhaps somewhat inspired by the second half of his little speech to Margaret, it's clear after the events of “A Man, a Plan” that the first half of it still matters—and just as much, if not more. Because it seems like any time Nucky actually does decide to focus his energy on the more obvious “gangster stuff,” people close to him end up injured, exiled, arrested, or dead.
The events of this episode was no different. Owen is dead, nothing but a lifeless lump of cargo sent to Nucky by Joe after a desperate play-gone-wrong. Not only is Nucky’s righthand man gone, but he leaves behind Margaret, who was very much ready to run away with him, and their just-revealed unborn child. Owen knew what he was getting himself into sticking around Nucky—and clearly only did so because of Margaret—but he’s just another casualty in Nucky’s disparate wars with people up and down the eastern part of the country.
I’m curious to hear what people think about Owen’s death and how this episode/season built up to it. There was some chatter at the end of last season about Owen moving into that second position held by Jimmy, but that didn’t quite materialize in Season 3, if only because the show seemed much more interested in exploring Nucky off in his own world. As a result, Owen was sort of stuck in a holding pattern for much of this season, outside of that one really great episode where he and Nucky butted heads about who was the alpha male of the relationship. “Blue Bell Boy” showed us how compelling legitimate Nucky-Owen tension could be, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the latter is now gone. For whatever reason, this show has the tendency to eliminate or marginalize the interesting characters who could pose real threats to Nucky’s comfort.
Nevertheless, Nucky made another big speech in “A Man, a Plan” that suggested he's ready to try again with Margaret. Whether we pretend to believe that—and whether Nucky himself even believes it and isn’t just looking for something in the aftermath of Billie’s death—it makes some sense that Owen is now out of the picture. Margaret now knows exactly who Nucky is, and she thought she had an escape route. It’s gone and she’s going to have to suffer—or, more interestingly, rise up against him. She doesn’t have the women’s health program anymore now that the church has decided to shut it down, so let’s hope it means that Marge simply has more time to construct her husband’s demise.
I give this episode credit. It was clear that something had to give with the tension between Nucky, Margaret, and Owen, and Owen was always going to be the odd man out, but I didn’t quite expect him to arrive dead in a box. Boardwalk Empire rarely surprises like that, so it was great to experience a little jolt. The flashback to Owen and Margaret’s conversation earlier in the episode was a bit silly, though. The impact of the pregnancy reveal wasn’t worth undercutting the shock of Owen’s body in the crate.
Still, Nucky has now lost one of his few remaining trusted companions. He has been abandoned by Rothstein, Luciano, and most all of the area's crooked government folks and gangsters. After mistaking him for hired help, Nucky perhaps stupidly threw his weight around with Chalky this week, refusing to bankroll Chalky’s newfound desire to open up a very classy chain of clubs.* With Owen now dead, Nucky has the glorious duo of Eli and Mickey Doyle to help him take down Gyp and Joe. It feels like Nucky wants to make it work, but I don’t quite like those odds and it’s unclear as to how Nucky can figure out a way to stop two powerful forces who want him dead.
* Though, I can’t totally blame Nucky for that outburst. Chalky’s priorities don’t really line up with Nuck’s right now, which says something about both of them. Nucky hasn’t spent any time on his relationship with Chalky, but it’s telling that Chalky now only cares about high-class eateries in the aftermath of that disaster with his daughter’s temporary fiancé. I’d say that Chalky’s class issues were interesting if the character had any texture left to him or if Boardwalk Empire was dedicated to telling his story.
The good news for Nucky is that not all of his operations are a bust. Although he's had a lot of trouble and failure on the homefront this season, Nuck has been killin’ it with his more tangential political dealings. This week, he and Gaston furthered their plot to take down Attorney General Daugherty, as Gaston used his connections with Daugherty and the encumbered, troubled Jess Smith to blow up their relationship. It was a thing of manipulative beauty: Gaston convinced Jess that he needed to burn his dirty money, then immediately went to Daugherty to show him Jess carrying out this action, convincing Daugherty that Jess’s mental health issues were just too much to handle. Eventually, Gaston tried to kill Jess, only to have Jess kill himself, removing one of the big obstacles in the case against Daugherty and Remus.
I’m not sure if this means that story is over for the season, considering the entanglements of Daugherty, Remus, and Smith were the primary obstacle that Nucky had to overcome, but I’ve enjoyed Stephen Root’s work as Gaston Means. I’d love to see more of him, as well as James Cromwell’s Andrew Mellon, and based on real-world events, I’m guessing we will. Perhaps it's possible that Nucky will use his powerful political connections to help solve is more local problems? That would be a nice way to make the season's seemingly unconnected stories fit together.
Speaking of fitting together, a lot of the show’s stories and characters are joining forces, or at least existing within the same space, which is always, always a good thing for Boardwalk Empire. In Chicago, Van Alden’s booze-selling landed him in trouble with Capone, resulting in a tremendous scene with the former assuming the latter was going to kill him with a fork in the bar (not that Capone is above an action like that). Michael Shannon's facial expressions when the fork hit his face were glorious. Meanwhile, frustrated by Rothstein’s unwillingness to dive head first into a big heroin deal in the middle of a burgeoning war, Luciano and Lansky took their operation to Joe and promised some inside information on Nucky as a sweetener. Might Rothstein find himself without an ally and turn back to Nucky if Luciano and Lansky join up with Joe and Gyp (who spent all of this episode off on his own, acting like a crazy person yet again)?
I don’t have an answer, but it does feel like the show is thrusting people into tricky circumstances and partnerships with tensions already pretty high. Certain deals are bound to hold, while others are certain to explode. No one trusts each other, but they all know the stakes. Adjust and prepare, or end up in a box.
– Richard was also present this week—which makes in the first time in forever that he, Chalky, Van Alden, and Capone were all in one episode—but his growing relationship with Sagorsky’s daughter is probably the most disconnected thread of them all. That said, I really like it.
– No Gillian this week, but I have to guess she won’t stay out of the ring once all the big boys start throwing their weight around even more. She’s the wildcard in all this.
– There’s no way that Nucky had anything to do with Owen’s death, right?
This is the first week all season where Margaret is absent from the top five. Sad days for her.
1. Joe (previous rank: N/A): Took out Owen and is in the process of considering a relationship with Luciano and Lansky that could help him take out Rothstein and Nucky. Plus, he has Gyp in his back pocket. Dangerous.
2. Gyp (previous rank: 1): People really need to stop providing good, but unsolicited advice to Gyp. At least he didn’t wear that hat again.
3. Gaston (previous rank: N/A): If it weren’t for him, Nucky would still have to worry about problems outside of New York and New Jersey. He’s a wildcard with some great skills.
4. Capone (previous rank: N/A): It takes a lot to make Van Alden pray in preparation for his death. Any time Capone is angry in a public place, watch out.
5. Nucky (previous rank: N/A): So yeah, Owen’s dead and there isn’t much of a plan to take down Gyp and Joe. But Nucky made it through another few days and picked up a victory in his political exploits. He seems to be recovering from that concussion quite nicely.