This season of Boardwalk Empire is a bit confusing to me. In just four episodes, we’ve seen Nucky go from king of the mountain to scared and confused and now he's moving back toward the top again. Things change and power comes and goes situationally, but I have to say that it has been a little disorienting watching a lead character sway with the wind. Like so many things with this show, Nucky’s weird journey this season has worked on an individual episode or even scene-by-scene basis, yet his path makes much less sense when everything's lined up in a row.
Most interestingly, this week’s episode “Blue Bell Boy” didn’t much worry about the vision-having and the great, deep feelings of loneliness that Nucky was driven by last week. Instead, here he was, in many ways, on top of his game: ordering people around, taking care of problems, and reasserting his place at the top of the food chain. There wasn't a single mention of Nucky’s obsession with Billie Kent, which was also pretty weird. I know that Boardwalk Empire sometimes takes a more spread-out, novelistic approach to storytelling, but it almost feels like the last two episodes didn’t really happen, at least for Nucky. Odd choice.
However, although the visions were gone, much of Nucky’s story in “Blue Bell Boy” was still about the ghost of Jimmy—just much more indirectly so. Nucky’s relationship with Owen doesn’t hold a candle to the tenure or complexity of his time with Jimmy, but once Nucky saw that Mickey, Nucky’s employee, expected Owen to override certain choices Nuck had made, Nucky went on the offensive. It was interesting to see Nucky and Owen in tension with one another, if only because Nucky, in many ways, created this situation for himself. He likes to be hands-off with the distribution and transportation, leaving Owen to more-or-less run things while never really suggesting that Nucky isn’t in power. Even when Nucky confronted him, Owen doesn’t really challenge him back. He was just doing his job, and would continue to.
Clearly, though, Nucky was at least somewhat worried about Owen rising up against him or gaining more respect with the other employees because of what happened with Jimmy. This was further reinforced when Owen admitted that he'd been loyal because Nucky took him in and gave him a place to be, which is pretty much what Nucky did for Jimmy. The problem, perhaps, is that Nucky sees that Owen might be a little more, let’s say, “fit” to take him on, especially compared to the tormented Jimmy.
Nucky’s Jimmy issues fired up again when he and Owen tracked down Roland Smith, a youngster who'd been stealing some of the liquor. Although clearly trapped, Roland charmed Nucky quite a bit, so much so that when some dirty feds showed up to raid and kill, forcing Nucky, Roland, and Owen to hide in the cellar, Nucky didn’t just kill the kid to get out of a mess. In fact, he sat down in the basement with Roland and Owen for more than a full day, disrupting distribution plans. Once the feds left, the kid begged Nucky for a job and it seemed like it was going to happen, only for Nucky to shoot the kid in the back of the head, shocking Owen and probably himself.
In one fell swoop, Nucky got rid of a kid who he clearly admired but also felt threated by, and reminded Owen of who's really in charge. Nucky isn’t going to let what happened with Jimmy happen again. If that means shooting an up-and-comer or sending a message to Owen about the leadership hierarchy, then so be it.
I don’t quite see how the writers decided to jump from having-weird-visions Nucky to shooting-kids-in-the-back-of-the-head Nucky in just one episode, but the character is clearly working out some complex psychological issues, so I’m willing to go with it. You could definitely make the case that Nucky’s actions in this episode were a direct response—overcompensation even—to what happened in the previous two. I just wished there would have been references to those last two hours. Plus, I would like to see Owen and Nucky have more interactions in the future, even if it means each will be on his toes with the other for different reasons.
If we’re reading Nucky’s actions here as part of some large attempt to overcompensate or LOUDLY reinforce his power, his decision to give Eli the cold shoulder fits right alongside shooting Roland and indirectly threatening Owen. Nucky gave Mickey the directive to not move Rothstein’s shipment through Tabor Heights now that it’s under Gyp’s control, which Mickey shrugged off and ignored, so Eli tried his damndest to A.) keep Mickey on track, and B.) get back into the good graces of his brother. He failed on both counts, and just about everyone who tried to make the trip through Tabor Heights ended up dead. Eli visited Nucky at the end of the episode, expecting that the latter might listen. But again, Nucky was clearly holding onto the past. He wouldn’t give up on what Eli tried to do to him, just like he can't really get over what he did to Jimmy, and it cost him a bunch of men and liquor. Not smart.
While Nucky’s problems all stemmed from his unwillingness to let go of the future, Capone let his anger get the best of him, and somehow became the outlaw hero to people who'd been bullied. Who would have guessed that? His deaf son came home from school with bruises inflicted by other deaf kids and his co-worker Jake came into work with bruises of his own, thanks to one of O’Banion’s guys. When Capone realized he couldn’t teach a young and scared deaf boy to fight, he transferred all that rage to the man who beat up Jake, leaving said assailant a bloody and dead pulp on the bar floor. I think Boardwalk Empire does its best work with its peripheral characters when it tells smaller personal stories instead of moving plot around, so I really enjoyed Capone’s crusade. And while the north/south Chicago feud is slow-moving, it’s also becoming more and more personal, which could lead to some compelling events in the future.
Finally, Margaret’s overeager hope for the women’s clinic was squashed somewhat. A nun put the kibosh on references to such dangerous terms as “vagina,” “pregnant,” and “menstruation” and almost ran away from a box of tampons, which was just barely more disheartening than the tepid reaction to the clinic’s classes on the boardwalk. It seems that being one of the only progressive women in a very restrictive, regressive time is not the easiest gig. The women don’t necessarily want to be pulled into Margaret’s modern world, presumably out of fear. So while Nucky is out trying to put the fear into people, Marge is trying to break it down. Unfortunately for her, one is much easier than the other.
– The episode ended with Al Capone playing his son a song on the ukulele. That really happened. Boardwalk Empire is turning into Glee and Capone is worried about how he’s going to compete at Regionals now that he killed (another) guy.
– I said this last week and I’ll say it again: I don’t know why I’m supposed to care about Lansky and Lucky’s heroin business and I especially don’t know why I'm supposed to care about other Italians telling Lucky that he can’t trust Lansky and Rothstein because they’re Jewish. That’s the one story where I feel like the writers should just cut bait and move on.
– MIA this week: Van Alden, Richard, Chalky and Gillian. Heck, Gyp barely had much to do. He was more of a presence than anything else.
Someone’s back in the game! Here we go:
1. Gyp (previous rank: 1): Another week, another reign at the top. Gyp’s strangle-hold on Tabor Heights is causing a lot of problems for a lot of powerful people. He’s bound to slip, right?
2. Nucky (previous rank: N/A): Maybe his slump is over, maybe it isn’t. But Nucky sure looked like a Full Gangster this week.
3. Capone (previous rank: N/A): I can picture the PSA now: “Real gangsters stand up to bullies.”
4. Margaret (previous rank: 3): Ms. Schroeder drops a spot due to the tough sledding with the women’s clinic. But we knew it was going to be tough. Liberation ain’t easy.
5. Jimmy’s Ghost (previous rank: 4): Hard to knock Jimmy’s Ghost off the list when Nucky’s making big moves basically to spite him.