Everyone wants respect and everyone wants power. Where we run into trouble is when we can’t truly handle the actions we take to gain respect or power. Some can handle it, many can’t.
Nucky Thompson is in that latter category. Although he constantly likes to present himself as all-powerful and worth the respect of his peers, it's clear that Nucky’s choices haunt him... quite literally, in fact. Turns out, becoming more than half a gangster does some psychological damage, particularly when it calls for murdering a protégé almost son-like figure. After spending all of last week's episode more or less hiding in New York City, Nucky’s emotional issues worsened in this week's “Bone for Tuna,” leaving him dead-tired, having visions, and feeling terribly troubled by his thoughts, most of which were focused on one Jimmy Darmody.
The whole point of Jimmy’s “half a gangster” speech was to reinforce that Nucky isn’t really cut out for this life. He’s great at lathering people up and at convincing them to do what he wants, but when it comes to actually making tough choices—particularly those with violent consequences—he wilts a little, and really, never even seems like he wants to explore them. Nucky is a politician. It just so happens that in this time period, with the people surrounding him, it takes more than kissing babies and giving stump speeches to fit in. No matter how we feel about the way in which Boardwalk Empire built to Nucky killing Jimmy, I think we can agree that the show pulled the trigger there (literally) so that Nucky was forced to face the war within himself. He wants more power and respect, but can he stomach what it takes to obtain them?
Now that we've seen an all-powerful Nucky, I think the answer to that question is categorically no. It’s been over a year since Jimmy’s death and it’s still bothering Nucky on a deep level. Tonight he had a creepy nightmare where he couldn’t reach Billie on the phone, and suddenly came across a young boy who was quickly revealed to have a bullet in his head—conveniently placed in the exact spot where Nucky shot Jimmy. And when he woke up, things didn’t get any better for Nucky: He couldn’t get a hold of Billie in real life and started to see the young boy all over the place before falling full-bore into a memory of adult Jimmy.
Like many dream sequences that attempt to reflect a character’s psychological state, Nucky’s was not subtle. It was clear from the very beginning that the boy represented Jimmy, considering that Nucky helped him out from a very young age. It didn’t help that in the beginning of the episode, Nucky saw the boy and was then suddenly holding a smoking gun. And other parts of "Bone for Tuna" went even further, boldly underscoring what Nucky has done and how he is (or rather, isn’t) handling it. Gyp invited Nucky to accompany him to Gillian’s place but Nucky declined, noting that he didn’t really know Gillian that well (she basically did the same thing when Gyp later pressed her about Nuck).
But even though the episode didn’t do much finessing with its execution, I’m frankly just happy that Boardwalk Empire realized that it was important to explore Nucky’s psychological state in the aftermath of Jimmy’s death. The story jumped ahead quite a bit between seasons, and based on the first few episodes, it seemed like, A) Nucky was okay, and B) the narrative simply wasn’t going in that direction. In that regard, I’m satisfied that the show paid respect to the Nucky-Jimmy relationship by having the former walk around in a daze like a crazy person.
Perhaps more interesting were Nucky's continuous efforts to reach Billie—once he finally did, he (in his dream but really in “real life” as well) still felt alone. With the way that Nucky was desperately hoping to talk to Billie, you would think that he's deeply in love with her, but I don’t think that’s actually true. Instead, it seems like Nucky saw Jimmy as his family in a lot of ways. Sure, he has all these people around him and there’s always a woman involved. But with Jimmy gone and his relationship with Margaret basically non-existent, Nucky doesn’t have anyone. So the small connection he has with Billie is getting overblown; his attachment to her is part of the coping process. It’s telling that when he had a bit of an episode in the church, Nucky grabbed Margaret’s hand. He’s grasping for any connection he can find because his one stand-by is gone.
Nucky’s weakness were on display in his business dealings, too. He threw his weight around with Gyp in the premiere but after just one moderate bout of posturing from the hot-headed Italian, Nuck folded somewhat, giving Gyp a month’s worth of product and treating him to a night in Atlantic City. Although Gyp cooled down temporarily (more on that in a moment), you have to imagine that if the roles were reversed, Gyp might step on Nucky’s throat. Nucky would rather convince people to keep liking him. It’s eventually going to come back to haunt him.
Though Nucky isn’t particularly good at standing behind his tough decisions in hopes of gaining respect, other characters seemed to have better success in “Bone for Tuna.”
Most notable was Richard taking issue with Mickey, who bragged to his underlings that he (and not Richard) killed Manny, simply as a way to motivate his crew with fear. Richard kidnapped Mickey, took him to Nucky, and flat-out admitted that he killed Manny as payback for Angela’s death, which I thought was a small but powerful moment. Richard isn’t afraid to take credit for what he’s done, and most surprisingly, he’s not afraid to let Nucky keep on living even though he’s very aware of what happened to Jimmy. I think that’s because, while Richard can handle the blood on his hands, he knows that Nucky can’t—and it’s better torture to let Mr. Thompson freak out on his own. Mission accomplished.
Gyp is quickly becoming the show’s most complicated and intriguing character. In the Season 3 premiere, he was played for a fool. Last week, he stepped up and surprisingly outsmarted Nucky and Rothstein’s operation. And tonight, he started the episode on the defensive, lets cooler heads prevail, and actually admitted his temper problems, only to let it all get the best of him again when Owen incorrectly translated Nucky’s “buona fortuna” salutation and it comes out as, you guessed it, “bone for tuna.” With that seemingly innocent mishap (though one might argue that Nucky was purposefully trying to screw with Gyp, I can’t imagine he was in the right headspace to concoct such a kiss-off), Gyp reverted back into the guy that we saw in the premiere, one who has no problem beating a friendly stranger with a tire iron.
Respect is of utmost importance to Gyp, but the massive chip on his shoulder never allows him to be satisfied. Nucky, in part of his sleepless daze, kept telling Gyp that his business choices are nothing personal, to which Gyp eventually noted, “Nothing personal? What the fuck is life if it isn’t personal?” I actually really like that line because so many characters in shows like this put “it’s just business” out there (people in real life do it too) as if it rectifies the pain of rejection. Gyp is right. Being snubbed sucks. What’s so great about Gyp is that he is basically the opposite of the reserved but internally demented Nucky: He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that sleeve can tear at any second. So by the end of the episode, Gyp was right back where he began: He’s staying in Tabor Heights and he isn’t going to take this (perceived) bout of disrespect. And because he is a full gangster, he illustrated that choice by lighting Tabor Heights’ sheriff on fire. Realness. But the big point is that Gyp is okay with his choices. He doesn’t seem bothered by them at all, which makes him very dangerous to Nuck.
Elsewhere, Margaret and Van Alden worked to obtain respect in their own rights. Margaret used Nucky’s honoring ceremony at the church (he was basically knighted) to put the bishop and the confrontational doctor from the hospital together so that she could lie by suggesting that the woman’s pre-natal care clinic was actually the doctor’s plan. With some slight reservations (don’t want to be too progressive!), the bishop gave the bewildered doctor and Margaret his blessing, meaning Margaret got exactly what she wanted, how she wanted, and with the okay of one of the most powerful men in the city. She might hate Nucky for all the things he's done, but there’s no question that she’s learned how to get what she wants—and frankly, she might be even better at it than he is.
For Van Alden, the journey to respect was a little tougher. His co-workers tried to bring him into the inner circle with some mostly harmless hazing—the ink-squirting pen, always a laugh riot—but wouldn’t you believe it, Van Alden didn’t find it very funny (mostly because he only has one shirt). Surprisingly, he warmed up a little and decided to join them at a speakeasy, only to have the place busted up by his former co-workers at the Treasury. Going to place you hate just to have drinks spilled on you right before the fuzz breaks up all the “fun” is not a good night. Like so many of Boardwalk Empire’s stories, it’s tough to see where this one is going, but watching Michael Shannon’s deadpan and overly serious reaction to the smallest of transgressions is one of the most enjoyable, weirdest comedic stories on television right now.
Respect is a hard thing to come by in this world. But perhaps even harder still is being able to handle what you’ve done to get respect. As it stands now, Nucky can’t handle much of anything.
– Does anyone know if that Jimmy flashback was re-used footage from the previous seasons? I can’t recall and it made me wonder whether Michael Pitt actually returned for that quick bit or not. Surely not, right?
– Lucky and Meyer’s heroin operation is definitely my least favorite part of the show. Why is it relevant again?,p> – No Chalkie and no Chicago again this week. Boo.
GANGSTER POWER RANKINGS!
You’ll note that Nucky is nowhere to be found. Dude’s in a slump. Here we go:
1. Gyp (previous rank: 1): Stood his ground in Tabor Heights and lit a dude on fire. Not a bad week.
2. Margaret (previous rank: 3): Making a high-profile doctor look like a fool while also getting a new wing of the hospital opened is worth a move up the rankings.
3. Jimmy’s Ghost (previous rank: N/A): He might be dead, but he’s surely having a big impact on those he left. Jimmy’s Ghost might be Nucky’s biggest foil at this point.
4. Richard (previous rank: N/A): Noble, strong and honest, three great qualities—even if they don’t necessarily equate with “gangster.”
5. Gillian (previous rank: N/A): Her manipulation of Gyp is either going to pay great dividends or blow up in a lot of people’s faces... so, you know, like all her plans.