While I've been enjoying this season of Boardwalk Empire quite a bit, we are now halfway through it and there's one big problem that keeps bothering me: Nucky’s story doesn’t make a lick of sense. Every week, he seems like a different person than he was the episode before, and the show is struggling to create any through-line between his various characterizations.
And it is not like the situations Nucky finds himself wrapped up in each week have been uninteresting. I might question a single choice here and there, but the odd flaws make Nucky a compelling center on a show with a lot of things going on. However, when you start thinking about the bigger picture and what Terence Winter and company have in mind for their lead, the weekly pleasures fade and the problems appear. It’s almost as if Nucky is at the whim of the writers’ needs in any given episode.
One week, he's in full-gangster mode. The next, he's hiding in New York. Then he's tough again. Then he's not. I'm willing to buy that the character is troubled and that his issues manifest in weird ways, but at a certain point, character inconsistency becomes a writer issue more than anything else. After six weeks, I think we've reached that point.
“Ging Gang Goolie” brought us a more inspired and dedicated Nucky, which is fine except that the episode didn't feature Rothstein or Gyp. There was barely any fallout from last week’s bloodbath and instead, Nucky bounced around New York City and Washington D.C. trying to fix his political problems.
He traveled to NYC to make his payment to Gaston Means, only to find no one around in the hotel room with the fishbowl. Suspicious, Nuck then scooted over to D.C. to talk shop with Attorney General Harry Daugherty, only to learn that Daugherty was close to indicting him so that he wouldn't have to throw his friends under the bus. Despite Nucky’s protestations, Daugherty meant business, going as far as to make sure Nucky got arrested for buying a bottle of booze.
After spending a night in jail—and missing Billie’s opening in the process—Nucky faced off with Esther Randolph, the Assistant U.S. Attorney who came after him in Atlantic City. Though she wanted Nuck to go down hard, he paid the measely fine (five bucks!) and then decided to use Randolph’s ambition to his advantage, asking her to help him take down the supposed bigger fish like Daugherty and his buddy George Remus.
This is the version of Nucky that seems the most natural. The political maneuvering, the somewhat-smug posturing in hopes of obtaining just a little more power (or slinking out of a sticky situation), it all sits on Nucky quite well. The gangster stuff, the more obvious intimidation games? Not so much. Steve Buscemi has been doing good work this season with the uneven material he's been given, but it seems to me that he's also most comfortable when playing Nucky in these kinds of situations. Boardwalk Empire is very good at getting Nucky into troublesome circumstances that he has to charm, pay, or scheme his way out of, and although that might seem somewhat repetitive, it still works better than the more inconsistent characterization we’ve seen thus far.
But that’s the rub, right? There have been other episodes this season that did compelling things with Nucky, only to have them be somewhat shoved away the following week (remember when he spent an entire episode seeing little Jimmy?). The events of this episode suggest that Nucky’s team-up with Randolph will continue throughout the rest of the season, but I also would've thought there'd be substantive blowback from the Benny-Rosetti shootout in this episode as well. Perhaps this unbalanced storytelling is a direct result of the show’s ever-increasing scope and cast of characters—the first 10 or so minutes of this episode sped through a handful of locations with unabashed speed—or perhaps the writers are trying to purposefully construct a story about Nucky ignoring certain parts of his life so that he can focus on others. Both seem like logical answers, but something needs to give with Nucky. Either the show can’t portray him in this disjointed fashion anymore, or it has to give us a reason for why it's doing so.
Much like the slowly burning embers of Nucky’s crusade against the Attorney General, the rest of “Ging Gang Goolie” saw a number of other characters making big and curious choices that should have a dramatic impact on their lives. And for whatever reason, they all involved love and lust.
The most impressive of these stories was Gillian’s, with her troubled feelings over Jimmy’s “departure.” She finally decided to take down the countless photos of him in the house—I’m sure all the gentlemen who frequent her establishment sure did love doing their thing while Jimmy Darmody’s blank mug stared back at them—a move that points toward her moving on. But because this is Gillian we're talking about, she followed up the picture-removal by prowling the boardwalk for a Jimmy replacement and whaddaya know, she found Roger from Evansville, Indiana (Hoosiers represent!), who just happened to have the same horrid haircut as Jimmy. So, Gillian sexed him real good and decided to call him James. Hoo boy is this lady dysfunctional, and Gretchen Mol has done a nice job this season of portraying her demented psyche with low-key vigor.
Margaret ended the episode in the same place as Gillian, but took much more Margaret-y ways to get there. When the greenhouse caught fire and there was suspicion that her son Teddy started the blaze, Margaret begrudgingly spanked him (seriously, I think it hurt her more than it did him). Unfortunately, Owen discovered that Teddy didn’t actually do it and his story about a gypsy was actually true, leading Margaret to have a minor breakdown and decide that "now" was just as good a time as any to seduce Owen again. There was less drama involved this time since Margaret and Nucky are on the outs anyway, but I have to imagine that Nucky will find out—heck, she might tell him herself—and considering the already-present tension between Owen and Nucky, this could get interesting.
And finally, Richard Harrow, romantic. He’s got a little crush on the daughter of a drunken war vet. That’s cute. I’m more intrigued by his nostalgia over his sister and whether or not we’ll see her this season. Richard’s been really aimless without Jimmy around (like so many other characters), so hopefully this development injects some life into his presence on the show.
It’s been tough to evaluate Boardwalk Empire this season. Most episodes have been good, with last week’s pretty clearly standing out from the pack. But there’s such a weird disconnect between certain plots, particularly those related to Nucky, that it’s difficult to get too excited about the successes of one episode because it could all be washed away in a week. “Ging Gang Goolie” was another strong effort, and one that suggests some big, compelling things to come. Hopefully the show follows through on them.
– Like so many characters on Boardwalk, Gaston Means’ only allegiance is to himself. He might be backing Daugherty, he might be willing to help Nuck take him down. Who knows?
– I especially enjoyed the D.C. judge who was well aware of the stupidity and impotency of Prohibition and prosecution against individual usage.
3. Gillian (previous rank: N/A): Nobody manipulates a man with a terrible hairstyle like Ms. Darmody.
4. Margaret (previous rank: 3): She mishandled her kid a little, sure, but you have to admire how she steadfastly ignored Nucky’s platitudes and hollow attempts to “talk.” And then she stole Owen away from Megan and the nosy neighbor! By the way, Marge is the only character who appeared in the Power Rankings every week so far this season. This is important.
5. That Glib Judge in D.C. (previous rank: N/A): I can’t overestimate how much I loved this guy. He says LOL to your Prohibition, U.S. government.