Boardwalk Empire Season 5 Premiere Review: So Much Nuck, So Little Time

Boardwalk Empire S05E01: "Golden Days for Boys and Girls"


Ed note: We won't be covering Boardwalk Empire week to week this season, but for review purposes, we've already screened the first few episodes. This story mostly focuses on the premiere, but occasionally hints at next week's episode as well, so if you're an extreme spoilerphobe, beware. 

Boardwalk Empire has been here before: It's the beginning of a new season, and the show must continue on without a beloved character or two who met an untimely end last fall. In Season 3, the series had to keep going without Jimmy (although it's now pretty clear that Terrence Winter and company didn't want that to happen, and that Michael Pitt just happens to be a huge douche). In Season 4, it had to replace the charming Owen (Charlie Cox). And now, the HBO period drama is facing its most daunting challenge yet: moving forward without prominent fan favorite Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). But this season, the difficulty level is even higher because HBO and Winter have decided that it's time to wrap up their expensive and slightly disappointing (ratings-wise) investment. It's the final season, and a shortened one at that (eight episodes versus the normal dozen). Plus, just to top it all off, Winter made the executive decision to push the story ahead a full seven years, to 1931. 

That's a lot to deal with, even for a show that's proven it can overcome major cast departures. It's even more of a challenge knowing that Boardwalk Empire's seasons never start out very strong. Winter and fellow writer Howard Korder are tremendous storytellers, but they prefer to treat each season as one big story, which leads to weaker episodes early on but excellent, wrenching conclusions. With the big time jump and one third of the typical run hacked off at the outset, there's less room to build the kind of stories Boardwalk excels at. Consequently, the Season 5 opener, "Golden Days for Boys and Girls" (as well as next week's "The Good Listener," which I've already seen), played just like a typical Boardwalk premiere: It was pretty slow, it checked in on some (but not all) of the supporting players, and of course, it was simply too centered on one Nucky Thompson. 


In fact, despite Boardwalk Empire's decreased episode order for Season 5, it seems like Winter and company have actually increased their focus on Nucky. For at least two seasons now, the show has turned in wonderful end-of-the-season runs by pushing Nucky to the peripheral—hell, the writers trapped him in Florida last year just to get him out of the way—and concentrating on the more fascinating characters elsewhere in the story. But the show has this stubborn directive to not only keep us interested in Nucky, but to make us sympathize with him. That stubbornness was on full display in the premiere, and it will continue next week, in Episode 2. While skipping ahead to 1931 gives Nucky the opportunity to do what he does best—manipulate politicians into getting what he wants—as he moves to repeal Prohibition, for some ungodly reason, Boardwalk Empire thought it would be a cool idea to dedicate a nice sliver of the early episodes to flashbacks of Nucky as a young boy. Set in 1884, the scenes are weirdly inert because they cover a lot of information that we already know: sick sister, abusive dad, moved his way up through the Commodore's organization. But worst of all, they're working overtime to try to make us understand that Nucky wanted to be an honest man at one point.

The good(ish) news is that Marc Pickering's performance as young Nucky is actually solid, meaning the flashbacks don't enter truly terrible territory—unlike, say, whatever the hell was happening in similar scenes on Mad Men last spring. Instead, the problem with this approach is that I can't imagine too many viewers are that concerned about the Nucky Thompson Redemption Story in any form, especially when there are so many other people and stories that Boardwalk Empire could focus on instead. Even with the high body count and seven-year time jump, the series still has so many characters that it takes the full running time of the first two episodes of Season 5 just to reorient us with most everyone (and even then, a key player is still absent). It's so hard to watch little Nucky pout and grieve his way through the end of the 19th century without thinking of the nine other people the show could be spending time with instead. 


It's all so unfortunate, because almost everything that's going on with the non-Nucky characters is pretty compelling in the first two hours. This week's premiere spent more time with Luciano than any single episode in quite a long time, which makes sense given the character's real-life importance to this story. Considering the events of the premiere—a story that picks up immediately in next week's second episode—it looks like Luciano (and to a lesser extent, Meyer Lansky) will be moving up the show's hierarchy. They'll replace the likes of Richard and Rothstein, the latter of whom is an unfortunate victim of the sizable time jump (the real Rothstein died in 1928). The probable end of Prohibition is a great and sort of cyclical way to end this story; it also smartly turns the characters against one another in way that should produce the bloody drama that Boardwalk Empire does best. Luciano had Masseria gutted and someone tried to kill Nucky in Havana, not too long after he ran into a "vacationing" Meyer. Despite the silly flashbacks, Nucky is much more compelling to watch when he's pushed into a corner—just as he has been in most of Boardwalk's season finales—so it's good to have him in that position almost immediately this season. 

Elsewhere, the show worked through its typical early check-ins with the cast. Margaret seemingly managed to stick it out at the bank for all those years, only to watch her boss walk in and blow his head off thanks to the stress of the great crash. The story is already two years past Black Tuesday, but I'm hoping that Boardwalk can find some time to tell some decent stories about the impact of the economic downturn, especially if it means Margaret and Kelly Macdonald have something to do this year. And after that harrowing turn of events in 1924, Chalky somehow got arrested and started the premiere as a member of a depressing chain gang. That didn't last long, but it looks like Chalky is going to have to do quite a bit of hustling to get back to where he was in the early 20s. Unfortunately, none of the big Chicago players—Capone, Eli, Van Alden, etc.—were present in the first hour, but don't fret too much; they're the best part of Episode 2, even as Nucky's dumb flashbacks continue to drag the show down.


Even with Boardwalk's maddening Nucky infatuation, there's no reason to be on full alert with the final season just yet. As I said, we've been here with the show before. It's always frustration first and great satisfaction later. But with only eight episodes to work with and a seemingly large number of stories to tell and characters to serve, the pointless flashbacks feel even more pointless. Even if there's a strong payoff at the end of it all, this is a season that needs to think about opportunity cost. What's lost by telling more Nucky stories? We'll know very soon.



NOTES

– In case you were really worried, yes, Gillian shows up in Episode 2. And yes, she's annoying. Sometimes I think the show is trolling us with which characters stick around and which ones depart. 

– Oh right, Sally's still here. That's a thing.

– Elliot Ness and Joseph Kennedy also make their first appearances in Episode 2, played by the very good Jim True-Frost and Matt Letscher, respectively. Let's hope that Nucky's political maneuverings can match what's likely to be a bloody thriller on the mob side. 

– There are moments next week with Van Alden and his family, and later with Van Alden and Eli, that are some of the best in the show's run, mostly because they're legitimately funny, despite the circumstances. Michael Shannon has been on a weird journey throughout these five years, but he's still guaranteed to deliver the best lines of dialogue. 

– Unless something wild happens, we probably won't be back with full coverage until closer to the series finale. I'll try to stop by the community over the next few weeks, but enjoy the season! It sucks that this is the end.


What'd you think of Boardwalk's Season 5 premiere? Did you also find the flashbacks frustrating?


Comments (39)
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Sep 16, 2014
Saw an interview with some of the cast with clips from the first few seasons. It made me wonder why these women characters kept leaving money around for known alcoholics and never-do-wells. That's like throwing good money in the street. Nuky's mom did it in the new season 5 episodes, knowing his dad would drink it up. Margaret did it in season 1's first episode, knowing her husband was an abusive nut. How naive can you be? So Little Nuky ends up burying his own sister, and later, Margaret and her family were still practically destitute despite her best efforts. Reminds me just how far Margaret had come and gone in her effort to be independent for herself and her children. Wonder if she and Nuky's path will cross again now that AR dead and she may be out of another job?
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Sep 16, 2014
I'm still holding grouch over Owen and Richard Harrow's dead, how dare they !! That's that *grumpy*
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Sep 16, 2014
Very excited that the series is back for this final run. The first episode was a little slower than I thought, but it would be hard to live up to season 4 episode 11's tension. I don't give two boots for Gillian and will be glad when she's good and dead or just gone. Wish they wouldn't waste anymore script and screen time on her raggedy psychotic self (and yes, she had a horrific, traumatic life, but geesh louise, what horrific dame she is, lol).

Van Alden is hilarious. Paired with a broken down Eli, and it's like a tragic Laurel and Hardy act. The flashbacks are okay, and the little Nuky actor is well cast, but unless they're going to show how in the world Nucky ends up leading poor young Gillian to slaughter, then yes, skip the melodrama and move it along. The best gleened from the flashbacks besides the dysfunctional family dynamics is discovering that the Commodore ripped off the family, and Nuky working for him constituted a major betrayal in his biological dad's eyes.

And Didn't Tonino and crew also kill Nucky's old actress girlfriend, Billie? It seems like Nucky left a pointed message on the way out of that meeting. He paid the waiter to remark on the illustration of the actress that was hanging just above the table Tonino and Nucky sat at during their meeting. And Tonino seemed to get a sick look on his face, then the camera panned to the Cuban bodyguard/assasin. Next thing we know, Tonino shows up dead with a Cuban greeting card and a missing ear. Nucky justice.

Al Capone is funny, but we've seen him do that manic crazy killer thing a hundred times. I'm good if his story gets sped along, too. One thing though, no matter what the plot is, BOARDWALK EMPIRE writers will find a way--even if it makes no sense--to show some pasty t & a. Geesh, almost rivals GoT with the gratuitous booty and booby shots. Meh.
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Sep 14, 2014
Personally after Kimmy's death I was skeptical how strong the show would continue to be. Shame I had forgotten just for a second that Richard was the reral heart of that part of the series and Season 3 was my favorite season yet. The show has been great and although it feels truncated a bit and the time jump means we miss some key stuff I truly loved the premiere.

That scene were the 5 families were basically 'created' as we know from all the mafia movies was awesome. AS is all the rest of the stuff as always. Boardwalk Empire has always been a really slow show, but it is still an awesome show.
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Sep 13, 2014
That's a real shame about Michael Pitt. This should have been a seven season show so this truncation hurts and a huge time jump doesn't play to the show's strengths. Still I'm thrilled its back, it has these hypnotic rhythms that are irresistable. The premiere was maybe a little Nucky heavy but come on, this is his show. It's a show about him, his journey, his psychology. The fact that the show has also evolved into a sort of ensemble drama makes it a precarious balancing act because as we've seen Nucky's stories aren't always the most interesting. I hope it finds the right balance as the season progresses. The flashbacks weren't that illuminating from a Nucky perspective but I still enjoyed some of them from a historical perspective, seeing how things were different in the '80s and the previous crime bosses. I'm a little worried about them but so far the writers haven't let us down. Great review Cory, sad we can't get weekly reviews.
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Sep 12, 2014
Have to say I'm really disappointed with the time jump.. A few things I'm angry we wont get to see. More Rothstein and more importantly his demise. He was one of the most compelling characters on the show for me and also one of the best acted. The least they could have done was shown a flashback of his death as a sense of closure.. Also pretty angry we basically miss all of Capone's rise to power and instead will have to deal with his demise which has been done countless times in other formats. Boring to me. Would have been really cool to see the Valentines Day Massacare as well.
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Sep 11, 2014
I hated the flashbacks scenes, they were boring and very unimportant storywise. We already know all the bullshit Nucky went through as a kid, what is the use in showing them to us? I really didn't expect that the writers would spend so much of the final season's precious time with this storyline.
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Sep 10, 2014
I thought the season started out pretty well. While, I must admit that I don't care much for 'little nucky', it was at least interesting. The change of setting was also a good idea. I'm glad you mentioned that Gillian will be back next episode. It wouldn't be the same without her!
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Sep 10, 2014
I think I recall trying to defend Boardwalk's Nucky infatuation to you last year, Cory, (he is, after all, the series' main character), but all in all you're not wrong. The series really did have the opportunity to make him a cable television character as big and memorable as say Tony Soprano or Walter White, but ultimately (likely in part to the abundance of so many entertaining characters in a great ensemble) this hasn't happened. So hear I'm happy to agree with you - these Nucky flashbacks are dumb and useless, rehashing what we already know, wasting more time on a character they've been less concerned developing over the series five year run at the loss of other possibly entertaining alternatives. This episode was slow, but I cannot wait for Van Alden's return next week, and while I share your hatred of Gillian, at least her presence will get a rise out of me, which this episode didn't manage to achieve.

I'll try and do a review next week, and for the rest of the season (in leiu of any by Cory) for anyone that's interested.
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Sep 09, 2014
Mixed episode why didn't start with more earlier missed AR and Capone also Narcisse other characters , I suppose as this is the final season the writers want to come full circle. The problem is because this is the last season I hope they don't rush storylines to fit in the 8 episodes.

I can see Nucky going legite but the Gangsters are not finshed with him Lansky orgainsed that hit for revenge for last season and also he wants the Cuba area for booze and Casino's . Thought Masserie demise was abrupt and Toni now killed two bosses should watch out for him , Lucky clearly got fed up with Joe . I like the flashbacks and not sure how chalky will fit in now . Looking forward to next episode more on Chaicago and New York missing Mickey already .
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Sep 08, 2014
I thought it was a great episode and I liked the flashback. Too much hype in the review, but we know TV.com hate of the show, when minor and worse series get a review every episode but Boardwalk does not.
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Sep 08, 2014
I thought this was a really good episode. Caught myself once more shocked at how graffic the violence was (no, I'll never learn!" That scene where the guy took the other dudes ear even after he was dead - amazing! Does anyone know who the killer might be?

Firstly - Nucky: I fully agree that he is at his best when he is being a strategist, and we saw him in his element here. Whilst the flashbacks showed us a lot of what we already know, they also gave some perspective on what has driven him in his life. The question of who the real Nucky is, has been central to the story for all except for perhaps season 4, but this is the first time it became apparent (to me at least) that he simply wanted to be an honest man.

Chalky: Some of the most gripping scenes of the episode I thought. Couldn't help but make obvious comparisons with moments from "12 Years a Slave." From a television perspective, it was truly magnificent to watch. Fascinated to see where he goes to from here.

Peggy/Margaret: Caught myself trying to remember the finer details of the deal she struck with Rothstein. Her home would be paid off by now, no? I think the stage is set for her to take over that firm, and where there is an opportunity to make money, you can rest assured Nucky will come across her path.

Luciano: Brilliant scenes again. The history folk will know the story of why his eye is now buggered, but his rise to the top of the mafia should make for great viewing. It was brilliant watching him take out Masseria. I was reminded of the scene in season 3 where he sat in the (same, I think) restaurant with Masseria. Back then, it was Joe who was calling the shots, including putting Lucky on a window seat. It was a lovely, subtle method from the writers to show us how times have changed.

All in all, I saw value in the flashbacks but also completely understand why others might not. Some amazing scenes though, and we will be seeing more characters in episode 2. I do worry that the length of the season may be too short, but at the same time I fully trust the writers who have served up some rivetting tv in the past few years. Roll on next week!

8/10
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Sep 08, 2014
I been a fan of BE since the beginning so I understand the slowness of the early episodes of each season. I do wish they move faster this time since we only have eight episodes.

I always love Nucky and Steve Buschemi did a wonderful job. Still I agree the flashbacks were mostly unnecessary. We already knew most of it. I am glad we did see Chalky. Hope he gets back to the main action soon.

Is AR not coming back? Did the show indicate he is dead? I missed him already.

I am glad to hear we will be seeing Eli and Van Alden in the next episode. I am going to appreciate and enjoy the final season of this wonderful under-rated show.

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Sep 08, 2014
I think Buscemi's fantastic. Nucky's just not the most interesting character in the show, and it can be frustrating.

RE: Rothstein: He's dead. They mention it in passing next week; the show kept with the real history there, as I mentioned in my review.
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Sep 10, 2014
Well that's a bummer. Here I was ready to see where that 'arrangement' between him and Margaret was headed. Maybe (more hopefully) we'll get flashbacks to some of the things that have past in the last seven years instead of ones depicting Nucky's childhood (yawn)?
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Sep 11, 2014
Don't think it's yawn. She went straight to Rothstein (Redstone's) file when she realised documents were going to be looked at and all. Doubt it will be in flashbacks, think they'll reserve those for Nucky. The arrangement was pretty simple though, from what I remember. A house (maybe something else?) in exchange for insider information. She clearly never got caught, else I'm pretty sure she'd be fired!
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Sep 08, 2014
It was also mentioned this week. When Nucky and Lansky meet they mention that the last time they saw each other was at his funeral
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Sep 08, 2014
WHO CARES ABOUT ALL OF THAT? THERE'S MORE ITALIANS, GUYS! I COULDN'T ASK FOR MORE.

Seriously though, I really loved it. Yes there are flashbacks, yes they kind of killed the action, but I don't care about any of that. I trust the writers, I'm sure these flashbacks are worth it, they could point out something we don't know. So I'm cool with that. Can't wait to see Capone.

I'm gonna miss big Joe Masseria :(
and fuck you Michael Pitt.
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Sep 08, 2014
Michael Pitt really ruined it for himself, huh?
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Sep 09, 2014
It's a shame, he was actually my favourite character, he was a hustler, didn't know he was this much of a prick :(
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Sep 08, 2014
any* :)
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Sep 08, 2014
I don't know, I didn't follow that closely, and I like when shows that I don't really like end, so I'll be around this year. Too bad you won't, Cory. Are you enjoying The Knick? I think it blows, and I don't like all the dead animals, so I'm done. Apparently the majority don't agree. Been there before, and I don't give a fuck.

I have NOT liked Buscemi as a lead since this show started. This story needed a Gandolfini - have you seen the real Thompson? - and Steve is a lightweight. I was there when John Huston's grandson bought the farm, and BOY was that tough. He is a VERY good actor. Otherwise, I don't care about any of the characters, although the Capone actor is very good too.

So, I rather enjoyed this beginning of the end. Yes, it was disconcerting with all the time jumps, but the kid was very good. Yes, I can't wait until he kicks that bully's ass later on, as I'm sure he will, but until then his plan is working out. Oh, and I DO hate the faux backgrounds, they're worse than the painted backdrops of early movies. You'd think they would have perfected the CGI backgrounds.

Joseph Kennedy, oh boy. I hope they don't treat that adulterous whore mongering lying crook and thief who couldn't care less if his sons died with any respect, he was a giant POS and I hope he is portrayed as such.

Oh, and Patty? Sorry, hon, your Medium should still be on the air. You're okay on this show, but you are being wasted. Not to worry, though, Clive Owens if being wasted even more, The Knick sucks and blows at the same time.

So there you are. Gene Siskel I ain't (I loathe Roger Ebert), but them's my review.
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Sep 08, 2014
There's been a lot of discussion over the years about casting Buscemi in the role. I think he's good, maybe not great, but the writing doesn't always serve him well either. It's a weird combination that couldn't be more SOLID, but when there are six other people turning in ELECTRIC performances, it's sometimes hard to get on the Nucky Train.

(I'm already behind on The Knick. It's also fine.)
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Sep 16, 2014
If you say so. The Knick pretty much blows. Clive Owen is tweeting it in (ha) and if it wasn't for the black characters, I wouldn't even be bothered. At least there's action in BE.
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Sep 08, 2014
Honestly, I don't care if this is Nucky's story. Capone, Chalky, Luciano etc are the more interesting characters by far, and it's easier to sympathise with them. They should have made Nucky the true villain for the final season.
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Sep 10, 2014
That would be interesting to see!
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Sep 08, 2014
its season 5..this is how Boardwalk moves..them moments you call "slow" usually filled with quotables

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Sep 08, 2014
these comments and this post did this show and episode no Justice..This is "NUCKYS STORY" what do you mean..less Nuck in the last season.The flashbacks are meant to show us his psyche and hello..so many murders ad attempted murders..on the first episode..yall crazy and sound bored..watching completely different shows
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Sep 08, 2014
It was pretty good, I guess. I'm so glad Lucky and Meyer are moving to the forefront they've always been some of my favorites. I agree that less time with Nucky is good, but I preferred him in the flashbacks more than him in 1931. Probably because current Nucky is a horrible person and flashback Nucky is just a dumb kid. But most importantly, poor Chalky!!!! After all that man has been through they start him off in prison? Not cool writers, not cool.
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Sep 16, 2014
But probably historically accurate. The black bootleggers got policed far more heavily and didn't get to live off their ill-gotten gains as some of their peers did. After all, the real Enoch Johnson and Lanksy lived quite well until their 80s and Lansky's descendants are still rolling in the dough today.
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Sep 16, 2014
True on all points
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Sep 08, 2014
It's been so long since this show was on, can someone refresh me as to what happened to Lucky's face/eye. The lazy eye and big scar. If we saw that happen i don't remember it.
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Sep 13, 2014
as i gathered from a later comment, it is keeping with a true historical that occurred during the time jump: "In October 1929, Luciano was forced into a limousine at gun point by three men, beaten and stabbed, and dumped on a beach on Staten Island. He somehow survived the ordeal but was forever marked with a scar and droopy eye."
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Sep 13, 2014
*historical event
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Sep 16, 2014
kewl thanks
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Sep 08, 2014
I've always found Organized Crime and Cuba to be a bland mix. These scenes in Boardwalk, Godfather II, and Magic City were kind of dull. I guess it's because the main characters are out of their respective elements where the real story is.

As for the focus on Nucky, I'm all for it, especially the backstory stuff. Maybe the other characters/portrayals can be more fun at times, but Nucky is the most relatable character and the one that anchors everything else. Even Jimmy was sometimes hard to see eye-to-eye with, though his story may have been more compelling overall. I just hope they jump it forward a bit to his 20s and we get to see a young Gillian and James as well as a few others that were around then.

I'm kind of glad we missed Rothstein's death because of the jump. He was a pretty cool cat. It'd be like seeing the Fonz or Boomhauer get whacked.
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Sep 08, 2014
I really hope we get a Rothstein flashback. Then again, I'm not a fan of showing flashbacks every episode to fill in the blanks. Not a big fan of this time jump, but hopefully this will all pay off. It just sucks we had to sacrifice some key moments to manage time.

As for the episode, it was solid. I agree that this show works better when it's not too Nucky centric, but I did enjoy the flashbacks with him meeting the Commodore. There were some nice moments with Lucky and Chalky, but I also found myself missing Capone, Van Alden, Narcisse and even Eli. He didn't do much, but Paul Calderon made an impression as the bodyguard who takes ears as trophies.

Lastly, I fucking miss Richard Harrow.
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Sep 08, 2014
The good news is that Capone, Van Alden, and Eli all do big things next week. Narcisse doesn't appear until episode three, which is kind of nuts given the 8-episode order. Still so many people on this show.

And yeah, no Richard is really tough.
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Sep 08, 2014
I miss AR and Richard Harrow already :(
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