In the opening moments of “Spaghetti and Coffee,” Boardwalk Empire’s second episode of the season, a fish was poured out of his/her (relatively) spacious bowl, into the sink, and then dropped into a much smaller drinking glass before totally running out of oxygen. Without announcement, the fish had been shifted from a comfortable position to one much less familiar. Obviously, it was a fish, it couldn't really control its environment, but a sudden change is a sudden change.
If the events of this episode were any indication and he keeps traveling down the same path, Nucky Thompson could very easily find himself in a similar situation. Last week, we saw a Nucky who was not necessarily drunk on power but certainly content and confident in his status, so much so that he was willing to cut off direct distribution to Gyp Rosetti and give away literally a treasure chest of expensive jewelry and knickknacks within moments of each other. But in “Spaghetti and Coffee,” Nucky’s comfort was overtaken by his emotions—most notably jealousy—and because of that, his supposedly smooth-running operation took a substantial hit. It wasn’t quite being thrown out of the fishbowl and into the sink, but Rosetti is certainly knocking on the outside of the bowl with a smug grin on his face.
One of the more curious things about Boardwalk Empire is how so many of the show’s supporting characters are more engaging—or even given better material—than Nucky. Last week I talked about how much of Season 2 succeeded based on putting Jimmy through the emotional ringer, and despite all the rhetoric about how committed Nucky might be to the gangster lifestyle, this episode allowed a number of other characters to both plot against him and outshine him. The idea that secondary characters are more interesting than the lead is not a new phenomenon—I’m sure most The Wire or Lost fans wouldn’t pick Jimmy and Jack as their all-time favorite characters on those respective shows—but it seems like Nucky is so often passive, at least until the plot requires him to, at the last minute, squash down those who rise up.
What is complicated about this approach to building up other characters is that it’s not like the Nucky scenes and stories are bad in any regard. Steve Buscemi is always good and I actually really enjoyed the story tonight with Nucky growing more and more jealous over the probability that Billie, just like Nucky, has multiple lovers. We’ve seen Nucky let his more problematic emotions get the best of him before, and watching the character consider hiding out in New York with Billie is an interesting choice in light of his problems with Margaret, among other things.
However, the show I think at least wants us to think that Nucky believes in this full gangster mantra and by jumping right from Nucky, King of the Castle to Nucky, Confused and Jealous Adulterer is problematic. Granted, Nucky’s a complicated character and perhaps showing him in full gangster mode would be totally disingenuous to what we’ve seen thus far. I just got the impression that by the end of Season 2 and the Season 3 premiere we were supposed to view Nucky as a (at least slightly) changed man. But here, he’s kind of the guy we’ve seen time and time again: trying to wear lots of different hats and struggling to find which one is really his.
While Nucky was half-assed playing house in New York, Rosetti plotted a pretty cunning plan to get his revenge. Instead of trying to blow up Nucky and Rothstein’s operation with a full-on assault, Rosetti recognized that there was one gas station in Tabor Heights—halfway between Atlantic City and New York—that most, if not all, of the shipment transports used, and decided to catch those who left him out of the operation by surprise.
Rosetti might be a legitimate gangster, but his ability to learn was on display in this episode. After being made a fool at the New Year’s Eve party, Rosetti was more tactical—and frankly, more intelligent—in his decision-making. He let the gas station attendant teach him about the scale on maps (a nice contrast to when he beat the good Samaritan senseless last episode) and he used his financial resources to buy the gas station and presumably pay off the police as well. In two episodes, Rosetti has gone from aggressive dolt to smart and aggressive dolt, which makes him quite dangerous. Thus far, Nucky’s dealt with a lot of businessmen not necessarily willing to get their hands dirty, not to mention more abstract forces like the legal system. I’m not sure he’s ready for someone like Rosetti, a man who not only doesn’t back down from violence, but also knows how to strategize. In a way, Rosetti is the kind of full gangster Nucky will never ever be. While Bobby Cannavale was good in last week's premiere, he’s a multi-faceted performer, so I’m happy that Rosetti isn’t just going to be a "blunt weapon" type of antagonist.
Perhaps the most important thing about Rosetti’s big move is that Nucky wasn’t anywhere to be found. Owen, Mickey, and the just-freed-from-jail Eli were on the scene supervising the transport, but all they could do was tuck their tails and make empty threats about what would happen once Nuck and Rothstein learned about the event. Although those threats might eventually come to fruition, the difference between how Rosetti operates (hands-on) and how Nucky and Rothstein like to handle things (lots of other guys doing the work) is very, very telling. It’s also telling for us as viewers, because here the show brought us a really great sequence, but it did so with its main character more worried about a leaky heater.
You could make the case that Nucky has too many other things going on to really worry about Rosetti at the moment (especially since he’s unaware of what’s happening in Tabor Heights), but trying to make sure things are square for he and Attorney General Daugherty by paying off Gaston Means (played by the always game and always awesome Stephen Root) suggests that he’s still got too much of an eye on the political sphere to become the kind of dangerous gangster that Rosetti probably already is.
If Nucky is the fish that might be unknowingly in danger of dropping from the bowl to the small cup, another character is much more aware that he is or at least might be taking the plunge. Eli is finally out of jail and unsurprisingly, lots of things have changed. His family is happy to see him, but his oldest son has spent almost the last two years working to support everyone else. While he was knocked off his sheriff post long ago, Eli has now lost his status at home as well. And trying to make up the time and money by being a lackey for Mickey Doyle, a job assigned to him by the of-course-absent Nucky, probably isn’t the best way to get re-accustomed to his surroundings.
And for both Chalky and Margaret, it’s more about keeping other people from becoming that fish gasping for air in the sink. After an intense but somewhat humorous diagnostic session with his daughter’s medical student boyfriend Marcus (“How about you doctor me?”), Chalky agreed to let the boy ask for his Maybelle’s hand in marriage. She was uninterested because doctors are boring, but after a terrible event at Chalky’s club where Marcus got his face sliced and the culprit was beaten nearly to death in front of them, Chalky assumes he’d proven his point: Boring and successful is better than interesting and dangerous. It’s odd that Chalky has been relegated to domestic storylines, but Michael Kenneth Williams brings such intensity to the character that even these scenes have great weight to them.
Finally, Margaret returned to the hospital with hopes of beginning her crusade to help pregnant women and, unsurprisingly, encountered some resistance. The doctor who approached her before was standoffish and assumed that she didn’t really want to help, which resulted in one of those great scenes where Kelly Macdonald gets to stop being meek and polite and start being assertive and awesome. And yet, the woman Margaret wanted to help didn’t really want her assistance. It appears that Nucky and Margaret aren’t going to be spending that much time together this season (and they especially aren’t going to be happy with one another), so I’m happy that she’s going to have this big story about women and maybe even their rights.
It is obviously early in the season, but I liked the way this episode established some stories that can carry on throughout. Nevertheless, at a certain point, Boardwalk’s lead character has to become more interesting—or at least more active—or the show will suffer.
– Root’s Gaston Means is another compelling addition to the Boardwalk world. His method of collecting money—locking himself in an adjacent room and asking the clients to drop the funds in the empty fishbowl—is weird enough to be great. And again, Means sort of overpowered Nucky in their scene together. Root is electric; Buscemi, while good, is less so.
– Last week, we were without Chalky. This week, there was no Richard or Gillian, and no Van Alden, Capone, or any Chicago stories. That’s going to happen with the show’s wide scope, but it’s still somewhat disappointing.
– All right, you loved them last week, you can’t get enough of them! It’s time for the...
1. Rosetti (previous rank: N/A): After the premiere, you wouldn’t have thought that Rosetti would outsmart Nucky and Rothstein. I’m happy to be proven wrong.
2. Gaston Means (previous rank: N/A): Fast-talking, smart, and powerful. Made Nucky seem like a confused boy.
3. Margaret (previous rank: 3): Can’t fault her for getting on that hospital grind, even if it was tough sledding to begin with.
4. Owen (previous rank: N/A): Standing up to Rosetti without being stupid about it and keeping Mickey from doing something even more stupid makes for a good week.
5. Nucky (previous rank: 1): Hard to drop out him out of the top five, but goodness, this was not a good week for the Nuck. Jealousy is not a good color on him.