Boardwalk Empire "Sunday Best" Review: Holiday Blues

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Boardwalk Empire S03E07: “Sunday Best”

Holidays are kind of the worst. The hope is that we will come together with our families, enjoy some great food and even greater company, and be almost revitalized for the time being. Every holiday has its own specific meanings, but there are underlying themes of celebration and unity running through them all. Unfortunately, we all know better. While sometimes they turn out like we intend, most of the time, we end up engaging in too many awkward debates or drudging through too many past events before complaining our way through a car ride home.

Although “Sunday Best” was not the most exciting episode of the season, and yet another minor stall after a pretty enthralling offering last week, it did a fine job of showing us some of the varying frustrations that can pop up when families and individuals have to fake-smile their way through another holiday picture.

Most notable here was that for the first time ever, Nucky’s and Eli’s respective families sat down to break bread with one another, resulting in some very engaging, but quiet scenes between the two of them. There's a whole lot of water under that bridge, and Nucky is still very willing to consider letting Eli drown in it, but nothing brings a fractured family together like the holidays, right? Nucky was able to put his past issues with his brother aside long enough to be nice to sister-in-law and entertain the children with a somewhat painful comedic act involving juggling, but once the two brothers were alone, all the tension that Nuck had been trying to ignore bubbled to the surface.

The conflict between the two is deep, but clear: Eli believes that he has paid for his sins after spending almost a year and a half in prison and is ready to take on more responsibility, beyond just loading trucks with that dolt Mickey Doyle. Unfortunately, Nucky is still quite upset with Eli for joining up with Jimmy, Gillian, and the Commodore and, you know, trying to strip his power away and probably kill him. If we think back to earlier in the series, it seems like Eli has always felt unappreciated by Nucky, but in one of this season’s better scenes, Nucky verbalized a similar frustration with his brother, noting, “You think I’m bottomless... and you just keep reaching in there.” And when Eli told Nucky to just kill him and get over with, Nucky more or less rolled his eyes at his brother’s drastic measures.

But despite all of this, we got the sense here that Nucky was somewhat moved by this family time, and for whatever stress Eli has caused him, he is still family. Nuck is finally willing to admit that Eli made the right call about moving the trucks through Tabor Heights a few episodes ago, and he ultimately decided to put him in a co-leadership role with Mickey.

It’s hard for me to truly pick a side in this brotherly squabble, and I’m not sure the show even wants us to anyway. As I’ve said consistently this season, Nucky is hard to pin down, and probably even harder to feel much sympathy for, but Eli did plot against him. Losing a job and spending a lot of time in jail was a quality penance, and apparently just enough for Nuck, but neither Thompson brother is that admirable. Nevertheless, Nucky cares, no matter what he says, and I think he can’t not help his brother—even if it means he’ll get to hold the past over Eli’s head some more.

And although Nucky begrudgingly breathed some life back into his relationship with his brother, the same cannot really be said for his marriage. What’s interesting about this is that, throughout Easter Sunday, Margaret almost started to recognize the man she fell in love with, mostly through secondhand accounts of his greatness from Eli’s wife, but also through an admittedly more appealing and charming Nucky (the dude is good with kids, that’s for sure). But once the two arrived back home and Nucky, again almost like he was riding the Easter high or something, tried to flirt a little with Margaret, it went nowhere. He offered to teach her to juggle, to which she replied, “It’s just too late.” Obviously, she wasn't just talking about it being her bedtime. Hey, sometimes, holidays bring families back together. Other times, they simply reinforce how broken a family actually is.

Meanwhile, Gyp was back in New York and didn’t seem too happy to be there. He spent Easter with his family full of women (I assume a mother and some older and younger sisters), all of whom sure enjoy busting his balls. No wonder he has a little bit of an inferiority complex—and some issues with the lord and savior. And even when he can get away from his blood family, he struggles to convince his crime family that he is a valuable, trustworthy asset. He’s ready to throw down with Nucky and Rothstein, if only his boss will let him.

As bad as visiting your dysfunctional family can be, it’s probably worse to be home alone on a major holiday. That’s where Gillian found herself and instead of trying to fix her problem, she exacerbated it by sending all the girls away and asking Richard to watch Tommy for the day. Though she claimed to be sick, it was clear that Gillian is still struggling with the realization that Jimmy is really, truly gone. And just when it seemed like things were improving for her when the Jimmy-clone boytoy showed up for an afternoon of fun, Gillian’s condition worsened in a lot of ways. The boytoy asked her about her former husband and she basically described Jimmy (not the Commodore), and then proceeded to stick the guy with heroin so that he’d pass out in the bathtub and drown.

That’s pretty extreme—and frankly, awful—behavior, but by the end of the day, Gillian had made some “improvements,” you could say. She was willing to admit to Richard that Jimmy is dead and that she doesn’t know how to live without him, which I guess is a step beyond taking all the pictures down last week. Maybe she won’t get distracted by another clone on the boardwalk.

And finally, there’s nothing quite like the uncomfortable tension of meeting someone else’s family for the first time, which is sort of what Richard faced in this episode with his little dinner date at the home of the drunk veteran Paul. It didn’t go particularly well, mostly because Paul’s a drunk, angry old man, but Richard did make up some ground with the daughter, who is cute, awkward and frank in an interesting way.

This episode felt like the show taking its foot off the gas yet again, but I’ve grown to appreciate and admire the kind of low-key character work Boardwalk Empire has being doing this season. It was about time that Nucky and Eli had a substantive talk and even though neither thread is relevant to the main plot, both Gillian and Richard’s stories are compelling and well-acted. Even the short scene with Gyp at home really gave us some great insight into who that character is and where he is coming from, so there’s value here. I still find that the show is disjointed when you line up all the episodes, but on an individual basis, Boardwalk Empire is succeeding in texturing these characters.



Notes


– I have to admit, I forgot that Margaret’s daughter battled polio until this episode. And I think the show might have, too.

– Eli would suck at hiding Easter eggs.

Boardwalk Empire "Sunday Best" Photos


Gangster Power Rankings


1. Nucky (previous rank: 1): It takes a real man to swallow some pride and do the smart (and arguably, right) thing in bringing Eli closer to the inner circle. The juggling alone meant Nucky was going to keep this spot.

2: Gillian (previous rank: 3): She’s very troubled, very intelligent, and very manipulative. That’s a dangerous combination.

3. Gyp (previous rank: N/A): He’s back after a little time away. He took some major guff from his family, screamed at God, and then convinced a crime boss to let him blow up some major relationships. This guy.

4. Margaret (previous rank: 4): For a few minutes there, it seemed like she was thinking about taking Nucky back—whatever that would entail—but instead, she spilled the beans to Eli’s wife. Not sure why, or if she has a larger plan, but I’m quite curious to find out.

5. Richard (previous rank: N/A): Sometimes, all real gangsters have to do is quietly say they’ll kill you. Richard Harrow is that kind of gangster (also: he’s a great caretaker).