Throughout this season (and really, much of this entire series), Nucky has been distracted. One week, he was distracted by Billie Kent and her nascent performing career. Another week, he couldn’t stop seeing Jimmy’s ghost. And yet another, he eschewed commitments so he could wage political war. No matter what Nuck decides to do on a given day, he always ends up ignoring a half-dozen other things. Part of that comes with being such a connected, powerful man, but in many instances—especially in his trysts with Billie—Nucky has chosen certain and seemingly less-pressing engagements over others. Watching him make these choices (some of them very odd) has been frustrating at times, but it all came to a head in “The Milkmaid’s Lot” in a purposeful, powerful way. Right now, in the aftermath of an explosion that almost killed him and a big meeting that went nowhere fast, Nucky Thompson is alone—and he only has himself to blame.
We knew that last week’s bomb on the boardwalk wouldn’t actually remove anyone overly crucial to the plot, and that was confirmed in this episode. Rothstein and Luciano have a few bumps and bruises and Nucky is dealing with some post-concussion symptoms, but they’re all alive. The one casualty we know of is Billie Kent, who now seems destined to haunt Nucky much like Jimmy did there for a while. Nucky spent much of “The Milkmaid’s Lot” picturing Billie in the final moments of her life, mixing up Billie and Margaret and wondering aloud what happened.
Nucky’s weakened condition led him to outwardly detail his revenge plots in front of a somewhat-surprised Margaret, dropping all pretense of being a remotely good person (though it’s not as if she didn’t already know this about him). In a moment of clarity, Nucky told Marge that no one close to him ever gets out unharmed, which might just be the most self-aware thought the character has ever expressed. And just in case you weren't clear on Nucky’s state of mind, he confused Chalky for hired help, couldn’t identify his own brother, and ruined a little girl’s birthday party—by showing up late and also providing conflicting details on whether or not to buy that damn pony.
So while Nucky might be alive, he’s certainly not okay.
Worse, Nucky assumed, as so many bullheaded men do, that he could just push through the legitimate pain and concoct a massive attack on Rosetti and his backer Joe. He organized a meeting of the big shots in Atlantic City and New York, including Rothstein and Luciano, with hopes of convincing them to back whatever play he makes. Unfortunately, Nucky’s weird decisions have finally come back to bite him in the behind. No one can trust him—not only because he won't get the job done, but because he won't even be interested in the job. He’s spent way too much time in the bed of a young girl who is now gone, and not enough time trying to make sure business kept booming at home. Nucky didn’t just mix business with pleasure; he delegated so he could ignore business and go all in on pleasure.
That approach can only last so long before partners and employees start getting restless, which is exactly where Nucky is now. Rothstein, who has never been particularly happy working with Nucky, has led the charge to abandon him. Margaret is no longer willing to put on a happy face so she can make good happen in the community. She’s ready to run away with Owen, who I think would just as soon stop working for Nuck as well. And let us not forget that Gyp wouldn’t have tried to blow up Nucky and his cronies had Nuck not consolidated his distribution and subsequently pushed Gyp aside at the beginning of the season. Every single choice Nucky has made as of late led up to this episode’s final moments, with him standing alone in a room, yelling that he won’t forget how everyone has treated him.
Somehow, I can’t imagine anyone in Atlantic City or New York City worrying too much about what Nucky does or does not forget. He is physically and emotionally wounded right now, but he hasn’t been the all-powerful man his reputation suggests for a very long time. But despite his string of stupid choices and the tumultuousness of his current predicament, this might be exactly what Nucky needs: His back is against the wall, and he has nowhere to go and no one to rely on but himself. This is his chance to prove that his reputation isn’t just part of a long-gone persona. This is his chance to be more than half a gangster.
This season of Boardwalk Empire is one that reflects some of the troubles with reviewing and analyzing episodes so closely on a weekly basis. While I still think individual units should be satisfying, purposeful, and coherent, Terence Winter is clearly telling a longer story that is starting to whip into shape with clear direction. But it's hard for me to say that developments in episodes like this one completely and somehow retroactively make up for some of the disjointed and sometimes unrelated episodes in the early part of the season. There were ways that the show could have fostered a through-line with Nucky’s tendency to avoid the homestead—more dream sequences perhaps?—that I think would have unified the individual episodes a bit more.
Nevertheless, I do enjoy when serialized dramas reveal certain pieces that crystallize disparate elements. Steve Buscemi has done a fine job portraying the multitudinous versions of Nucky here, even overcoming some obvious writerly maneuvers (most notably Nuck’s sudden interest in the pony, which of course was just a reference to the nickname of the role Billie was going to play in the upcoming film). This feels like a chance for the show to really define who Nucky is and what he is capable of, and to move him away from the slight blankness he tends to inhabit. The last three episodes have been really great, and this one was my favorite. Let’s hope that Boardwalk Empire finishes the final quarter of the season with just as much momentum and confidence.
– Raise your hand if you were also sad that Chalky returned in this episode only for Nucky to confuse him with the help. This show has so many great actors working on it that I understand the unwillingness to let some of them go, but eventually, the cast has to be trimmed. There are too many people and too few of them are getting much of anything to do.
– Gillian continued her reign of terror this week, albeit on a much smaller scale. The way that she blamed Richard for Tommy getting into one of the prostitute’s rooms while, uh, a transaction was happening was just terrible. Richard went out and got himself a kiss from his crush, only to come home to Gillian’s nonsense. At a certain point, Richard is going to snap, right? You’d think he would get so tired of being told what to do by people he has no real allegiance to.
– And what are the chances that Margaret and Owen actually get away? Ten percent? The nature of the show means that they actually could do so and still be at least somewhat part of the narrative, but I cannot imagine either of them gets out.
– Gyp didn’t make a follow-up attack, but he did take all of Tabor Heights hostage. I’m happy the show went back to that location, though I’m fairly convinced that it will be burned to the ground before Season 3 ends.
– This episode was penned by Rolin Jones, who is also responsible for the greatest episodes of television in recent memory, Friday Night Lights’ “The Son.”
1. Gyp (previous rank: 2): He might not have killed his targets, but he fractured their partnership and now he has a chance to take out Nucky when he’s all by his lonesome.
2. Rothstein (previous rank: N/A): While Gyp might be the catalyst, Rothstein smartly saw the writing on the wall with Nucky. It’s time to cut bait, and maybe try to concoct a truce with Gyp and Joe.
3. Gillian (previous rank: 1): Nobody does emotional abuse like Gillian Darmody. Nobody.
4. Margaret (previous rank: 5): She held up well in the face of Nucky’s major breakdown and simultaneously plotted to leave him. Not a bad week.
5. Van Alden (previous rank: 4): No one spotlighted here really deserves this spot—unless you want to make a case for Nucky—so I’m giving Van Alden some more burn solely based on leftover glory from taking an iron to that guy’s face last week. What an image.