Even though Boardwalk Empire is about gangsters, the show’s characters spend a great deal of time talking—consistently in threatening tones, but talking nonetheless. My impression is that this is the reason, at least in part, for the general lack of enthusiasm for the show from viewers. For some, a gangster show shouldn’t include so much empty posturing and should include a heck of a lot more “action” (whatever that means).
I can see that point, particularly during episodes that seem to be trying too hard to run away from generic expectations. But what I think an episode like “The Pony” proves is that Boardwalk Empire’s lack of consistent high-octane thrills allows it to sneak up on us and then drop a handful of big, powerful moments all at once. The show did this a few weeks ago with the big shootout in Tabor Heights, but the conclusion of “The Pony” was one of the more shocking things the series has done in its three years on the air.
And perhaps more importantly, this episode featured a handful of moments that showed us that when characters on this show do take action or make big moves, horrible things can happen. It set up all sorts of drama for the final four episodes of the season (at this point, there isn't enough time left for the writers to get distracted or stall again, right?).
The most compelling development of "The Pony" wasn’t really a development, but more like a realization: Gillian might be Nucky’s biggest threat. There was some question as to what the show was doing with her earlier in the season, but now, she’s an extremely crucial part of the season’s endgame.
Shout out to TV.com reader @dazednconfuuzed, who pointed out in the comments of last week’s review that Gillian picked up the Jimmy doppleganger so she could kill him and then declare Jimmy dead in hopes of obtaining full ownership of the property. That all happened in this episode, and while I think there was some question a few weeks ago as to whether Gillian actually had a plan or was just in a stupor, that was an insightful point and it makes the character so much more intelligent and cunning.
But Gillian isn’t just interested in controlling her house and business, she’s out for a little revenge as well. When Nucky showed up offer platitudes, Gillian did something we’ve been waiting for someone to do all season: She accused Nuck of murdering Jimmy. She wasn't going to listen to Nucky’s empty condolences, nor was she particularly intimidated by his threats about what could happen should she start broadcasting her accusations elsewhere. It’s interesting that the show spent so much time building up the relationship between Nucky and Jimmy when really, there’s arguably just as much history between Nucky and Gillian. Plus, she’s certainly more formidable as a foe—and frankly, she's more interested in being one.
Gillian’s frustration with Nucky led her to cut ties with the worthless Lucky and cash in on Gyp’s itching trigger finger by not-so-subtly mentioning Lucky, Nucky, and Rothstein’s dinner plans. And as a result, the payback we’ve been waiting for from Gyp—and the payback Gillian’s probably been waiting for much longer—came to pass with a massive explosion on the boardwalk. Apparently fed up with all the talking and posturing, Gyp did what he does best in blunt force. Of course, this is television and so not one of those three targeted men actually ended up dead—or was even really that injured—but with that move, both Gillian and Gyp delivered a (or, yet another) message to Nucky.
What I liked about this move, aside from the explosion being very impressive on a technical front, is that it felt like a line in the sand of sorts. Nucky and Rothstein are dedicated to being the nicely dressed, smart, and politically connected kind of gangsters, but Gyp, with Gillian in his ear, doesn’t care about that front at all. He knows what he is and he knows when it’s time for something more than a stern talking-to. And Gillian’s vendetta against Nucky goes back quite a while, so she’s absolutely willing to take drastic action.
You would think that this explosion, especially since it presumably led to the death of Nucky’s sidepiece Billie Kent*, would actually push Nucky to realize that, while his charms and intellect might work on the bigwigs in government, it doesn’t necessarily appease those who are willing to end dozens of innocent lives just to prove a point. I hate to go back to the “full gangster” rhetoric again, but all season, Nucky’s been avoiding having to really become one. Now, Gyp and Gillian have made it personal and it seems like Nuck doesn’t have much of a choice. Ultimately, then, the big explosion succeeded on two levels: as a nice, surprising caper to “The Pony” and (hopefully) as a catalyst for Nucky to make some bold choices of his own in the coming weeks.
* I can’t say I’m that disappointed to see Billie (again, presumably) say goodbye. I appreciated what she represented in Nucky’s life, but his infatuation with her was not only distracting for him, but also for the show. Nucky thought she’d be used up and spit out by the film industry, but he seems to forget that he has that exact same impact on the women in his life.
I guess it’s too bad that Nucky had so much trouble on the homefront, because he spent much of this episode working on his political problems (you know, the ones he likes to dedicate much more of his time to). Gaston Means hooked him up with Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell), the guy we saw urge for the end of Prohibition a handful of weeks ago. It turned out, unsurprisingly, that Mellon actually owns a distillery that he’d love to make some money on. Nucky convinced Mellon that it’s worth taking down George Remus as a way to get to Attorney General Daugherty and agreed to get Mellon’s distillery up and running.
I’ve enjoyed Nucky’s political pursuits this season, especially in comparison to how messy they were last season, but these scenes always feel too simple to me. We barely know Means, and he hooked Nucky up with Mellon, who we also barely know, in an instant. And then, Mellon agreed to take down Daugherty with only a little bit of hesitation. That story is already so disconnected from what’s happening on the boardwalk that it’s tough to be totally invested in it, so I wish the show would commit a little bit more to telling it better. It’s almost as if Terence Winter and company just want to keep that thread around for some nebulous future, so they address it briefly every couple of weeks. They could do better.
Although disconnected from the main action, both Margaret and Van Alden also made bold choices this week. Margaret learned that the woman who lost her baby earlier in the season caused the miscarriage herself because her husband won’t stop forcing himself onto her, and it was then that the sexual health class finally became worthwhile. She urged Dr. Mason to obtain a few diaphragms, one for her peer and one for her. You know, because at this point, Margaret doesn’t care about the binds of marriage, she just wants to get it in with Owen. Margaret’s story has been a little start-and-stop this season, and I can’t yet tell if she’s been inspired by the class to take control of her sexuality with Owen or vice versa, but there is at least some self-empowering going on here.
And finally, it took eight episodes, but Van Alden finally snapped. Forced to make booze for O’Banion as payment for the disposing of that agent’s body a few weeks back and constantly mocked at work, Van Alden decided it was time to put an iron on a co-worker’s face, break some typewriters, and scream like a crazy person. As terrifying as he was in that sequence, Michael Shannon was even better in the following scene, when Van Alden returned home to tell his wife they needed to flee and noted that they could go anywhere, “Except New Jersey. Or New York. And obviously Illinois.” The way Shannon delivered the line is probably my favorite part of this entire season. It’s very weird that Van Alden is the only character who produces any laughs on this show.
Of course now, Van Alden is making and selling booze for money. His wife is excellent at it, and hadn't realized how easy and lucrative it is. My fingers are crossed that this puts the character back on the radar of someone on the East Coast, because he’s too good to be trapped in (admittedly amusing) side plots.
There are four episodes left in Season 3 and it finally feels like the slow-burn might be out the window. I’ve enjoyed this season’s build quite a bit, but after some big, bold choices in “The Pony,” Nucky—who for better or for worse, drives the action—will have to make some major choices of his own that will likely dictate what kind of energy these final four hours have. Hopes are high.
– Eli is back at Nucky’s side. That was a small—but nice—touch.
– The episode got its title from Nucky’s (well, Owen’s) search for a pony for Margaret’s daughter. That story went places.
– Richard didn’t seem to like Gyp, and vice versa. Could we see Mr. Harrow joining up with Nucky?
– Remember when Chalky White was on this show?
1. Gillian (previous rank: 2): Grew more financially independent, stood up to Nucky, and easily convinced Gyp to take out her enemies. Not a bad stretch. There’s a reason she keeps finding herself in powerful positions in this town.
2. Gyp (previous rank: 3): Gillian might have urged him on, but it certainly takes some guts (brains, not so much) to blow up a public place on the off-chance that your targets are hit. Gyp really, really doesn’t like being disrespected.
3. Nucky (previous rank: 1): Almost got blown up, sure, but still managed to make some major in-roads with his political problems and beat the hell out of a guy twice his age.
4. Van Alden (previous rank: N/A): Did you see that guy’s face after Van Alden pulled the iron off it? Yow.
5. Margaret (previous rank: 4): Can’t keep my girl out of the GPRs, especially when she’s advocating for a women’s right to birth control. How timely!