With good shows that have dozens of characters (too many, really) and sprawling storylines like, there is typically the expectation that by the end of the season, everything is going to come together in some visible, meaningful way. Boardwalk Empire is a show that has, at times, put this rule to the test because it just has so many characters and stories that it is damn-near impossible to make everything fit.
And more importantly for me, the show has occasionally struggled to not only make everything fit, but also to make everything matter. As a viewer, I have trouble believing a show when it spends a great deal of time ignoring—or worse, doing something stupid with—multiple characters and stories, only to pivot at the end of a season or arc and basically attempt to say that ignoring them was part of the plan all along. Characters sometimes get lost in the shuffle, and storylines sometimes get dropped; there’s no need to try to gussy it up with tacked-on reverence.
Because of the distracted nature of its lead character, Boardwalk Empire has fairly regularly entered this problematic territory. Although the focus on Jimmy paid great dividends last season and allowed the show to mask some of the sloppy Nucky stories, it ultimately led to Nucky “getting the win” nonetheless. One reading suggests that Jimmy’s death was telegraphed by his prominence throughout Season 2, but I would note that the show could have done a better job of making Nucky more central to Jimmy’s journey before the admittedly powerful ending. In any event, even though “Two Imposters” was another fine—and sometimes quite thrilling—episode, it also brought up similarly troubling developments.
I think it's fair to say that Boardwalk has again failed to keep certain characters—most notably Chalky, Eli, Van Alden, and Capone, and maybe to a slightly lesser extent Owen and Richard—within the orbit of this season’s main stories. I've enjoyed Van Alden’s Illinois odyssey, and both Capone and Richard have been part of some wonderful individual moments, but for the most part, the above characters have been underutilized. For some of you, this might have resulted in an even more frustrating Season 3 because the show has been so enchanted by whatever the hell is going on with Nucky in a given week, but even for someone who likes Nucky, I can see issues with the show’s balancing act.
“Two Imposters” was an episode that, in many ways, remedied this obvious ailment. We knew that with Owen gone, Nucky wouldn’t have very many people to turn to, and even then, he had at least charred his few remaining bridges. And yet, here he was, getting an epic amount of help from his dedicated servant Eddie and a hideout and safe passage from Chalky—the guy he not only confused for a slave but whose business proposal he squashed with substantial might thanks to the overly helpful Eli and the suddenly-in-Chicago Capone. Nucky went from having his back against the wall to having a little militia at his disposal.
Let me say that many of these developments led me to offer small fist pumps, a reaction that Boardwalk Empire rarely gets out of me (it’s just not that kind of show). The opening moments of the episode, with Nucky and Eddie escaping Gyp’s killing squad largely thanks to some legitimate badassery (dare I say full gangstery?) from Nucky, was one of the best moments in the show’s history. The calm-before-the-storm atmosphere in the hotel was very creepy and uneasy, and the proficiency with which Nucky took care of business was damn impressive. And the episode’s other bookend, with Eli showing up with both Chalky’s men and Capone, was simply cool. That line from Capone—“I need a shower, some chow and then you and me are going to sit down and talk about who dies”—is going to be used in the show’s promo reel from now until the end of time.
Obviously, it is promising that so many of Boardwalk Empire's disparate characters and elements are coming together at the end of the season. Television has the ability to make “people joining forces” scenes very satisfying, and “Two Imposters” was filled with them. Heck, that's basically what the whole Nucky-Chalky story has been, just in an extended fashion. Moreover, this episode went to great lengths to make these reconciliations and new allegiances seem purposeful to the season’s overall storyline: While he decided to help Nucky, Chalky did so begrudgingly because he knew that Nucky had ignored him for far too long and just recently shut down his club idea. There's been a lot of discussion about what Chalky means to Nucky and how the latter has misused the former, which anyone who has watched the show this season knows is totally true. And you could make the argument that the show already took reconciliatory steps with Nucky and Eli’s relationship a handful of episodes ago, so Eli bringing Capone into the picture was positioned as an earned moment as well.
Still, I don’t know if I’m totally convinced of what the show is selling. I see what Boardwalk Empire is trying to do here in that all of Nucky’s distractions and weird choices have alienated him, so if he hopes to fight back against Gyp, there must be some groveling—or at least some recognition of error. That is the right way to go, and "Two Imposters" put in a strong effort toward making that work. Within the context of the episode, it did. However, the show can’t just not use Chalky for a half-dozen episodes, then bring him in at the end to be reluctantly admirable and cool and write it all off as character development for Nucky. That sort of writing bothers me, and even when individual moments come together like they did here, I hate that I can see the writers almost retroactively saying, “See, there was a reason we left all those interesting characters out of the picture!”
What all this does, though, is set the stage for one hell of a finale, one that should be bigger, bloodier, and more explosive than anything the show has done before. The last few episodes have shown that Nucky is a much more compelling character when he is forced to fight, and at this point, Gyp is donning his full villain swagger. His decision to move Nucky’s desk out of the Ritz and his weird fascination with Gillian and her business showed us as much, and gave Bobby Cannavale great material to work with. I hate to say that Boardwalk Empire is a much better show when it is doing simple and familiar gangster stories that involve lots of blood and guns, but it certainly seems that way right now. Let’s say that the series is definitely better when it has a narrower, immediate conflict that must be resolved with violence. Can’t wait for the finale.
– Capone’s appearance on the east coast is especially great because it almost certainly means that Van Alden is with him. Right? Please tell me I’m right.
– Gillian threw Richard out of the mansion because she is a jealous and troubled business woman, and she'd just had her operation usurped by an even more troubled individual. I predict that Richard will also get involved in the Nucky-Gyp conflict, and that most of the bullets in those guns he was preparing will end up in Rosetti’s men.
– No Margaret this week (for the first time in a very, very long time) and I wonder if she might be gone for some time into next season as well. Boardwalk Empire didn't have any time to grieve Owen’s death, which was a little unfortunate.
– Luciano got arrested for dealing heroin to a cop because he wouldn’t listen to Lansky, who has grown to follow Rothstein’s patience doctrine. It's too bad Luciano is based on a real guy who didn’t die until the 1960s, because this character feels played out.
The Gangster Power Rankings, Week 11
Lots of new blood this week. No pun intended.
1. Gyp (previous rank: 2): Nucky got away and Chalky convinced him not to start any more trouble out there on the beach, but Mr. Rosetti is definitely riding high right now. However, he’s also in a unique position to be toppled based on all the people below who are plotting against him.
2. Chalky (previous rank: N/A): He chose to be the better man by helping Nucky and saving Eddie’s life, despite the big monetary reward out there if he didn’t. If he doesn’t play a major role in the finale, I don’t understand this show.
3. Nucky (previous rank: 5): Did you see him shoot his way out of that hotel suite?
4. Eddie (previous rank: N/A): Taking a bullet in the gut for your boss is the textbook definition of loyal.
5. Eli (previous rank: N/A): Going to Chicago and bringing back Capone for a small war is probably the best thing Eli’s done in two years.