Nucky Thompson isn’t right. He claims to want to be a champion gangster and he occasionally makes some small maneuvers that suggest reality is catching up with his desire. But more often than not, Nucky ends up focusing more on anything but his “business” problems.
Throughout the first four episodes of Boardwalk Empire’s third season, we’ve watched Nucky purposefully distract himself from what is seemingly a fairly charmed (albeit sometimes dangerous) life. Even before Gyp Rosetti started posing a legitimate threat to Nucky’s booze-distribution operation, Nucky seemed much more interested in running to New York City and hiding away between the sheets with one Billie Kent or spacing through days wrenching over the terrible things that he has done.
I think we can say that as of now, Nucky Thompson is not a full gangster. It’s unclear if he’s even half of one at this point. Instead, Nucky is a distracted, tortured, and cowardly man who still seems unsure of how to be comfortable in his own skin, let alone with the power he holds. And as we’ve seen all season, there’s been enough uncertainty and danger swirling around Nucky that eventually, things are going to break down.
Maybe we are not all the way there, but “You’d Be Surprised” sure suggested that it’s all coming down on Nucky. And unsurprisingly, he would rather shrug it off and hide away with his infatuation of the moment than fix any of the problems he caused (avertedly or not).
In the aftermath of Mickey and company being sneak-attacked in Tabor Heights, tensions were high between Nucky and his team in Atlantic City and Rothstein and his crew in New York City. Rothstein suggested to Nucky that he start using the much-discussed backroads to transport the product, but even though he seemed to think it was a good idea an episode ago, Nucky rolled his eyes at the thought of having to find a path that didn’t go through Tabor Heights. But Rothstein saw through Nucky’s half-assed posturing and called him out for ignoring the Rosetti problem and spending too much of his time with Billie in New York. Rothstein might be a humorless blank slate, but he knows how to do business—and Nucky isn’t doing business.
Nevertheless, Nucky didn’t seem bothered by Rothstein’s shakedown. Immediately after Rothstein and Lucky headed out, Owen wanted to know what happened next, only to discover that what happened next was Nucky going back to New York to watch Billie rehearse a play he’d bankrolled. So even though his lucrative and illegal alcohol distribution ring was about to crumble and even though his partners probably wanted to kill him just so they wouldn’t have to deal with his silly ass anymore, Nucky ignored it all so he could grow jealous of Billie’s (likely gay) co-star.
Throughout the episode, other characters considered—and ultimately made—some big moves, while Nucky sat in a dark theater trying to figure out whether or not Billie was in love with someone else and whether or not the play was any good at all. The answer to both was no, but Nucky couldn’t help himself. As a result, he took all his frustration out on the harmless performer Eddie Cantor. When Cantor refused to join Billie in the shoddy play because he had a much bigger and better gig, Nucky sent Chalky and Dunn to intimidate Eddie into changing his mind. It was a low and cowardly move by Nucky, who can’t seem to ever want to do anything on his own, and it was generally disappointing because Chalky and Dunn should be better used in the show to begin with.
Of course, Nucky got his way when Eddie agreed to join Billie. And somehow, he almost got his way with Rothstein as well when, after convincing Gyp that he was willing to start a new partnership, Rothstein ordered Benny to kill the whole Rosetti operation. Benny got everyone in the hotel except Gyp (because this was only the fifth episode of the season, duh), and now the lines are clearly drawn between parties.
However, this was yet another instance of Nucky doing a whole lot of nothing while others took on the risk in hopes of making something happen. A similar thing happened when Margaret discovered Nucky with Billie. He tried to explain and seemed legitimately remorseful for his actions, but ultimately, Margaret was the one who told him not to come back and not to worry about the children. She made the choice for Nucky. Because he seemingly can’t make any big choices.
I don’t say that to criticize Nucky or Boardwalk Empire as a show. In fact, I think it’s quite compelling that, despite all the rhetoric at the end of last season and the beginning of this one (not to mention the HBO promotional campaign), Nucky isn’t really much of a gangster at all. He always feels alone, even when he’s not, and while he likes having wealth and power, he doesn’t like it so much that he wants to get his hands that dirty. Someone else will always clean up the mess, or make a bigger one so he can skate away.
But now that Rothstein has made his move against Gyp, it might be high time for Nucky to be more invested in this battle. He’s lost a handful of men and caused all sorts of upheaval simply by not caring. Now his very dangerous opponent is angrier than before and his partners would rather cut bait if they could. Something has to give, right?
The rest of “You’d Be Surprised” had some really great moments. After four episodes of set-up—quality set-up is still set-up—it seems like Boardwalk Empire is ramping up the narrative a little bit more.
Margaret is learning that starting the woman’s clinic and making it successful are two different things, especially when women cannot sneak out in the evening and the nun is more than a handful to deal with.
Faced with crushing economic uncertainty, Gillian still refuses to admit that Jimmy is dead, but that didn't stop her from writing him a letter asking him to come home—though I don’t know where the hell she's planning to send it.
And after receiving multiple business cards from the agent who extorted him at the speakeasy a few weeks ago, Van Alden finally broke down and told his wife some of the truth about his past, only for her to react with a knowing shrug and unfortunately attack the agent when he came into their home to complain about a crappy iron. But hey, at least she took some action—unlike Nuck.
– This episode introduced a new character played by James Cromwell, who thinks that the government’s Prohibition operation is both corrupt and inept. Steven Root’s Gaston Means also returned and is floating around these Prohibition hearings. More stories, just what Boardwalk Empire needs!
– No Richard this week. Sad.
Gangster Power Rankings, Week 5
1. Rothstein (previous rank: N/A): He’s no longer taking crap from Nucky and is willing to blow Gyp away even though it will destroy a truce in NYC. That’s swag.
2. Gyp (previous rank: 1): Surviving that sort of attack is worth major points. So is self-asphyxiating with a belt, I guess.
3. Margaret (previous rank: 4): Ditching the cheating Nucky and installing a nun in her place. All in a few day’s work for AC’s people’s champion.
4. Van Alden’s wife (previous rank: N/A): Was that a spoon she used to thump that agent’s head, basically apropos of nothing?
5. Benny (previous rank: N/A): He’s not “Bugsy” yet, but he’s on his way. His manic personality is electric, terrifying.