Kibbitzing About TV: Boardwalk Empire, “Blue Bell Boy” (S3E4)

If this week’s episode had been written by a 19th century sentimentalist who was paid by the word, it would have been called “A Tale of Two Gangsters”. On one side we have Nucky Thompson, who we called out last week for losing his grip on the people and operations that he had previously ruled with an iron fist. On the other we have Al Capone, a goonish triggerman who has always been prized more for his brawn than his brains. Despite the discrepancy in their current standing, it is clearly Al’s star that is on the rise while Nucky is struggling to hold on.

Nucky spends the majority of this week’s episode in a rat-infested basement with a lieutenant who doesn’t respect him and a street punk who doesn’t fear him. (And, of course, Mr. Pouffle, who appears to be indifferent to the situation.) This is literally and figuratively the low point of Nucky’s career.

Side Note: The creative team behind BE is given to grand symbolic visual gestures when they want to hammer home a crucial plot point. Remember when Jimmy was having sex with Gillian (a.k.a. his mom) in his dorm room and a train thundered by into a tunnel as the bed shook? You didn’t need to be Dr. Freud to see the connection. So, putting Nucky in the depths of a shotgun shack while he is at the nadir of his power is no accident. And my parents thought being an English major was a waste of time. Pffft!

Meanwhile, on the south side of Chicago, Al Capone is starting to round into the figure who will become the archetype for all future gangsters. A violent, manic-depressive, fiercely loyal (like Sasha Fierce-level loyal) family man/whorehouse manager, Al is writing the scripture that all mobsters both real and imagined would follow. Today’s lesson, made famous by Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables: They put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.

Yes, the parallels between Al’s deaf son being bullied and his fat henchman being beaten are a bit heavy-handed. Although it’s interesting that his first thought for his son is to teach the boy how to defend himself (a lesson that goes horribly wrong) and his first thought for his kapo is revenge (a lesson that is horrible, but not wrong). The two fight scenes in the bar are so different that you can’t help but notice. When Al’s collector gets beaten up, the people in the bar barely notice. They keep drinking and chatting as if this is a regular occurrence. When Al lays the smack down, the bar patrons cower against the walls in terror. They shrink away from him in stunned silence as he finishes the deed with a barstool. Al has taken a big step toward real power. He is now feared.

Nucky, by contrast, finds himself in a precarious position. The more time he spends with the kid in the basement, the more we are led to believe that he’s going to let the kid off the hook and mentor him as he begins a lucrative career in organized crime. But, I knew that kid wasn’t making it out of the house the first time Nucky offered him a cigarette.

(Think of the brilliant scene in True Romance when Dennis Hopper realizes that Christopher Walken is going to kill him whether or not he reveals where Christian Slater is hiding. What does Hopper do before he launches into the transcendent Italian heritage story? He asks his eventual killer for a cigarette. Game over.)

Nucky shooting this kid in the back of the head wasn’t the bravest thing he’s ever done, but it did do something we’ve never seen before. It knocked the unflappable Owen Slater off balance. And, in that moment, Nucky has begun to pull himself out of the basement. Now, he has to apply that same thinking to Gyp Rosetti. And Gyp ain’t no street punk. Nucky wasn’t half a gangster this week, but he was still half a coward.

Elsewhere, Arnold Rothstein didn’t get a lot of screen time this week. But, the few moments that he did get were memorable. One day, I would love to open a phone conversation with the words, “Why am I talking to you?” It’s so shamelessly asshole-y that you can’t help but smile. It’s the kind of thing an overstuffed Creative Director would say to a hapless junior account executive who screwed up a conference call dial-in number. I bet the person who wrote that scene used to work in an ad agency.

Of course, the other big plot line was Lucky having a sit down with Masseria. Where Al Capone is dumb like a fox, Lucky appears to be dumb like a moron. Going in with a ceiling of 5% and having Joe the Boss demand 30%, Charlie Looch displays the worst poker face in the world. And Joe is right, when the world comes crashing down 30% is going to seem like a bargain. One quibble: Joe comments about Lucky’s partners: “I’ll say this about your Jews. With them, it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business.”

Are you fucking kidding me? My mother alone has been holding grudges since the third grade. It’s always personal.

Until next week.

 CJ Kaplan

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I’m glad that you brought up The Untouchables because all I could think about this week was the iconic image of Al Capone taking batting practice at his conference table. It was a brilliant choice for Boardwalk to humanize Capone, transforming him from the violent bat-wielding psychopath into a guy more apt to play catch with his son. The scene of him singing “My Buddy” to his boy may have been the most emotional moment in the series to date, and provided a beautiful segue to Eli’s rapprochement with Nucky.

Of course Capone IS a psychopath, but his violence is rooted in defense of his people, as opposed to Gyp, whose violent tendencies are driven by the offense of his ego. Big difference.

I agree with you that Nucky was half a coward and I took his killing of Rowland as a sign of weakness, not strength. He’s trying too hard to prove that he’s a gangster. Look Nucky, we’ve seen gangsters before and you’re no gangster. A real gangster would have spared the kid and killed Gyp (or at least squashed a grapefruit in his face), instead of appeasing him with a month’s supply of booze-a-roni.

I’ll admit that I tend to root for the home team of Jewish gangsters – and by extension Lucky – so I was a little worried that he was going to get “moidered” sitting in front of that window. Of course that can’t happen historically, which means the show is doing something right by creating tension where there should be none.  As we’ve discussed many times the past the Jews and the Italians should be friends – our two cultures are the only ones that know how to run a good deli.

Speaking of Boardwalk’s heavy-handed symbolism, what about Margaret’s inspiration, Carrie Duncan the aviatrix, crashing right after Margaret’s unsuccessful trip to the Boardwalk?

Your buddy,

Mitch


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