Kibbitzing About TV: Boardwalk Empire, “Two Imposters” (S3E11)

“Devotion”

It’s funny that they decided to call this episode “Two Imposters” when there were two characters that proved themselves to be true to the man who counts on them both. Eddie and Chalky have, in sunshine and rain, cast their lots with Nucky. And never was that loyalty tested more than it was this week when Nucky’s entire world came crashing down.

As Chalky says, “Sometimes you have to lose everything to find out what you really need.”

This may have been my favorite episode to date. It was lean, tightly written and unsentimental. Margaret and her bullshit soap opera storyline were sent packing along with the children and other non-essential personnel. What remained were two generals (one with an actual general’s hat), one battlefield and no middle ground. If someone had just put a bullet in the back of Gillian’s head, I would have felt complete. But, we’ll get to that.

Gyp, at the apex of his power, goes on a full offensive—attacking a trapped and friendless Nucky from all sides. Why he didn’t just lay siege to the Ritz-Carlton and eliminate any chance of Nucky escaping, I’m not sure. Instead, Rosetti sent three nobodies to take out Thompson while Gyp introduced himself to the locals. What kind of general does that? In a war like this, you need to take out the other leader yourself and then stick his head on a pike and march it around town. Show the world who’s in charge now.

“The king is dead. Long live the king!”

But, Nucky has the wherewithal to take out two of the nameless assassins and then finally eliminate the third gunman after a game of Knock-Knock-Who’s-There? Of course, this small victory comes with a huge price. Eddie Kessler takes a bullet for Nucky, as we always knew he would.

As Nucky and Eddie limp toward Chalky’s place, Eddie begins to babble in German. What we learn later is that he is repeating the opening stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” a poem that along with Tennyson’s “Ulysses” makes every tweed-elbowed English professor weak in the knees.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:

Those are the lines Eddie keeps repeating, but it is the last stanza (which he never gets to) that shows how Kessler really feels about Nucky.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

We’ve seen Kessler dress Nucky, tie his shoes and even spoon-feed him. He has performed these functions not as a servant waits on an employer, but rather as a father dotes on a son. And, if we know one thing about Boardwalk Empire, it’s that when you strip away everything, this show is about one thing and one thing only:

The relationship between fathers and sons.

So, Eddie sees Nucky as a son. But, how does Nucky view Eddie? How telling is it that Nucky doesn’t even know where Eddie lives or if he has a family? Like a child who believes that his teacher lives in the classroom at school, Nucky seems to feel that Kessler exists only in Nucky’s limited world.

And, for me, that makes Nucky Imposter #1.

On to Chalky’s house where Mr. White has a decision to make. With Nucky and a wounded Eddie helpless in the back shed with Chalky’s would-be son-in-law and Gyp at the front door with 25K and an open hand, Chalky could easily have lifted the latch and stepped aside. With the way Nucky has treated him recently and in the past, nobody would have blamed him. But, Chalky stands his ground. He stiff arms Gyp and runs an end around with Nucky, sneaking him out the back door to the safety of young Will’s place of employment. Chalky is offered money at several points during the episode, by both Gyp and Nucky, but money is not the reason for his unwavering support. He’s pledged his loyalty to Nucky and his word is the sum of his net worth. Chalky is worth a million.

So, who is the other imposter? Is it Lucky? Maybe. As poorly as he played that drug deal, it may be. Seriously, haven’t gangsters learned by now that anytime somebody says they’re from Buffalo they’re either a cop or a government agent? I mean, how many times does this have to happen? Now, Charlie was an easy mark. Even as Meyer is realizing that Rothstein was right to wait on the drug trade, Charlie Looch is going off half-cocked to do a deal on a rooftop with two guys he’s never met. No wonder his nickname is Lucky. There’s no way he ever would have gotten as far as he did on the strength of his brains.

Is the other imposter Gillian? Hard to say. We’ve never really known who the real Gillian is. She’s so damaged and twisted that it’s impossible to know if the rational part of her mind even exists or if it checked out long ago. Her treatment of Richard is despicable, but not out of character. The one good part of Gyp occupying her bordello is that she’s forced to allow people to have sex in the parlor. This eliminates her fantasy that she’s running a health club and not a whorehouse. Now that Richard is effectively a soldier of fortune, we can expect some sort of resolution to the Richard-Julia-Gillian-Tommy imbroglio very soon.

No, I suspect that identity of Imposter #2 is revealed in the episode’s spectacular final scene. Nucky finally gets help thanks to a big assist from Eli (another guy who stepped up and showed his loyalty). Al Capone rides into town like a man on a white horse or, in his case, a black sedan.

“We’ve been on the road for 18 hours,” says Capone. “I need a bath, some grub and then we’ll talk about who dies.”

There, my friends, is the real deal. Not half a gangster. Not a sex-crazed megalomaniac. Just a straight-up, badass commander-in-chief.

Which means that Imposter #2 is Gyp Rosetti.

So, it turns out that the Two Imposters are the opposing generals. Seems fitting to me. After all, haven’t we learned time and time again that all generals are imposters in one way or another?

Until next week.

- CJ Kaplan

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While I almost always agree with my esteemed colleague from Needham, this time I think he’s shooting too low. Yes, on the surface level Boardwalk Empire is about the relationships between fathers and sons. Whether we’re talking about Nucky & Eddie or Richard & Tommy or Al & Johnny almost all of the relationships between male characters have a paternalistic element to them. But I think the show is really about the BIG father-son dynamic in the world: the relationship between God and Man, or more specifically, the relationship between righteousness and actions. Can a good man do bad things?

That’s why Margaret is such an important – albeit annoying – character on the show and why I know she’ll be back: she personifies the struggle between right and wrong. Her conscience and her desires are constantly at war. She desires, she sins, she repents, she forgives, she rinses and repeats.

In season 1 we watched Nucky metamorphasize from politician to gangster. His struggle was to try to hold onto his innate sense of self as a good person while committing increasingly bad acts. And while it’s never easy to squeeze a camel through the eye of the needle he somehow pulls it off: Nucky becomes half a gangster while still trying to be half a mensch.

In season 2 the balancing act can no longer be sustained, as brother turns on brother, father turns on son and commandments are broken like so many bottles of bathtub booze. The sins of the fathers and the sins of the sons have a much higher cost. Margaret quite literally tries to buy penance by gifting the blood money to the Church. Nucky’s payment is somewhat higher: his soul. Pulling the trigger on Jimmy turned him into a bad ass, and a bad man.

This season has seen our characters reveling in the seven deadly sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride. They’re sinners who deserve their gruesome fates, seemingly beyond redemption. And yet all is not lost for Nucky. Eli’s forgiveness, Eddie’s love and Chalky’s loyalty are giving him a glimmer of hope in the face of all that he’s lost.

My predictions for the finale:

Death for Gyp & Gillian.

Redemption for Nucky.

Humility for Meyer.

Victory for Arnold & Al.

Jail for Lucky & Daugherty.

Peace for Richard & Tommy.

Booze for all.

Giggles for Mickey Doyle.

- Mitch Blum

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