“Am I interesting now?”, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) asks menacingly in tonight’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” And the answer is yes — but not always. While audiences are grateful to see him back tonight, along with some other key characters, “Spaghetti & Coffee” wasn’t quite as compelling as last week’s season premiere.
“Boardwalk’s” biggest flaw is its inconsistency: Some episodes are packed with shocking twists and character kill-offs, while others are more melancholy and lack momentum. Episode 2 from Season 3 is part of the lull interval, generating that slow burn. It doesn’t make viewers squirm or leave them with their jaws wide open — which they’ve grown to love. Even when a tense confrontation between rival gangs at the end of the episode commands attention, it ends in an non-violent, frustrating denouement.
Chalky White and Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) are both central to the episode, and struggling as heads of their households. White rules with an iron fist, using fear to eclipse his lack of academic skills and his criminal exploits, as well as to pressure his daughter into marrying a soft-spoken doctor.
Eli, on the other hand, is a broken man after spending time in prison. Upon his release, his clothes and the expression on his gaunt face have stern, almost pious look — recalling Agent Van Alden in earlier seasons. He feels disconnected from his brother, the bootlegging business, and has had plenty of time to develop a new attitude. But Eli is still a beta dog — and seeing that his son has taken on the role of patriarch is too much for him to stomach. He acquiesces back into illegal work, without even having a chance to consult with his brother.
Nucky is spending a few days in New York with his mistress, and while he enjoys her company more than that of his own wife, he’s irked by her promiscuity — including her relationship with her “landlord,” Arnold Rothstein. Nucky’s “full gangster” dark side still haunts the audience, especially when he’s cooking Billie dinner (how many wondered if he had poisoned her food, with his “finish every scrap” comment?).
Also while in New York, Thompson encounters Gaston Means, a fed with a very strange demeanor. He’s collecting payoffs anonymously and rubs Nucky the wrong way with his doublespeak and riddles. We smell problems with this guy ahead.
Margaret continues to forge ahead with her work at the hospital, showing an admirable level of determination. It’s an uphill battle, and patients, friends, and doctors alike discourage her efforts. Though her relationship with Nucky is now tainted by affairs and lies, she’s aware of her husband’s sins — and she’d like to finagle salvation for her conscious however possible.
However, she cannot avoid Owen Slater (Charlie Cox), whose presence and continued affection for her (the stuff shipper dreams are made of!) makes Margaret uncomfortable. He’s now Nucky’s right hand man — and in his own way fills the giant void for eye candy left in Jimmy Darmody’s absence. But as BE audiences know, working closely with Nucky doesn’t guarantee safety. Slater’s death even seems imminent for a few moments during the confrontation with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) in fictional Tabor Heights, NJ (“I got a gun. He got a gun. He got a gun. Everybody got guns!”).
Gyp’s characterization as a hotheaded bully continues to grow — so rapidly, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine him staying alive past this season. We get it: He’s hungry for money and power, he enjoys intimidating people, and he has a severe a sensitive spot for people who make fun of his heritage or vocab skills. But even two episodes in, Rosetti seems to lack the sort of strength or potential that some of Nucky’s other foes (Rothstein, Van Alden, Jimmy Darmody) have possessed.
Of course, the show’s depth rests on the grimey side of things: Violence, corruption, racism, sexism, and each character’s desire for control. Since those dark dimensions are so numerous, what tends to elevate a “Boardwalk Empire” episode is a burst of next-level shock or game-changing betrayal. And episodes like tonight’s — which are more historically contextual, nuanced or detail-oriented — end up being a bit of a sleeper.
Lessons in “Boardwalk” History:
While Billie is crouched on the ground tending to her leaky radiator, Nucky tells her she looks like the “White Rock Girl.” He’s referencing an advertising campaign in the ’20s by White Rock beverage company (which produced seltzer and sodas, frequently used as mixers). The ads featured a topless winged fairy (based off the Greek myth of Psyche) leaning off a rock and gazing into a pool of water.