“Ordinary men avoid trouble. Extraordinary men turn it to their advantage.”
This week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, ‘Spaghetti and Coffee,’ wasn’t quite on par with last week’s season opener, but thanks to some tremendous performances and the seeds of storylines on the horizon, it still managed to be solid from beginning to end.
The episode opens with an unknown figure (who would later be revealed to be Gaston Means; the new middle man between Nucky and his political buddies portrayed by wonderful character actor Stephen Root) dumping out a fishbowl into a sink, leaving a solitary goldfish out of its confines and gasping for air, only to then move the fish into a much smaller glass. This visual analogy works on so many levels with Boardwalk Empire as everyone is looking for the next big thing, usually ending up in just another confined space.
The immediate connection the fish scene makes is to the now noticeably gaunt Eli Thompson, who returns this week after having served his prison sentence after taking the fall for Nucky last season after trying to have him killed. The easiest comparison to draw is, no matter his surroundings, Eli is still a prisoner. He had a good life as Atlantic City’s sheriff and Nucky’s right hand, but in so was still trapped and under the control of his brother. He tried to make his own play and ended up literally imprisoned; a fate still better than what Jimmy Darmody received for his transgressions. Now, being released back into the world, he’s met by Mickey Doyle; one of Nucky’s longtime stooges that Eli, nor myself, can believe is still alive. To add insult to injury, Doyle has been instructed to make Eli one of his new lackeys. Oh Eli, how the mighty have fallen.
Eli’s return home doesn’t help matters. He arrives to find a family that’s been carrying on and growing without him, including his eldest son who’s begun working to keep the family afloat in Eli’s absence. He’s filled with remorse over lost time and that, at least for the time being, he’s no longer the leader of his home. As Eli realizes his lack of place in the world, you can sense his wonder if death would have been a preferable alternative to seeing what his life has become. I have a feeling this is going to be a dark season for Eli, and it all starts with conceding to work for Mickey.
As nice as it was to see Eli return this week, it was even better to see Chalky White. Noticeably absent from the season opener, ‘Spaghetti and Coffee’ features Chalky early on and dedicates quite a bit of screen time to him and those around him. Chalky finds himself at odds with his daughter, Maybelle, and what both want for her life and future. Maybelle’s boyfriend, Samuel, approaches Chalky early on about asking Maybelle to be his wife. After an intense grilling on his medical knowledge, Chalky not only gives his blessing but thinks it will be good for his daughter and the family to have a doctor. Problem is, Maybelle isn’t ready to settle down. Even if she was, she finds Samuel rather boring, especially compared to the legend that is her father. Chalky doesn’t want to hear it, and insists that she’ll be marrying Samuel, regardless of her opinion on the matter.
In what is equal parts an act of defiance against her father as much as it is trying to get Samuel to be more exciting, Maybelle and Samuel go out to Chalky’s night club. An incident ensues with another patron leaving Samuel with a knife slash across his face and Dunn Purnsley jumping in and viciously beating the knife-wielding patron within an inch of his life. Chalky, furious with his daughter, asks her if she thinks he’s as “interesting” now. The badass tales are always glamorous until one comes face-to-face with the truth those tales are based in. Right now I’d say a boring doctor probably sounds quite nice, but I’ve got a feeling Chalky’s family issues are far from over.
What normally would seem like a diversion from the overall plot turns into rich character development, thanks in no small part to the acting powerhouse that is Michael K. Williams, who portrays Chalky on the show. Any time Williams is on screen, everything just feels more important and intense. This was also a welcome change of pace for the Chalky character. Granted it led to violence, it’s refreshing to see the writers’ flesh Chalky out more and continue to make him less one-dimensional. With a show so loaded with characters, I know Chalky won’t be in every episode, but here’s hoping we see a lot more of him this season.
Then there’s Nucky, the show’s central character who honestly felt the most out of place this week. He’s shacked up with Billie, his new girl on the side in New York, and it’s negatively affecting his business and life decisions. He’s ignoring his business, his wife and family and even forgetting what day it is. Nucky also finds himself becoming a tad bit jealous of Billie and her possible other suitors. All of this adds up to a Nucky severely off his game and has inadvertently left his business associates out in the cold and in quite a predicament; a predicament courtesy of one Gyp Rosetti.
After coming off as little more than a mindless thug in the season premiere, Rosetti showed that there might be some brains behind the brawn. Having been scorned by Nucky, Rosetti sets a plan in motion to halt Nucky’s transport of booze to Rothstein in New York, thus becoming a thorn in the side of both big players. Rosetti has not only bought the last gas station between New Jersey and New York, he’s also bought the local police, further insuring that no booze will be making it out of Atlantic City. Rosetti has cemented himself as a true player and, from what we’ve seen of him, more than willing to be the gangster that Nucky probably could never be.
Other notable moments:
– ‘Spaghetti and Coffee’ sounds like an absolutely terrible combination
– I love that Dunn Purnsley continues to be Chalky’s right hand of doom.
– There seemed to be some flirting between Margaret and the smarmy Dr. Mason.
– Rosetti brings such an ominous feeling whenever he speaks to a stranger. So good.
– When in a pinch, Owen turned to Eli instead of Mickey. Could Eli rise back up the ranks?
As I said from the start, ‘Spaghetti and Coffee’ wasn’t near as good as the season premiere, but it still remained solid. The pacing still felt kicked up a notch, but something felt off, namely Nucky. Last week featured a seemingly invigorated Nucky being the player and gangster, but one week later and we’re presented with a Nucky that seems to want out of the whole business. This obviously isn’t true, and Rosetti’s latest move will hopefully snap Nucky back into action, but it did feel like a bit of a misstep for his character.
– Matt Hardeman