‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “A Man, a Plan”
It seems all a man needs is a plan — and we get a simple episode filled with men and their simple plans and schemes in this week’s ‘Boardwalk Empire.’
“The best laid schemes of Mice and Men
oft go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”
That quote is from poet Robert Burns’ ‘To a Mouse,’ published in 1785, and it inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s classic novel ‘Of Mice and Men,’ much as I suspect it inspired “A Man, a Plan.” And every man has a plan in this week’s episode — all simple, but none of which go accordingly.
Both the opening and closing scenes this week mirror the opening credits, with bottles of whiskey washing ashore on the beach, the result of Gyp’s boat shipments through Tabor Heights losing a few boxes along the way. New hire Franco speaks up and offers that perhaps the boat captain lost the boxes due to “rogue waves” — these happen when a shift in the wind creates opposing forces, turning the water against itself. It’s unpredictable and volatile, and doesn’t it sound just like Gyp? But Gyp doesn’t want to be taught things or given explanations, and he certainly doesn’t need some know-it-all speaking up out of turn, so Franco finds himself buried up to his head in sand, and as a “favor” to the guy’s cousin, Gyp only beats his head to pulp with a shovel, killing him quickly, rather than drawing it out. Gyp isn’t the kind of man who has rational plans or traditional motives — he is a man driven purely by primitive desire and ego, making his plans the most dangerous of all.
At the Ritz Carlton, Nucky is busy playing with one of those wooden peg games, where the goal is to jump the pegs over each other one at a time until only one is left standing. “A Man, a Plan” uses heavy-handed metaphors like this one and the rogue waves to great effect, undercutting the straightforward simplicity and softness that comprises so much of this week’s episode. Nucky’s plan is simple: send Owen off to kill Joe Masseria, which leaves Gyp Rosetti weak and without an army to back him, and much easier to kill. But as we saw last week, Masseria isn’t really backing Rosetti when it comes to Nucky — the man is all business.
And so we say farewell to Mr. Owen Sleater, and though I wasn’t surprised, his death was still heartbreaking — more so thanks to Kelly MacDonald’s stunning and upsetting reaction to seeing dear Mr. Sleater dead in a wooden crate. From the moment this season introduced the idea that Owen and Margaret would try to run away from Nucky together, I knew his death was imminent. Either Nucky would kill him or he’d find himself dead as the result of an occupational hazard, but things could not possibly end well for Owen, who made some simple plans of his own this week — first with Katie, promising to marry her just to keep her suspicions about Margaret at bay, and then with Margaret herself, promising to take her off to St. Louis.
For Margaret, a simple plan from last week is dismissed when her women’s health classes are shut down and Dr. Mason hands her the diaphragm she requested, noting that she seems pale, to which she replies that it’s nothing she hasn’t dealt with before — and by that she means both the silencing of her voice and the pregnancy. And if you didn’t catch that she’s pregnant, the end of the episode does this clumsy pirouette back to the conversation between Margaret and Owen in the sitting room, where she reveals the pregnancy. This scene — I could probably write an entire page on how powerful the dialogue alone is and how wise it was to cut this portion out and reveal it only when Owen turned up dead. We’re given so much information to tie everything together beautifully, and the exposition is a little clunky juxtaposed against Margaret grieving quietly in her white night gown by the window in the dark, but a punch to the gut doesn’t need to be tidy and clean. It needs to be messy to be completely effective.
And so Margaret asks Owen if he’s lying to her instead of Katie — how can she be sure if it’s so easy for him to tell lies to Katie? These are things Margaret should have considered with Nucky, and she knows that now. Owen says that he’ll just tell Katie something convincing and she’ll never see him again, and so we wonder if maybe Owen knew his time was up, and maybe this was him convincing Margaret that everything would be okay.
Or maybe this show is just intent on making me cry. I consider the last line in that excerpt from the Burns poem — “And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy,” and I think of Margaret screaming at Owen’s dead body and touching his hair while Nucky slowly realizes (way to catch up, pal) that the affection between Owen and his wife was much more than he ever imagined. Having just experienced the loss of his own adulterous partner for whom he cared deeply, can Nucky empathize with his wife? Or will he turn callous and cruel? We’ve seen that he has in him the capacity for both, but I’m anxious to find out if Margaret even gives him a chance to make a play at either.
Nucky has another simple plan this week, too: he pays Gaston Means $40,000 to off Jes Smith so the fragile man won’t out him to the government, even though Gaston needs him dead anyway for the same reason. But Gaston is a cunning man, so he schemes Harry Daugherty out of $40,000 in exchange for killing Jes. It didn’t seem likely that someone like Gaston Means would be knuckle-deep in dirty work, but he creeps into Jes’ bedroom anyway, only to be surprised when Jes is out of bed and waiting with a gun, and after a little tense discussion, Jes shoots himself in the head. If anyone’s plans are working — albeit inadvertently — it’s Gaston, who just walked away with $80,000 without lifting a finger.
Meanwhile, Lucky Luciano strikes out trying to sell heroin off to Rothstein, who regales the boys with the definition of “potting” — a snooker term, which describes when a player is unable to score a point, so he hits the ball in such a way to keep his opponent from scoring as well. Rothstein would rather abstain from the heroin business while the liquor trade is on such shaky ground, and so Lucky makes an offer to Joe Masseria: he’ll sell Masseria the heroin, and to prove he’s trustworthy, he’ll tip the boss off to Nucky’s plans.
And over in Chicago, George Mueller/Van Alden finds himself in trouble with Al Capone when he sells his Norwegian wife’s booze to a local barkeep in Capone’s territory. I’m still not sure how all of this will tie into the goings-on in Atlantic City, but so far it’s just been an often amusing — but seemingly irrelevant — little side trip in the overall scheme of the season.
As for Richard, his plan is simple too: he just wants to be with Julia and rescue her from her alcoholic father. Of all the simple plans this week, Richard’s is the purest and simplest, but fails to connect with the other arcs in any meaningful way.
One more thing: Nucky better let Chalky White build that nightclub with those “chandelabras.” And also: More Chalky White!