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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “All In”

Boardwalk Empire All In
HBO

“All In,” the fourth season 4 episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ represents a turning point — up until now we’ve been taking a leisurely stroll down the block, getting reacquainted with our old friends and looking on as they make the choices that will set up the action for the rest of the season. But now we take a sharp turn around the corner, down a very dark alley. 

“All In” has that perfect juxtaposition of laugh out loud moments (Eddie Kessler and Ralph Capone — ‘Wire’ star Domenick Lombardozzi — drinking it up and singing with zee Germans) and shocking gut-punches (more on that in a bit) — the kind of stuff we’ve become accustomed to with fine HBO drama like ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Wire.’ One minute we’re yukking it up, and the next we’re clutching our chests.

Nucky makes some serious statements this week in that calculated careless manner only Nucky can pull off — first, he tells Eddie not to worry about those shady cash drops because it’s “just money” after all. If all this money is just meaningless, then what’s the point of anything? Why does Rothstein gamble when he’s down on his luck, and why does Nucky want to make such a risky deal in Tampa? Where these men obscure their motivations with games of chance — both figurative, and in tonight’s episode, literal — guys like Dr. Narcisse and the Capone boys are more overt; it’s about power, it’s about status, it’s about respect, and in some cases, it’s about infamy.

Later, Nucky asks Meyer Lansky what kind of man he is — not what he’s accomplished with others in partnerships, but who he really is. Up until now, Lansky has been Rothstein’s shadow, and tonight we see how he’s more like A.R.’s mother hen, nudging him to give up the poker game after he borrows hundreds of thousands from Nucky’s establishment and loses it all. Rothstein, who childishly needs to be pacified with milk and cake, seems delicate in contrast to Lansky, which is perhaps why their partnership works so well. Where Rothstein is pasty and soft-spoken, Lansky is robust and erupts into action (discreetly, in a back alley, of course). And it’s Lansky who makes the Tampa deal with Nucky, after Nucky realizes that A.R.’s bad luck streak extends beyond the poker table, and perhaps has more to do with bad judgment.

But back to that question, which applies to everyone tonight: what kind of man are you? If you’re the Capone brothers, you’re the kind of men to put a bullet in O’Bannion’s lackey and intimidate Van Alden into switching sides. If you’re Nucky, you’re going to take risks, even when recent history has taught you that maybe you should play it safe; conversely, if you’re Rothstein, you’re going to do the same. If you’re Dunn Pursley, you’re going to march right on up to Harlem and prove yourself to Dr. Narcisse by beating a man senseless (yet another one of Narcisse’s bizarre and sinister “cultured” mind games). And if you’re Willie Thompson, eldest son of Eli, well …

Up until now, it’s been unclear what purpose Willie’s story serves. Tonight, when he’s smarting from last week’s run-in with college bully Freddy, dad Eli tells him he’s got broad shoulders, and he should use them. But while fighting fire with fire might work in the bootlegging business, it’s not great advice for dealing with conflicts at school. Willie and his pal spike Freddy’s booze with a homemade batch of milk of magnesia — an experiment that echoes the bathtub booze-making enterprises of the era. But their plan backfires, and Freddy is found the next morning — after he’s been up all night “going to the bathroom” — his body and the tiles covered in blood, his lifeless, eerie face pressed against the floor. It’s one of the most horrifying visual moments in recent ‘Boardwalk Empire’ history, and exactly the sort of gut-wrenching, sneaky stuff at which the show excels. And now we know what kind of man Willie is, even unwittingly. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

But what kind of man will Eddie Kessler be after the feds are done with him? Agent Knox announces that he’s going to bring Nucky down by going after the weakest link in his chain and smashing it — and that link is Eddie. Poor, noble, loyal Eddie, who is so proud of his new promotion. It’s been so wonderful to see Eddie get more to do this season, it’s just saddening for his character that it’s all been a set-up for this moment. Will Eddie break, as Knox is determined to break him, or will he remain loyal to his boss of 11 years (as of this past November, he explains to Ralph)?

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