‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “Sunday Best”
‘Boardwalk Empire‘ takes a break from the politicking to celebrate the holy day of Easter in “Sunday Best.” But nothing is quite as peaceful and quiet as all would seem — like the Easter eggs hidden in Eli’s front yard, there’s troubled hearts and minds buried in every corner.
“Keep us ever mindful of the needs of others,” Richard prays in the Sagorski kitchen during Easter lunch, where Julia has thoughtfully tucked him away to eat in peace. And there’s a lot of need going around in this week’s episode, starting with the needs of Mr. Sagorski, an alcoholic, veteran, and father grieving for the loss of his son. When he finds young Tommy playing with his son’s toy soldiers and Indians, he flips out and Richard takes Julia and Tommy off to a carnival, where he makes careful overtures to his new friend. Richard needs a woman to replace Angela, who replaced his sister — someone who is unconditionally kind and can look past his face to appreciate his gentle heart.
And speaking of replacements, Gillian is still using Fake Jimmy to fill her void (so to speak), ushering Richard and Tommy and the entire staff out of the house so she can have a day with her surrogate son. What he believes to be a sex tour of the giant mansion turns out to be something much more dark; as they move from room to room, Gillian prepares him — first with speeches about ghosts, sunlight and shadows, and dreams, and then with a home-cooked meal. And finally, she moves him to the bathroom, where she gets him into the tub so she can bathe him, in a sequence that shows off the way ‘Boardwalk Empire’ can quietly mine intensity from the calmest and most serene moments — sometimes literally, as is the case here with the majestic marble bathroom and the welcoming waters of the tub. As Gillian might say, it’s the stuff dreams are made of, but we know better by now, and watching her slowly bathe Fake Jimmy with a sponge becomes a scene of terror. Gillian hits him with some of that heroin she nabbed from Luciano last week, but she’s not interested in getting him high — instead, she drowns him in the tub and places Jimmy’s necklace around his neck before staging the whole thing to seem like an accident for her women to find later.
I spoke last week about Gillian’s compelling psychology, and the way it might be hard for some people to appreciate the way her character is built because it’s easier to hold on to your immediate reaction to the incest with Jimmy from season two. That reveal was delightfully horrifying — the kind of thing that makes you laugh uncomfortably — but something that shocking has the power to keep people distracted, and I think we get the same thing here. It’s easy to be grossed out by her affair with this Jimmy lookalike, but it’s harder to understand why she does it. And the conclusion to that arc is played beautifully here — Gillian exerted total control over Jimmy, carefully manipulating and nurturing him inappropriately over the years. It only makes sense that she would kill Fake Jimmy now because it’s the only way she can finally let go. She could never admit that Jimmy died because of himself or someone else. Only she can kill her son because only she controls his life, and it’s hard to say what bothers her more — the loss of her child, or the loss of control; she loves both so much.
After sitting a week out following his strongest episode yet, Gyp Rosetti is making a comeback — slowly. This week finds him preparing his suit for Sunday lunch and we meet his mother and his sisters, who are about as stereotypically Italian as you might expect in this scenario. This little peek at the bossy and demanding women in Gyp’s personal life is enough to help us understand his control issues, but that point is driven home by a startling scene in a Catholic church later on, where Gyp starts yelling at a stained glass Jesus. Gyp never asked for this life and he never had a choice, and it’s strangely unsurprising to discover this information. If we think about ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Wire’ (which I am currently watching and enjoying the hell out of), there’s a pattern in the criminal element where the younger generation is often ushered in through tragic necessity or environmental factors — so with someone like Gyp, it’s easy to understand that his father was probably a mobster and probably died, leaving him to care for his mother and sisters, and he inherited the family business.
The Thompsons come together this week, free of Billie Kent and Owen Sleater and the Harding administration and everything else that’s been giving everyone a damn headache over there. Eli and his wife host a family lunch where they will finally meet Margaret. Little Emily impresses with her ability to memorize the names of all eight of Eli’s kids (I’m glad someone can keep up), and Nucky thinks she would make a fine politician some day, to which Teddy responds that women cannot be politicians, and Nucky reminds him of England’s queens. In this moment we get a glimpse of the sensibility that drew Margaret to her husband in the first place, but the truth is that there are no real queens in the world of ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ The closest you’ll come is posing, like Gillian Darmody, who can barely afford to keep the lights on in her brothel, or Billie Kent, for whom the spotlight — as Eddie Cantor told her last week — is fleeting.
Lunch goes over well at Eli’s, with the family honoring old traditions like searching for Easter eggs and showing off their talents. Steve Buscemi takes a break and reminds us all that he has a warm sense of humor when he puts on the most ridiculous juggling act with a few eggs and some delightful puns. In the garage, Eli reminds him that he went to jail for 16 months and asks what else he could possibly do to make amends for his wrong-doings of season two, when Nucky gives him this speech about getting into bed with his enemies and how much it hurt him personally — and really, this could be a speech Margaret gives to Nucky herself. He doesn’t understand how much he’s hurting her, and she can barely understand it herself. Unable to talk to anyone about her personal problems, she finally cracks when left alone with Eli’s wife for a few minutes, intimating that the marriage is making her miserable thanks to the dishonesty — in both work and affairs — of her husband. And even June fails to find the words to say, changing the topic to something much more proper and less incendiary — pineapple upside down cake.
The moment is incredibly crushing, with Margaret saying how she feels suffocated, but it has to be all the more suffocating when she can’t find a single person to empathize or commiserate or just listen and maybe understand — just a little — what she’s going through. June does understand, and so she gives her a small pity-touch on the shoulder, but it’s all she can give. She’s too grateful to Nucky for helping her family when he had every right to close the door on them for good because of what Eli did, so speaking ill of him or even indulging Margaret in this conversation is inappropriate. But it’s even more depressing to think that Margaret is emotionally stranded because all roads lead back to Nucky — everyone is in his pocket in some way.
Nucky and Margaret almost reconnect at the end of the episode, when he offers to teach her how to juggle (an obvious double-meaning), and she assures him — twice — that it’s just too late for that. It’s too late to woo her, it’s too late to make it right, and it’s too late to teach her how to juggle because she’s taking Owen Sleater out to the greenhouse in the middle of the night.