‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “The Good Listener”
Crime just isn't what it used to be. That's something that 'Boardwalk Empire' has perhaps ruminated on since the beginning, but something that has become more and more glaring with each passing season, with the introduction of foils and central conflicts for Nucky Thompson and the other major criminal players in New York and Chicago to navigate. Perhaps the reason why the fifth and final season has thus far felt as disorienting as the opening shot of "The Good Listener" is that there's no real singular conflict or thread running through it all. In the vernacular of 'The Big Lebowski,' there's no rug to tie this room together, man.
Tonight we catch up with the action in Chicago, and while the pairing of Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon (who have worked together before, most recently in Jeff Nichols' 'Take Shelter') delivers some delightful dark comedy, it's the Al Capone situation that sheds some light on just where we are with 'Boardwalk Empire' this season. Previous seasons have introduced agents of chaos (Gyp Rosetti) or pot-stirrers (Esther Randolph) that help set up an elegant domino effect of conflict that must be resolved by season's end; this element also serves as a narrative thread to unite the plot elements, if not literally, then at least thematically. Chicago has always been sort of ancillary, but at least fun to check in with and usually reflects the New York dealings on a thematic level.
We're only two episodes in, but season 5 feels adrift; perhaps it's intentional in some ways, but in others it feels sort of frustrating. Every time we think we've got something to hold onto, the world spins again and we're somewhere else, disoriented and trying to get our bearings. We're in a time period that's transitional. There's no singular threat or conflict like Gyp Rosetti (who gets a passing mention tonight), and the more the years have passed, the farther away Nucky gets from "the way things used to be." There was a day and age when organized crime was much classier, and now it's Al Capone in a hotel room giving quotes to Variety about the films based on his life, while some poor schmuck counts all his cash; from class to crass. Watching the transition between Nucky standing outside Maranzano's to Eli and Van Alden peeking out of a window in Chicago is a truly beautiful and seamless piece of editing, and one which also highlights the season's transitional state.
It's tough to get a read on just about everyone's motivations right now, and for as frustrating as the needlessly ongoing flashbacks are, the way that everyone is playing their cards so close to the vest is delightful. If Rothstein were still alive, he'd be thrilled. We have no idea if William Thompson is playing his uncle or the attorney general; whether he means to use his potential position to help his uncle skirt the law, or if he's using his uncle's money to repair the damage inflicted upon him by his father and spend his life putting men like Eli and Nucky behind bars. If Nucky is good at teaching anything it's opportunism and "every man for himself," but I wouldn't be surprised to see that lesson beautifully backfire.
The best moments this week involve sit downs: the one between Nucky and Maranzano, as the latter discusses the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius ("I'm a Benjamin Franklin man myself") and the latter makes some skeptical assessments about the men surrounding his new acquaintance. Then there's the sit down between Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky (quelle surprise), Benny Siegel, and Tonino Sandrelli, who are plotting to make a move on Maranzano. Nucky sits with Johnny Torrio, who suggests he retire, and it's not the first time someone's made that suggestion -- verbally or otherwise. Nucky's Cuban bodyguard sits as Nucky paces, pondering his lot and the choices he's made, good and bad; do you think the wealthy man who has it all has to engage in acts of violence to keep what he has?
And then Nucky sits down with Tonino, someone who doesn't seem that important, in a place that doesn't seem that important, either. But that's kind of the point and kind of the brilliance of it. A guy like Tonino seems disposable, and he knows it, and he hears and sees it all. Nucky is and has always been a patient opportunist, and Tonino is a desperate guy. Just as the Commodore saw the significance in everyone no matter their station, so does Nucky see the importance in someone like Tonino -- everything has significance and there are no coincidences. Just look at the photo above the table where they were sitting. (Although this scene might have been better had it not been pointed out by the waiter.)
If we've been spinning out over the last two episodes, the final moment this week brings us to an abrupt halt -- and it does so in an almost literal move. Luciano winds up dead with a greeting card from Havana stabbed into his face (a little revisionist history), just as Lansky is instructing a bartender on how to treat a bottle of rum, of all things. It's one of those moments that 'Boardwalk Empire' is so good at -- gruesome in a sort of elegant way, with that jarringly cheerful music playing us into the credits. It feels like things are getting back to normal, but then again...
- We also checked in with Gillian this week, who is currently relaxing in a sanitarium and doing favors for the head guard or warden, or whatever you want to call the woman in power there. I'm not exactly sure what that entails -- allowing her to try on Gillian's dresses in exchange for allowing Gillian to send letters? It's a little nebulous right now, but the great news is that we're not done seeing Gillian act all wacky. So that's fun.
- We got our first peek at Jim True-Frost (PREZ!) at Eliot Ness, who has just been charged with bringing down Al Capone. Sorry, Al.
- Clouds float because of the atmosphere.