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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “The Pony”

HBO

“The Pony” is quite the, uh, explosive episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ isn’t it? While the wheels spin in the personal lives of our characters, the business end of things just keeps plowing straight ahead.

Wow. That ending, huh? It’s hard to predict such big action on any given episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ but “The Pony” carries a certain subdued tone that indicates that things could implode — or, in this case, explode — at any moment. Nucky takes a lunch with Gaston Means and Esther Randolph and gets a way into the country club that Andrew Mellon frequents, tipping him off to George Remus and Jes Smith and their dealings with Daugherty in exchange for the ability to operate the large distillery Mellon owns. At first Mellon seems rather cold, but by the end of the episode he comes around. Unfortunately for Nucky, a gangster needs to look both ways because someone is always waiting for him to stick his hand in a pocket and get distracted.

And that distraction comes from Billie Kent and from the deal with Mellon. My first clue that this episode had a surprise in store was the way it focused on Kent away from Nucky, but when they finally find each other the pair get into a long-gestating fight, spurred on by her acting partner, who refers to Nucky as “Sir” and finds himself on the receiving end of a surprisingly powerful punch (or several). Nucky doesn’t like not asking questions he’s not allowed the answers to, and we’ve seen this idea of a role reversal for a while, with Nuck finally being the one who has to sit by and keep his mouth shut while his girlfriend pals around with other men. It’s hypocritical, of course, just like the relationships on ‘The Sopranos.’ The men on that show — primarily Tony — were always cheaters, but if their women were to step out behind their backs, it wouldn’t be okay.

Meanwhile, Margaret and Owen are still at it, this time in the car after picking out a pony for young Emily. It’s less interesting thematically than Margaret’s run-in with Mrs. Shearer, who expresses that the women’s health classes aren’t teaching her anything she didn’t already know, and she drank the unpasteurized milk that caused her miscarriage on purpose — she needs a diaphragm, you see, and it’s Margaret’s voice that’s going to help her get it and put an end to her husband’s endless insistence that they have more children.

This week’s episode focuses a lot on the value of life and life’s values. With Mrs. Shearer, there’s a value to her own life that takes precedence over having more children for her pushy husband, and a startling examination of the way women begin, at this time, to take ownership of their own bodies in a time when such a thing wasn’t allowed or spoken of. And for Margaret, values — what’s good and what’s bad, right and wrong — are no longer of concern given her dalliances with Mr. Sleater, which I suppose makes it easier for her to go to Dr. Mason with a request for not one diaphragm, but two. Heaven forbid Owen knock her up and they’re found out, since she’s clearly not having sex with her husband right now.

For Gillian Darmody, the value of her son’s life is of such great importance that the lives of others mean nothing, and with that in mind, she calls on Gyp Rosetti and tips him off to Nucky, Rothstein, and Luciano’s dinner arrangements at Babette’s later that evening, you know, just in case Rosetti wants to show up with a surprise. I hadn’t considered last week that Gillian would be using the body of Fake James for the purpose of acquiring the title to the house, though I still think that using him as a symbol to acknowledge her son’s death was an equally important element of that plot. During the fake funeral for “Jimmy,” Richard Harrow says, “Jimmy deserved better than this” — “this,” of course, meaning the fake funeral with the big fake show and the fake tears, and yes, even his own mother. And so this week is about values and life, and the value of life, but it’s also about what is deserved in the eye of the beholder. Gillian finally intimates to Nucky that she knows he killed Jimmy, and then tosses a glass of whiskey in his face before setting about with her own revenge plot. But to Nucky, Gillian barely deserves his generosity in allowing her to exist in Atlantic City, even if he took her son away and even if they share a past. He owes her nothing, just like he doesn’t owe anything to any woman, but they all owe him something, don’t they?

But back to Gyp’s surprise — what a surprise it was. As Nuck, Rothstein, and Luciano stroll the boardwalk with a newly-blonde Billie tagging behind, we wait for the moment when Gyp will strike. Will it be like the assassination attempt of season one, or when Jimmy shot Nucky in the hand during his failed attempt at the restaurant last season? No, instead it’s when Billie scampers ahead to the restaurant to wait for the gentlemen to conclude their business, and as she stands outside the door the action slows and we see the slightest widening of her eyes in the entryway just before a huge explosion ravages the boardwalk. Nucky, Rothstein, and Luciano are okay, if a bit beaten up (and if they had killed Rothstein, I may have lost my mind — I just adore Michael Stuhlbarg), but Billie Kent is, pardon the pun, out of the picture. I suppose this also works out okay for Nucky’s wallet, since he’d just signed over a lifetime annuity to the rising star — another great show of Nucky’s “generosity,” and the only way he knows how to keep a woman is by keeping her in his pocket next to his wallet.

Over in Chicago, Johnny Torrio’s just returned from a visit to Italy and it’s time for he and Capone to make amends with the O’Bannion gang, who now have George/Van Alden in their pocket. While everyone is feisty after Capone murdered one of O’Bannion’s guys, Torrio tells the story of Pompeii — of how these people lived at the base of a mountain and had no idea it was really a volcano just waiting to erupt. The volcanic material perfectly preserved the people it killed, including a blacksmith who was frozen with his hammer mid-air — see, he was more scared of losing his money than his life, so what’s a murder between gangs anyway?

Van Alden seems to be slipping into his new role as gangster quite nicely, making some bootleg whiskey in the kitchen with the help of his wife, who’s smart enough to make extra for them to sell on the side so they can stay in Cicero and Van Alden can keep his job as an iron salesman. Speaking of which, aside from that great ending, Van Alden gets the scene of the week when he’s prompted to awkwardly demonstrate his salesmanship to his boss using a fellow employee as a stand-in for a foul-mouthed housewife. There was something unsettling enough about letting Michael Shannon hold that hot iron in his hand while watching this guy piss him off and embarrass him in front of everyone, and it was only a matter of time before his co-worker got an iron to the side of the face. The sequence is played with delightful camp, watching the employees hide behind a partition and scream as if a monster is tearing through their office, smashing typewriters while this man lies on the ground screaming in agony. Van Alden rushes home and starts packing, hilariously suggesting he and his wife and the kids (when did that second baby show up, anyway?) run off anywhere she wants — except for New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, of course.

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