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Boardwalk Empire: “All In”

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In the season opener, Rothstein mentioned almost offhandedly, “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.” In this episode, he pays for it.

In an era of tightly-plotted, tragic-downfall television, Boardwalk Empire can seem almost quaint. Though there are always a few violent outbursts waiting in the wings, and every season tends to build to a major standoff, by and large, the show opts for a deliberate, meandering structure where narrative momentum will always come second to a scene of characters casually sniping at one another in a beautifully art-directed room followed by someone getting beaten up to meet blood quota. This show is framed like a sweeping drama about the ruthlessness of history; in practice, it’s a tone poem with a body count.

During the build to each season’s conclusion, the drama of the show hinges on getting viewers invested in the individual characters, real or fictitious, and the moments that illuminate them as people rather than the milestones on their various Wikipedia pages. And the small character moments on this show are one of its greatest strengths. Its cast is almost uniformly top-notch, thematic arcs build slowly but are often rewarding, and the show regularly allows a character to unspool at length, with the sort of internal logic that makes someone repeating mistakes a human failing rather than a plot failing. (The “Nucky Tries to Handle it With Money He Pretends to Despise” tic alone has been running four seasons straight.) But this also means quieter beats can be more engaging than larger ones, and narrative push can get lost.

Last season had a certain desperate drive because Gyp Rosetti was haunting everyone’s footsteps, an ever-more-unstable antagonist who actually had the power to make his enemies circle their wagons. In his wake, this season has been an exploration of the ripple effect that follows such a dramatic standoff. Chalky’s pushing through and on, and the Capones are taking every advantage they can get, but after Nucky’s wringer of a year, he’s aimless (so adrift he’s actually making plans this episode to move to Florida), ever dreaming of having an operation that runs itself, while surrounded by colleagues who are more than happy to step into the void. This slow-motion ripple effect has made the season so far a solid study of the effects of changing roles on this community of characters, but occasionally, this focus on the minutiae becomes momentum-sapping languor.

“All In” is no different. At its best, it presents beautifully-acted central characters making small mistakes that feel suitably momentous; at its worst, it’s an episode in which we see movement without drive in secondary plots that have been working to stay relevant until they actually become relevant. A third of the way through a season, this is an episode that has pivotal character beats and yet still feels like it’s trying to establish many of its arcs. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s not, someone you barely remember from a subplot no one cares about takes two scenes just to die of magnesium poisoning.

That would be Henry, by the way, Temple’s class bully (remember him?), whom Willy tries to prank in retaliation for getting caught last week on second base, and instead feeds a fatal dose of milk of magnesia. If this gets Willy kicked out of school and put on the fast track to the family business, that might be for the best, though not out of any particular investment in his character. And if he does go, he’ll be joining up as a desperate kid who doesn’t know when to stop, and the whole thing will probably break Eli’s heart, given his investment in his son and his determination to steer Willy free of the moonshine life. (In a father-son chat, Eli gets in a matter-of-factly heartbreaking, “You think I’m happy?”)


The flip side of this is one of the most insightful scenes of the season, as Rothstein agrees to bankroll the Tampa venture, and, unable to sit in a room by himself, demands he and Nucky take each other’s measure over a hand of poker. Everything leading to the game is complicated, right down to Chalky coming up to the office to announce Rothstein’s asked for Nucky (a messenger-boy role we know by now will be remembered and won’t sit well) and Rothstein making clear the game is a test of worth.

And then losing.

Arnold Rothstein so far in the series has been a paragon of success, strategy, and self-control, and watching him lose at something on multiple fronts infuses the entire last act with a certain breathless dread. Turning the game into a needling contest, Rothstein’s need to win has nothing to do with the astronomical kitty, and Nucky’s no fool: When he suggests there are other games, and Rothstein answers with a chilling, “No. There’s only the game you’re in now,” Nucky has the face of a man who already knew it. It’s a brilliant, tightly-wound picture of a man quietly imploding in a way that’s more chilling the more of him you know.


But it’s not Nucky, or even Rothstein, who’s all in: It’s Meyer Lansky. Sitting at Rothstein’s elbow, he alternately takes shit from the strangers at the table and tries to take care of Rothstein’s image in the absence of Rothstein’s usual self-awareness. The whole scene goes silent for a long moment after he whispers to Rothstein, “Wouldn’t it be best if people don’t see you like this?” It seems genuinely meant, as Rothstein is certainly smart enough to take the advice, and Lansky even stays behind to do damage control. (“He doesn’t like to lose,” he explains to Nucky, who delivers a perfectly Nucky, “Nobody likes to. We all have to learn how.”)

But when it’s obvious Nucky’s going to cut Rothstein out of the deal, Lansky doesn’t miss a beat before putting himself on the table for the Tampa investment. Nucky, who has had some hard lessons about how people can surprise you, asks for guarantee of character via personal anecdote. Lansky tells a childhood story about how he came to work with Luciano (Luciano stole his lunch money; Lansky spat in his face and took the subsequent fighting until Luciano invited him into the gang). This Lansky is quiet, confident, and just for a moment, childishly gleeful about this turn in his fortunes. Then he beats to death the man who insulted him at poker, because he’s happy to salvage Rothstein’s pride, but determined to keep his own.


And in a prime example of the character eddies which the show enjoys, Eddie Kessler gets one of the sweetest episode arcs in a while, with a clandestine assignment that earns him pride points (“I’m not a chauffeur, sir,” he gets to say, with the look of a man who’s been waiting years to say it), and then having an uneventful evening shooting the shit with Ralph Capone over steaks, then hanging out at his local bar for some bragging about his promotion and a few verses of “O du wunderschöner deutscher Rhein.” Shot like the final self-affirming montage of a feel-good holiday movie (Finding Eddie, opening this Christmas), it’s the kind of character snapshot Boardwalk Empire revels in. It’s also, as expected, a doomed venture: Agent Knox, having sworn, “I”ll find the weakest link in Thompson’s operation, and I’ll break it,” singles out Kessler for the privilege, and he’s carted away from the station to parts unknown. One of the most poignant moments of the episode, then, is Nucky coming home late, calling for an Eddie who isn’t there.

Beside these two beautifully-sketched character pieces, the other subplots feel natural but somehow superfluous. Narcisse effortlessly pins Dunn even more firmly under this thumb, though it strains credulity to think he would rely on Dunn enough to lean his Atlantic City drug trade on him. And Van Alden is palpably disgusted with O’Banion, who amuses himself with casual cruelties, and signs point to him soon working under Al Capone, who is increasingly confident and happily violent, with flashes of humor (his behavior to Guzik is a nice callback to last season, because when Al Capone is your friend, he cares enough to throw away your hospital food). It’s almost worth Van Alden’s Chicago displacement just to get Michael Shannon and Stephen Graham in scenes together; their reactions to one another are flawless comedy, with a shot of unsettling dread as Van Alden watches Capone gun down the same driver O’Banion terrorized, and realizes just how firmly wedged he is between two violent masters.


But though this is serviceable forward motion, it pales in comparison to the quiet, loaded standoff of Nucky and Rothstein over a hand of cards. They’re both levelheaded strategists who try not to hold grudges, largely by outmaneuvering the people who might give them anything to resent; they’ve each had plenty to hold against one another. They both pride themselves on being forward-thinking, despite long-held habits they fall into repeatedly; they both know how to wield the withering remark like a pistol. And business is always personal, which makes Nucky’s change of heart on Tampa a move he had to know was dangerous. It’s an example of what this show does best that in a show rife with violence, some of the biggest fighting words of the last seasons are contained in a four-word exchange between them: “People change.” “Do they?”

We’ll see.

Stray observations:

  • Okay, let’s talk. For all the things it’s great at doing, Boardwalk Empire has never been overly generous as regards its female characters. The few who make their way with any permanence into the cast are still apparently narratively expendable (Gillian plummeted from Lady-Macbeth antagonist to freelance junkie and occasional undercover wife, though there’s setup for her to rise from the ashes; we have no idea what Margaret can rise to, since she has yet to appear a third of the way through the season). It’s a shame; at her best-written, Margaret in particular was as complex, ambitious, and fallible as Nucky, and even when she wandered from the plot, her sphere often presented social constrictions the speakeasy world didn’t show us. (Last year’s hospital subplot was far from thrilling, but neatly illustrated how trapped Margaret felt in her ability to use her social power, and foreshadowed how her relationship with Nucky would finally fall apart past reconciliation.) But even for Boardwalk, this season has had a dearth of women who are actively involved in either the main storylines or even the side stories of their own. Gillian, one hopes, will come back swinging, but so far, aside from heroin injections, things have only happened to her.
  • The three women in this episode who have speaking roles share a dozen lines of dialogue. One of them is a Chicago apartment-dweller who gives the Capones entry to a victim’s apartment. One of them is a petulant coed. But one of them is Daughter Maitland, and I give Margot Bingham full marks for taking her throwaway scene and imbuing it with as much depth as she does: Is she a pawn of Narcisse or ambitious for reasons of her own? There should be more here, and quickly. (Her voice also needs its due; her honeyed rendition of “Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do” only gets a few bars, but fingers crossed for a full performance.)
  • Nucky Fooling Himself Of the Week, as he gives dropoff instructions to a dead-serious Kessler: “Don’t be so dramatic, it’s only money.”
  • Frank Capone once again spends the episode proving he’s a great foil for his brother’s utter lack of suavity. I’m sure that won’t get awkward soon.
  • Rothstein, who seems to be awfully prophetic about himself, reaches a five-minute fulfillment prophecy here, when he finally loses it at the poker table with a controlled but masterfully creepy fit at the dealer, who glanced at Lansky: “Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him. Look at me. I’m the player.”