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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “Cuanto”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “Cuanto”
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You come to me in need. Anything else would be cruel.”
How much to go home?”

It’s the least surprising thing in the world that Sally dies this week. This is a season of wrapping up loose ends, and she’s always been one. The Havana plotline was at such an obvious distance from the heart of the action, geographically and otherwise, that it had run its course, and with Margaret back, Sally was not going to be long at Nucky’s side. There will be ramifications in the rum trade, one assumes, and of course things will have to be handled when (if) her death becomes known, but she had always seemed a character with one foot out the door, ready to hold down business interests in a forgotten C-plot or to die when circumstances needed to seem dire. Turns out we got both. (It’s perhaps the cruelest moment of the episode that Sally gets closest to Nucky and Margaret’s own unanswered question when she asks her killer, “How much to go home?”) And though Sally was never particularly fascinating, of the many too-neat markers in “Cuanto,” her death is the neatest, a romantic triangle neatly solved. Once again, Nucky Thompson gets away clean.


In fact, Nucky gets away clean three times this episode. Cuba will be a sticking point, but he’s still breathing, so things are looking up. And in this week’s flashback, Nucky’s rebellious insistence on seeing how the other half lives earns him and Eli a dinner invitation to the sheriff’s table instead of jail time, where it turns out the thing that’s really out of his reach is a family that functions. These reminiscences are still taking up an awful lot of time for a season without a minute to spare, and the many callbacks have never quite added up to insight (the Commodore’s pictures of young girls are exactly as creepy as they should be, and tells us nothing Gillian hasn’t already). And seeing Nucky get in some more early practice being ambitiously bitter about his lot, trying to save women (his mother this time), and getting his first jolt of power with the law behind him all feels superfluous. But in these moments, lit at first with the drained palette of a fading photo and then with the gummy idealism of a Horatio Alger story, Nucky recognizes exactly what he’s missing (not money, but affection—one he can earn and the other he already knows is lost), a realization so keen he nearly cries in company.

And this week, Margaret comes home.

Steve Buscemi has been an invaluable anchor of the series, often doing thankless work. And one of his most generous contributions to the show is how much he recognizes that Nucky’s a complicated character whose most entertaining qualities—peevish, reactive, neurotically self-involved—mean he’s going to be both the butt of jokes unawares, and quietly pitiable. When this self-sabotage is paired with his intelligence and the emotional inertia to which he’s susceptible, it comes together very well: a man who’s always trying to remove himself, Nucky is less the heart of the show than the train station through which it most often connects. And one of the reasons his relationship with Margaret has been so important (even in moments when it was not going well, or not particularly compelling) is because she’s a character to whom he’s not a means of connection, but the whole connection. With her he’s been hopeful, reaching, angry, jealous, present in a way none of his other long-term relationships have matched (romantic or not), and his desire to have that ideal family has been matched only by his inability to be the necessary man.

Margaret hasn’t had the opportunity for so many poignant growing pains. Though Kelly Macdonald’s understated performance has been uniformly great, an introspective woman quietly testing her own moral limits never quite got the narrative momentum it deserved, and often hers was one of the stories the series cut a little thin; there are a lot of unfinished threads for poor Margaret. But Macdonald’s rapport with Buscemi has always had a lived-in quality that makes their relationship better and more interesting than it seems on paper; their mixture of insight and stonewalling, their matching blind spots on their moral high horses, and their occasional moments of fellow-feeling made for a couple that were rarely romantically compatible (or even emotionally capable), but who could be remarkably effective when they had a common enemy.

Their rapprochement over just such an enemy is the centerpiece of this episode. And in addition to all the old grievances—softened by the years in between—there’s a new honesty between them that takes them both slightly by surprise, and makes their meeting feel more important than it strictly is. Director Jake Paltrow is well aware of the baggage these two are carrying, and frames their scenes alternately like a romantic comedy and an interrogation: The pair of them are almost always facing each other (even Joe Kennedy’s surprised by their ability to fill a room with their relationship), but rarely in the same frame until after the heavy stuff’s been dealt with.

Much of the positive change seems to be Nucky’s, and he’s made the best of that inertia in the intervening years. His dismay at the idea Margaret may have slept with his colleague is tempered by his open pride that “You shook down Arnold Rothstein”; his jealousy of Kennedy is more amused than troubled. (Buscemi’s best line delivery this week: “He’s not holding fresh oysters to my lips as we glide back to New York.”) He even admits to himself the savior complex we’ve known for seasons, the accusation he refused to hear the last time she tried to make him admit it: “I thought, if I can save her, maybe I’m not so bad myself.”

But Margaret, too, has learned a lot in the six years she was pulling one over on her boss and leveraging Rothstein: She gets plastered enough for profanity, but she’s cutting to the chase long before that. (“Partners in crime” is right.) Nucky seems quietly gleeful he has the financial upper hand, but he doesn’t lord it over her: This time, he offers to assist. And the conversation they have over a bottle of wine swiftly moves from their current predicament to become the reckoning of four seasons of domestic disaster. And even though they’re more measured about handling them, old hurts don’t sting any less. When Margaret asks “Is this a fight? I can’t tell,” and Nucky shakes her hand with, “We’ve had all the fights we’re going to have,” it’s no wonder she looks at him like that’s the first really romantic thing he’s ever said.


Since it’s awfully hard to talk about a relationship without accidentally summing things up too neatly, some moments are a bit on the nose (“Nothing changes, does it? Man to guard you, plans within plans, things you say and things you don’t”: The Fifth Season of Boardwalk Empire), but they sell it all effortlessly, flirting one moment and admitting interpersonal battle strategy the next. For the first time in a long time, they seem to be enjoying one another’s company enough to stay in it—an echo of “Sunday Best,” maybe, though that was a flicker of longing built on a dual performance, and this is a flicker of contentment based on finally articulating what you’ve always known was true. Things aren’t quite resolved, only fair for a relationship as fraught as theirs has been. But they’re better half-smashed and hurting each other than they ever were when they tried to make themselves fit one another. This time they’re just naming the ghosts they dragged with them, and it’s farther than they’ve ever gotten before. “I’m helping my wife,” Nucky says as they part, with a smile he can barely keep back; for once a reckoning that hasn’t yet ended in blood. It’s a perfect Boardwalk Empire reconnection: Older, wiser, and too late to do any good.

But with Nucky and Margaret finally, miraculously on the level, it falls to Al Capone to make this week’s plot-burner gears spin. I mentioned in the season premiere review that we see Capone in the center of his Versailles. Here, Capone’s geography rarely changes from the comfort of his court, and the measure of his power is that he doesn’t have to: The world is coming right to him, and his orders get echoed right back out. Luciano, swiftly becoming the show’s most unimpressed character ever, can’t even seem to summon much jealousy of the coked-up Capone, who’s now running the kind of empire Luciano’s scrabbling for back home. He’s too busy watching a man on top who’s more concerned with his newsreels than about the long game. And Stephen Graham makes Capone as magnetic as ever, turning on a dime from a dialed-to-12 cokehead to the shrewdly brutal guy who got this far in the first place, the fondant-decoration detailing of his overcrowded suite pasted over a collection of corpses.


And because this show loves nothing more than a sudden reveal after several simmering seasons, Luciano recognizes Mr. Mueller as Van Alden, and Van Alden gets to think fast with a gun in his mouth. (Hats off to Michael Shannon and Stephen Graham for the best excruciating dry-humor exchange of the week, mid-interrogation, and neatly wrapping up the issues of power this season’s been playing with: “Are you successful?” “Not really.” “Why?” “I get the feeling my boss doesn’t like me.”) However, Van Alden is a survivor in spite of himself, and at the last second, persuades Capone to show mercy in the face of disrespect. Anything else would be cruel.

Yet, despite only having four episodes left and several more bodies to mow down, it never felt like Van Alden was in danger, either because the show has one last self-loathing stand in mind for everyone’s favorite unstable Fed, or because we’ve all been watching this show long enough to know that whoever died this episode was going via Empire State Building. (Too neat, maybe, but after all, that’s this episode’s calling card.) He’s been made by the government men, but for now, Van Alden lives Under the Reign of Public Enemy No. 1. And his last words must have made an impression after all, because Capone stops bludgeoning underlings long enough to decide Luciano’s ambition has to be dealt with. He has Eli (ouch) place a call to Nucky, offering yet another chance to get away clean: “We got a problem. His name’s Charlie.”


Stray observations:

  • “Did you do something wrong? Then don’t walk into the room like a question mark.”
  • I will never be over the lost potential of the Margaret and Rothstein Awkward Comedy Hour.
  • “Are you going to kill Carolyn Rothstein?” “You have a very dark turn of the mind. I didn’t know this about you.” Nucky, newly honest, but not having been paying attention for the last time ever.
  • Mickey can sleaze up a nightclub and a phone call at the same time; the best managers are multitaskers.
  • Luciano’s look back at Capone after Van Alden talks about brown rust is possibly his best ever. If his skin could slide right off his skull, it would.
  • I could honestly do without any of these flashbacks. That said, there’s a quiet thesis statement about the show somewhere in the image of young Nucky futilely sweeping sand off the porch of the Commodore’s hotel, so everyone can pretend it isn’t there and can’t reach them.
  • “How’d you come up with that?” “I asked myself what you would do.” Margaret may have been doing office work offscreen for a season, but she’s been polishing knives, too.
  • This week’s quote that feels as if it’s going to be relevant very soon: “Don’t go where you don’t belong. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t make me do my job. Because I will.”
  • Don’t ever give Capone anything heavy and pointy, what’s even the matter with you?