“Never mind! It’ll come my turn some day, and then I’ll pay you boys up; and you’ll be sorry enough for all the mean things you’ve done to me,” and Davy Potter stooped to pick up the books which one of a group of a dozen boys had pushed from his arm.
—From “Davy’s Turn,” by Florence B. Halliwell, in the Golden Days for Boys and Girls, November 28, 1891
This story is laid in a Mythical Kingdom.
—Opening intertitle of The Front Page, 1931
Welcome back to Boardwalk Empire, which begins its fifth series with the sort of audacity that usually comes near the end of one of its slow-build seasons: We ditch six years, and open in 1931. Even given the ways Empire skims lightly over the surface of history, that jump skips the solidification of the Big Seven Group; it skips the Atlantic City Conference of 1929 and Capone’s imprisonment; it skips the death of Arnold Rothstein in 1928. Given how much it’s putting in its rearview, such a huge time jump works essentially as a thesis statement—1931 is an argument the season will have to keep proving.
“Golden Days For Boys And Girls” technically suggests the why behind the leap by introducing Nucky’s ambitions to change the game if he can’t win it, and reverse Prohibition. It also touches on the Depression as just the sort of chaos in which such a legislative about-face would succeed. Given that this season will be the show’s last, it’s understandable to want to position everyone for something like closure after a series driven by Prohibition—to triumph at last over the law that started it all. However, though I look forward to the ways in which the season establishes itself in 1931, this episode doesn’t get us there.
Perhaps the most interesting consequence of that is how some of the threads being introduced feel both perfunctory—establishing dynamics after some long and unseen purgatory—and like the characters themselves aren’t quite sure what’s kept them treading water for so long. Luciano moves through Masseria’s assassination like someone in a dream (in his first shot he’s looking through the window like he’s watching a matinee, and during the gunfire he looks down at the soap like he’s forgotten what to do). But Don Salvatore aside, he seems to wake up, as always, once he has a knife in his hand.
Margaret also finds herself in the nightmare where no matter what you say, you can’t be heard. Mr. Bennett’s suicide ends up one of the best scenes in the episode, for the fact that even a show that uses violence so freely can still make drawing a gun seem dreadful. This scene also captures, more than anything else in the episode, the feel of a six-year jump. For everyone in the underworld, it’s still more or less business as usual, but the crash has made this sort of desperation and upheaval a cultural norm, where a man can’t even deliver his suicide monologue to his employees without the sound of jackhammers disrupting the mood of the room. It’s a gorgeously framed piece, in which we realize what we’re watching long before anyone else in the room—except Margaret, who gets one long reaction shot from the horribly familiar position of feeling something horrible is about to happen, but not in time to do a damn thing about it.
Margaret is also the character most sharply affected by Rothstein’s abrupt absence (besides all of us and how much we’ll miss him). Last season’s sublimely awkward business negotiations became something of a meeting of the incredibly repressed minds, and faded out on the happy ending of a darkest-timeline romantic comedy with the promise of a fraud made in heaven. With Rothstein suddenly gone, it feels as though the rug’s been pulled out from under Kelly Macdonald (again) in terms of story. She’s gotten cannier about self-preservation over the years, but I’m hoping her connection to Rothstein goes beyond just a Gotcha moment with a file cabinet, and that we’ll see his influence in the ways Margaret navigates all these new uncertainties. “Don’t get turned around,” Mr. Connors tells her. We’ll see.
Even more uncertain: Chalky. His freefall last season has landed him on the very bottom, though it takes a single shot of him turning to his jailer to understand precisely how short this span of time is going to be. (There are few actors on this show who use silence better than Michael Kenneth Williams, and “Got myself caught” is worth a monologue on anyone else.) The snapping shoelace—that absolute depth—is an obvious harbinger of a status quo about to change, but it happens fast enough not to feel belabored. That he’s currently running with Milton, who has yet to understand the subtleties of the telephone, means we’re in for any number of fuming silences over the next few episodes, but he recognizes a survivor when he sees one (the “ass backwards” story is a sly performance), and if there’s anyone who’s ready to make the most of a slim chance, it’s Chalky, abandoned by everyone and with nothing left to lose.
The cut from Chalky’s laceless shoe to the tray of crystal tumblers on their way to Nucky’s garden chat is a rebuke sharp enough to sting, if Nucky was still the kind of man who could feel the blow. He’s not, of course. Nucky’s in his dream role this episode: affluent martyr on top. It’s a willing exile, made appropriately seductive with a home base in Havana perfect for plying Senator Lloyd with drink, cigars, women, and blackmail. And it looks good on him; Nucky seems as close as he can come to content. After Margaret, who had qualms with some of his dirtier dealings, Sally’s an even-keeled partner in crime, happy to provide translation, drinks, prostitutes, and advice. (Her wardrobe in this episode is Bonnie Parker all over; those crimes haven’t started yet, but they’re gonna.) And even an assassination attempt and the unexpected appearance of a scheming Meyer Lansky can’t seem to keep Nucky down for long.
Of course, we know what Nucky doesn’t, because on this show, getting caught in nostalgia suggests you’re headed for some kind of abyss. As happens so often with Boardwalk Empire, the scenes of Nucky‘s childhood, in themselves, reveal nothing unexpected. That doesn’t always keep these moments from being quietly affecting; “Al Capone loved his son” is not a groundbreaking statement, but the way that beat unfolded remains some of Stephen Graham’s best work on the show. But frankly, Nucky’s home life has been vividly suggested across the seasons by the adults slogging through its aftermath far more effectively than by laying it out with this level of directness. We know the fatherly brutality; we’ve seen the fractured brotherhood.
That said, these flashbacks have their own mood and purposeful aesthetic, from the clock in the hall to the dreamy score: They’re the sinister fairy-tale childhood in which it’s too late to stop whatever evil is coming, because the evil is where the story happens. It helps that Tim Van Patten is directing; the opening scene of boys diving for the King’s gold in the sea is fantastically surreal, a fairy tale on its own. That story-in-story carries back home, where treasures must be hidden from the ogre and the princess lies dying, trapped in muslin and lit like a moth caught in a shroud. (When young Nucky tells his sister, “They’re not so special. All they have is money. Ways to find that, I reckon,” it’s the speech of a young hero before he goes off to taunt the King and win.)
And so this, too, is a thesis statement. This is the morality play through which Nucky molds his beginnings: the bitterness of not being fast enough turns into the perils of being too good, the shift from the inevitability of Grimm to the starry meritocracy of Horatio Alger. Turns out Nucky’s always-keen sense of injustice against himself started young. Though it seems too easy that he was quite so earnest before the Commodore got to him (“Thought you were gonna get something for being honest. And what have you got?”), there’s a directness to his ambition that makes sense, for all it’s missing from the prevaricator he is now. When he returns the hat with cash intact, “To get myself ahead,” it’s hard not to think about last season’s machinations, during which Nucky only mentioned ambitions if he was cornered or lying, but could hardly hide his reasons just the same.
And under all this scene-setting creeps in what might be a driving theme of the season: the ways in which power that isn’t unified is doomed. (Just before he’s murdered, Masseria demands “one boss.”) Of course, having skipped the attempts at unification in the missing years, this seems slightly belated. It also doesn’t feel like it couldn’t have belonged to any of the other seasons just as comfortably; as yet, it’s still unclear why 1931 is the year in which everyone swam or drowned. But this is a show that doesn’t mind working slowly, and there’s definitely more the season plans to say about this. As the Commodore explains absolute power to Nucky, moments before we pull back to a kingdom that will one day be his: “Anything else is bad for business.”
- “If America’s not about starting over, where’s the hope for any of us?” Nucky, you hilarious piece of shit.
- This show continues to be impeccably cast. Ian Hart’s an inspired choice for a villain who needs depth, to the point that I’m probably feeling more kindly toward these flashbacks than I might otherwise be. But even in its smallest moments, every actor counts: Mr. Connors gets one scene this episode, but the exhale on “Good” was sublime.
- Related: Erin Dilly, reminding us a voiceover can actually be a grace note and not an anvil!
- Bacardi: Official sponsor of Nucky sniping at senators since 1931.
- Mr. Bennett went to see The Front Page, a comedy constructed around literal gallows humor, with a world-weary cynicism beneath its jokes. (There’s a reason he talks about the cartoon mouse instead.)
- I try not to clutch my pearls about the violence on this show, which more often than not is constructed with the terrible abruptness of real life. That said, was the ear necessary?
- Marveously necessary: the slow, almost disinterested pan across the chaos Nucky leaves in his wake, which no doubt will be enacted on a larger scale throughout the season.
- “It’s all on the house,” Nucky tells the Senator he’s bribing. Oh, Nucky, you’re one of the most seethingly peevish reactive protagonists on television, but I’ve missed you for it.