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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “The Good Listener”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “The Good Listener”
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Believe whatever it is gets you out of this mess.”
Res ipsa loquitur.

Boardwalk Empire has always had a seriously sprawling story to contend with. With the exception of Nucky as the aggrieved center of it all, the members of its ensemble appear and reappear to create snapshots of a larger picture; with only eight episodes to wrap up all the loose ends, things in this season are set to be even more condensed. But when the show’s at its best, those fleeting moments build on one another, creating thematic echo chambers, setting narrative traps, and reminding us that everything only feels disparate until you pull back far enough.


“The Good Listener,” written by Terence Winter, is just such an episode. It covers as much ground as, if not more, than “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” but despite ragged subplots, new characters, and unexpected settings, it doesn’t have the premiere’s burden of establishing the new era. Instead, it uses characters running out of options in inverse proportion to how hilariously awful it all is, and it works to spin the threads that connect people who wouldn’t expect it, hamstring those who are hoping to skate by, and thwart some desperate souls trying to believe whatever it is gets you out of this mess.

A tertiary but inevitable example is how this episode grinds fatherhood into the dirt. Besides Nucky’s ongoing flashbacks, in which he gets to be disillusioned about his father all over again, Van Alden suffers the grievous horror of his son asking schoolwork questions. (“Why do clouds just float in the sky?” Van Alden, with one of the funniest line delivery this show’s ever seen: “Is this a joke?”) That it’s about clouds doesn’t matter; as soon as someone’s old enough to ask Van Alden a question, they’re old enough to pose a threat to his tenuous illusion of control, and now his son is just another source of aggravation. And of course, the person he chooses to ask about it is Eli, his new partner. In some ways this is a beautiful friendship, both in terms of how much they loathe their lives and how little they bother to hide it. But Eli spends his days barely avoiding arrest and his nights sobbing along to family comedies on the radio. (Nucky, whose merciful instincts are both rare and petty, would either feel slightly guilty about this or slightly guilty about how happy it makes him. Hopefully we’ll get to find out.) And Nucky’s taken over fatherly-guidance duties for Eli’s oldest, Willy, who’s either forgotten Nucky nearly shot his dad six years back, or has decided a good memory is bad for business. There’s no right away to raise a son on this show, because it’s all doomed. Family’s a vise you can’t live without.

For the women, the world’s just a vise, full stop. The Women for Reform, doing so much work accidentally on Nucky’s behalf—the ones who will win—aren’t seen. Instead, we get Mrs. Van Alden and her twin rebellions: refusal to acquiesce to his corrections, and tapping out another cigarette like she’s about to burn the house down. Nucky’s mother doesn’t even get the comfort of her husband at the grave of her daughter. And Gillian—poor, wretched Gillian—has found herself more or less where she began; trapped at the mercy of a power figure, with no option but to go along. (The creepiest image of the episode might be the horseshoe of women in their spa-bath trappings and straightjacket lids, and Gillian slowly being unlaced.) Gretchen Mol absolutely nails the terror of a helpless survivor; she’s willing to do whatever it takes, but on a show where power games are everywhere, there’s only so many cards you can play when your only leverage is yourself. Maybe because of this, she hasn’t given up on her hard-won society manners; she murmurs “lovely figure” like a disaffected shopgirl giving somnambulent fashion advice. But Gillian has perhaps never been sadder than when she clutches her gift of paper (not good stationery, she notes—Gillian may be institutionalized but she’s not tacky) and murmurs without much hope, “I need to get my thoughts straight.” In her Lady Macbeth prime she was formidable, but perhaps no character on the show has been so decidedly ground under the world’s wheels as she has. Here’s hoping her moment appears, and she believes what she must to get out of this mess.

But the central narrative engine of the episode is about the simmering power grabs that are everywhere you look; rarely has a single episode of the show been so awash in withering stares from people hoping to wriggle out from under the power of others. After receiving Torrio’s blessing last season, Capone gets reintroduced here as the manic king of a gin-joint Versailles, with his attendants scampering to do his bidding and laughing on cue. Among his lieutenants are Mike D’Angelo, double agent (working under Elliot Ness). Will Thompson interviews at the prosecutor’s office, where Mr. Hodge grills him about his ethics for a little comedy gold, and calls him out on family connections Will staunchly denies. (Hypothetical: Will Thompson walks into a room. Is he automatically the creepiest person in it?) And his breezy denial of his father figure nicely mirrors the clandestine partnership of Luciano and Lansky, who’ve been pretending to be at at odds in order to hide their long-term plans about killing off the competition.

Nucky might be happy to know his hunch was right; he’s rarely mistaken about who hates him the most. In “New York Sour,” last season’s premiere, I noted that the first person to appear in the season was often positioned as a thematically-resonant villains. I wonder if this is going to carry through, and that our glimpse of Nucky at the top of “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” was a marker of him being his own worst enemy as the country and its underworld go through serious shakeups. Nucky’s been lucky that he’s almost always been able to cut a deal to save his skin. This sudden, blunt attack on his life has rattled him if for no other reason than no one gave him fair warning. (Year in, year out, same fuckin’ bone.) And it’s not the end if his indignities; when he visits the Mayflower Grain Corporation to speak to the Board, they actually make him go on the record about his job. It’s so startling to Nucky I have to wonder if he’s ever had to say it that baldly before unless it was a threat. Luckily, Mr. Kennedy’s an optimist about Nucky’s chances.

But Nucky’s nothing if not determined to turn everything possible around in his favor in the meantime, from distribution licenses to Johnny Torrio’s retirement plans to quasi-nephews who are welcome to advance in life so long as nobody inconveniences Nucky. Buscemi always gives such understated conviction to his miseries (see: his long-suffering monologue about kids these days and their assassination attempts) that it’s even clearer how much Nucky phones in any praise. It’s a toss-up whether his pleasantries with Torrio or Will are more painful, though only one of them gets a guilt trip about being lucky enough to be shot dozens of times as an excuse to retire. But for Nucky it’s all ammunition. Even Tonino—Rosetti’s man who became Masseria’s man who became Maranzano’s and Luciano’s and Lansky’s man, and this episode’s most inescapable personification of believing you can wriggle out of a mess only to sink—manages to be of use. He sends a message to Luciano and Lansky, and he wraps up a loose end on behalf of Billie Kent.


I’ll be interested to see how many more callbacks we get to those who have departed, and making the most of unfinished business. It’s not as though there isn’t enough up in the air in the here and now; we know Chalky, Margaret, and Gillian are totally adrift, Eli’s in a tailspin, and Van Alden is one more homework assignment away from setting himself on fire just to be rid of them. Though the six-year jump is still jarring, and mentions of those who slipped through the cracks still have the feeling of loose ends, this season is both telling a story and settling accounts. “The Good Listener” draws some promising connections, and suggests whoever reaches some kind of triumph will manage it by pulling one over on someone who doesn’t know them; if they fail, it’ll be because they underestimated a devil they knew; and if they find peace, it will be because someone forgave them for being who they are. (In these uncertain times, wouldn’t you like to know there’s someone who understands our burden?)

Stray observations:

  • It might become a theme of the season that I don’t get why any lingering ear bit is necessary; this episode gave us two to choose from, which is generous, but really, I’m fine.
  • I’m still not entirely sold on the flashbacks—enough of this show is about Nucky already—but I’m absolutely sold on Ian Hart and Erin Dilly as Nucky’s parents. She’s every woman he’s ever wanted to save since, and this episode revealed that Nucky’s father haunts him as much for his business mistakes than for his abuse.
  • “Go on, find solace in your work.” Someday, all the Commodore’s hard work here will pay off, as Nucky blooms into a bulletproof bullshitter.
  • Bit part of the week: The tailor racing back and forth after Capone as he’s holding court. “At your height?”
  • Runners up: The two ladies in the elevator, their dog, and the hat.
  • Capone’s staging this week deserves another mention; the sets, the costumes, the placement of extras like figures in a painting of a Bacchanal.
  • My other favorite bit of staging: Six years later, the Muellers have a finished house, just in time for their marriage to crumble.
  • “The law’s a shield, sir, not a sword.” Will Thompson, trying his best to top Nucky’s second-chances speech from last week, nearly wins.
  • For anyone wondering, they can rest easy knowing Michael Shannon can tensely crash-land even a conversation about clouds.
  • And while Shannon has one of the most famously over-it faces this show’s ever produced, Vincent Piazza seems poised to give him a run for his money. Luciano’s stinkeye this episode could peel paint off the walls.
  • “You know I could get killed just for talking to you.” “And you will be if you don’t.” Ah, the snitch’s dilemma.