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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “The Pony”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “The Pony”
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The word of the week on Boardwalk Empire is “interloper.” That’s what Andrew Mellon calls Nucky, shortly before he asks that our man be removed from The Robber Baron Club, following an offer by Nucky to run one of Mellon’s closed distilleries in exchange for Mellon getting George Remus busted. And it’s what Nucky calls Billie Kent’s actor friend when Nucky pops by Billie’s apartment later and sees this asshole dressed up like a sheik and farting around. “Take that pig-in-shit smirk and that bedsheet and get the fuck out of here,” Nucky says, adding, “You little fucking interloper.” The word choice is not incidental, nor is Nucky’s rage. But then Billie calms Nucky down, and gets him to a place where maybe he can see some things more clearly, and maybe end their relationship on a good note; plus, Mellon calls, and privately takes Nucky up on his deal. For about a day, Nucky is starting to feel pretty good again about the state of his business and personal lives.

And then: Kaboom. Billie gets blown up standing outside Babette’s. All thanks to another interloper, Gyp Rosetti.

“The Pony” is a step down from last week’s excellent Boardwalk Empire episode—but just a small step. This is often the case with episodes where things happen—they can feel a little rushed and forced, as opposed to the episodes where the characters get to sit around and talk, just being good company. But then all that talk would be meaningless unless every now and then someone got exploded. (Or clobbered with a hot steam iron. But we’ll get back to that.)

Besides, at least we get to spend some good time with Billie in “The Pony” before she becomes collateral damage. We see her absolutely kill a screen test for some movie producers, showing off the kind of comic gifts one would expect from a “pony” (the funny one in the chorus at a vaudeville show). We also get to see her open up about what acting means to her—it’s a chance for her to forget who she is—and hear her tell Nucky that she doesn’t need him to be her dad, because she left home to get away from her father. All of that leads up to the bittersweet farewell of Billie Kent. There’s a lovely scene where Nucky tries to give the newly bleached-blonde Billie a guaranteed income for life, as “a parting gift,” and she tries to reintroduce herself as “Nadine Beckenbauer.” (“God’s honest.”) But all that time Nucky has spent escaping to New York with Billie—being “Gus” rather than taking care of business—finally comes back to bite him, hard.

I referred to Gyp as an interloper earlier, but that’s not entirely fair to Mr. Rosetti. In his mind, Gyp belongs. He kills people. He moves product. What the hell do people want from him? And that’s a question that pervades “The Pony.” What does it take to be an “it” guy, in this business of crime?

When Johnny Torrio returns from his trip to the ancient ruins of Italy, he’s suddenly become more philosophical, telling cautionary tales about the victims of Pompeii who were more concerned with making money than with their own lives. The end result of Torrio’s new outlook? He’s fine with Al Capone taking charge of the negotiations with Dean O’Banion (even if Capone’s interpretation of Torrio’s stories about Italy are, “He says the whole place is fallin’ to pieces,” and “The past is for suckers, right?”) Meanwhile, the bad guys get a new recruit in the form of The Hulking Monster Who Was Once Agent Nelson Van Alden. The current George Mueller has been supplied with his own still—which Sigrid Mueller quickly turns into a cash-generating operation by selling the booze off to the Norwegian community of the Chicago/Cicero area. And Mueller is invited to the meet with Capone and Torrio too, where they make fun of him for carrying a case full of irons. But they wouldn’t laugh if they’d seen what Mr. Mueller can do with an iron—as when a (presumably now former) coworker at the iron company teases the beast once too often, and catches a hot iron in the cheek. (Surely I wasn’t the only one who found this poor slob’s childlike weeping perversely satisfying.)


Nucky, meanwhile, tells himself—and Mellon—that he’s “not a member of any club.” It’s the old “half a gangster” theme at work again. Nucky thinks of himself as someone who should be welcomed by the Mellons of the world as a man of means and intellect, who probably agrees with Mellon that the people who think they’re in charge of the country are robbing its best citizens while indulging “a child’s idea of morality.” But Nucky’s also a crime lord, with the power to make decisions that affect other crime lords, like Gyp. And much of this season has been about how Nucky exercises his power: shrewdly, or with the careless disregard of someone who considers himself above it all.

One of the other major themes of Boardwalk Empire from the beginning has been honesty and how people cut through the propriety of the times to say how things really are. It’s not that the people on this show don’t hedge, mind you—whether it’s Richard at the funeral of “Jimmy Darmody” saying, “Jimmy deserved… better than this,” or Gillian referring to her whorehouse as a “health resort.” But I love how Boardwalk Empire continues to build to moments like the one where Nucky and Gillian make small talk about the “return” and death of “Jimmy” (“I would very much like to have seen him.” “And he you, I’m sure.”) and then she throws a drink in his face. Sometimes the public and private personae of these characters show up at the same place at the same time.


The other pony in “The Pony” is an actual little horse, which Nucky wants to buy for Emily. Margaret and Owen take a trip together to pick out the critter, and have a leisurely talk about horses, and growing up in Ireland, all while thunder rumbles in the background. With the thunder, inevitably, comes pouring rain, while Margaret and Owen sit in a car and she asks him to teach her drive. Now? No… after. This is how it goes in Boardwalk Empire, a show set at a time when people show up for lectures on proper prenatal hygiene when they’re really looking to hear about how they can get their hands on one of those “Dutch caps.” Coyness and insinuation are all well and good. But sooner or later, people have to deal with the delicate matter of the act itself.

Stray observations:

  • Maybe Billie’s still alive. I haven’t watched ahead, so I’m only assuming she was killed in the explosion. I’d put down the cause of death as, “Dreamy, lyrical final close-up.”
  • Speaking of great shots, I liked that the world of Chicago was expanded to include the meatpacking district. That part of the show has always been a little too confined to saloons (save for the occasional hotel and Capone’s apartment).
  • That was one crazy veil that Gillian was wearing at the funeral, huh?
  • Nucky to Eddie, when the latter says he has news that he doesn’t know how to deliver: “Just start yammering, like always.”
  • There needs to be a rule that each Boardwalk Empire episode contains at least one scene between Nucky and Esther. They’re only together for about a minute in “The Pony,” but that’s long enough for him to recommend she see a show (“Dizzy Izzy’s a lot of laughs”) and her to respond that for fun, she runs “naked through the pages of the United States criminal code.”
  • Sounds like a doozy: A freighter, a stowaway, a Chinaman with a hatchet, and a girl.
  • Only four episodes left this season. The final third should be pretty intense.