Boardwalk Empire Watch: Season 3, Episode 5 - You'd Be Surprised

... the truth is surprisingly easy to obfuscate.

It's kind of odd that killing off several key people, and one in particular, would lead to Boardwalk Empire being stretched too thin come Season 3. HBO's bootlegging drama isn't just missing a fantastic (pseudo)familial conflict without Jimmy kicking around Atlantic City but more importantly a unifying element for the show's sprawling story and (too) many characters. Michael Pitt's co-lead carried a lot of the Boardwalk Empire on his shoulders and, like the rug from the Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski, really tied the 'room' together. "You'd Be Surprised" still had many great moments but it played as separate vignettes of varying quality instead of a flowing, cohesive episode like the best of the previous seasons. The quote from Gaston Means serves as a thematic link between the separate locations (they all hinge on deceptions and misconceptions) but it still felt like watching a bunch of unrelated sequences. It also didn't help that the story hung on Nucky's uninteresting relationship with Billie Kent. And where the fuck is Richard? Sorry.

"Please avert your eyes."

One obvious way the ever sprawling story has begun to impact Boardwalk Empire is limiting the amount of time available for each character's thread. Case in point, we haven't been with Van Alden in Chicago for a few weeks and it took half a scene to remember all the troubles he's had so far this season. The office water gag for example, a practical joke that feels like it took place ages ago. And there are probably better ways to use the screen time than the trumped up bit of tension over his previous place of employment. While his situation at work isn't all that compelling, the Mueller's relationship can be fascinating to watch and oddly romantic. It's clear that they both will do anything to protect their new family and even when they are murdering Agent Caughlin together, there's something sweet about the way she calls for her husband. Or maybe I'm just really morbid. Perhaps both. It was great to see him finally turn to O'Banion which hopefully marks the end of his time as a shitty salesman and starts his career as a stone cold killer for the Irish mob.

"He's always been an adventurous boy."

Gillian is a perfect example of how the drama has been deflated since the loss of Jimmy last season. She just doesn't seem to fit into the show anymore no matter how good Gretchen Mol is in the role. The scenes between her and Richard earlier this season had some weight but the exchange with Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese's Leander Whitlock) about her dreams for the brothel was the night's least compelling sequence. It's impossible to be sympathetic with her character and reminding us of Jimmy doesn't do Boardwalk Empire any favors. The fucking rug! It really tied the room together. Gillian can't face the fact that Jimmy is dead and refuses to declare him deceased despite her tight financial position. The letter proves that she honestly believes Jimmy is alive, which I guess is sad but I can't feel that bad for the incestuous mother. I'm a monster, I know. It does make me wonder what she'll do once she realizes he took two to the head not to mention who pulled the trigger, especially since she's growing more desperate.

"It's all quite elementary. Your adversaries claim you're not putting bootleggers in jail, tell Mr. Daugherty to put one in jail."

Dedicating two scenes to (almost) completely new characters was a risky move on the series part since Boardwalk has so many already but I really enjoy Stephen Root's Gaston Means and James Cromwell's cameo as Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon was terrific. No surprise there. Mellon is called to speak in front of a secret committee on prohibition and he doesn't hold back his feelings on the matter, citing many reasons why the Volstead Act was a big mistake including, my favorite, not pandering to the demands of a minority. However, the point most likely to affect the series is how he pointed to the Attorney General's lack of convictions as an example of gross incompetence and/or corruption. I mean, if we're done pussyfooting around and all. The aptly named Means was hanging around the hearing and soon shares the secret information with Mr. Smith, the Attorney General's right hand man. By the sounds of it, a bootlegger is going to be hauled into court (and probably convicted) so the Daugherty people can save face... any guesses?

"I can hardly write 'come discuss your vagina.'"

Margaret's quest to educate women continues and she also has to actually deal with Nucky this week instead of going through an intermediary. While busy jumping through hoops to have the wording on her women's health flyers make sense and get approved by the Church, Nucky arrives at 'the' house to make sure his family is safe. Cryptic as usual, Nucky doesn't tell her what's going on and her effort to reach out to Owen is met with similar platitudes. Only five women show up for Margaret and Dr. Mason's class and it's rather amusing to watch him dance around the unapproved terms in front of the crusty old nun. Sparks seem to be flying when he apologizes to Margaret for his initial scorn but suddenly his fiancé arrives and shatters that illusion. He was married all along.

She takes to the Boardwalk to hand out the new flyers and ends up strolling into Madame Jeunet's boutique where Nucky is buying Billie some expensive clothes. Awkward! But Mrs. Thompson is sure to hand the mistress a flyer before leaving and somehow, after shooting down Nucky's attempt at apologizing, not to mention psychoanalyzing his damsel in distress desires, finds herself put into a corner when Nucky warns her to start asking practical questions. This encounter, though embarrassing, only seems to bolster Margaret who soon steps up to the lectern in Dr. Mason's absence to teach the women's health class despite protests from Sister Crusty. Not only that, she might have figured out a way to boost attendance by scheduling the classes when women are actually available. Well, all women except for the Sister. Even better. "To life. In fact, I've got an uncle doing ten years l'chaim up in Sing Sing."

If you've been paying attention you can probably tell that I'm not the biggest fan of the Billie Kent storyline. She's fine as a character and even to have around as a mistress, it just seems like Nucky's spending an awful lot of time with the young singer, so much so that we're now forced to get invested in her career. Even being chewed out by Rothstein over the distraction isn't enough to open Nucky's eyes and get him back caring about business. Nope, instead he plays producer as we watch him watch Billie's terrible show and become jealous of the choreographer. Not to worry, the show must not go on as the plug is rightfully pulled but once he sees how distraught his Billie is over the whole thing, Nucky decides to take matters into his own hands, Godfather style. No horse heads, this time it's a bottle of Passover vodka and then a visit from Milky, sorry, Chalky and Dunn in order to secure Eddie Cantor's involvement in the now resurrected show. The latter is a great scene in an otherwise inconsequential thread, although I did also enjoy the Lucy Danzinger zinger from Cantor at the end.

"I had you there for a second. From now on, room 207 at the Kindred Lodge. Add me to your route."

It may seem hypocritical after all the whining about the loss of Jimmy to then praise his replacement but the sequences involving Gyp and the Tabor Heights' conflict were by far the most engaging and not just because they featured most of the sex and violence. Although that certainly didn't hurt. The opening 'wet towel' scene will surely go down as one of the more memorable moments from the TV season (a smile to rival Carrie's in the Homeland premiere) with Bobby Cannavale continuing to shine as the dim and quick to temper mobster. Gyp doesn't just like to cause problems for Nucky, he's also into erotic-asphyxiatation and being tied up almost ends up his undoing. Get it, tied and undo... never mind. Early on, while Eli gains a little more respect from his big brother, we learn that Rosetti is linked to Masseria and the whole situation between the former and Nucky is only exacerbating the problems between the latter and Rothstein's boys. Once the underlings leave the room, Nucky and AR have it out for a few minutes and there is little love between the two men. The shot of Lucky and Owen outside was also well done, who knows if things could have erupted into violence had the wrong thing been said.

It also, of course, leads us to believe that when AR and Lucky 'move onto other business' they mean it and therefore the meeting with Gyp seems much more authentic. I still noticed, as I'm sure you did, AR's ears prick up at the mention of Gyp's address to the paperboy and realized that perhaps things between him and Nucky weren't quite so rocky. Maybe war, it tuns out, was the only acceptable option? We know that Meyer and Lucky have had more than enough of Masseria taking a piece of their action so I also figured that the gun Benny was filing was meant for Rosetti. That didn't diminish nor dull the final shootout, with us following Benny into the house from behind before he starts popping his gun off in a bunch of the rival gangster's faces. It was pretty intense with Gyp still tied to the bedpost as Benny was barrelling down the hallway and at that point I actually thought Cannavale's time on the show was over but thankfully he used the redhead as a shield. Benny manages to make it out of the place unscathed, hooting all the way, while the same can't be said for the paperboy. At the end, Owen informs Nuck of the failed operation which also clues us in, if we haven't' guessed already, that he and Rothstein are still in cahoots.

"Always on the move but going nowhere fast."

Boardwalk Empire seems to be struggling with its constantly expanding world, finding itself with too many characters, conflicts and locations to fit into a single installment. I'm not saying that every character has to appear in every episode but the sheer number of them has resulted in what feels like a stunted start to Season 3. Five episodes in and the major conflicts are only now starting to take shape. The third has unfolded a bit slower than a lot of viewers would like but those itching for more bloodshed can take comfort in the fact that New York is assuredly about to go to war after the failed shooting in Tabor Heights. Gyp and Masseria on one side versus Nucky and Rothstein (as well as Lucky, Meyer and Benny) on the other. That conflict is definitely something to look forward to in coming weeks as well as Van Alden re-entering the fight and the government looking for a bootlegging scapegoat. Things are finally starting to take shape this season and it only took the most shapeless episode to set the wheels in motion.

Boardwalk Empire returns with Episode 6, "Ging Gang Goolie," next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Created by Terence Winter, it stars Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Vincent Piazza and Michael Stuhlbarg.