“Powerful” episodes of cable dramas make a huge impression on viewers, and are often acclaimed as the best of their season. Sometimes the praise is deserved; other times it’s a reaction to the sight of characters we like being diagnosed with fatal illnesses, beaten, raped, killed, etc. Meanwhile, low-key but complex episodes often get short shrift from critics and viewers. I hope that doesn’t happen with tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” episode, “Two Boats and a Lifeguard,” because in degree of difficulty, it’s impressive, in some ways extraordinary.
As written by Terence Winter and directed by Tim Van Patten — a dynamic duo on a lot of great “Sopranos” episodes — “Two Boats and a Lifeguard” seems like just a “housekeeping” episode that’s mainly concerned with wrangling subplots and exploring characters. But as I’ll explain in a moment, the episode went way beyond that.
Nucky and Eli buried their father and had an uncomfortable moment of almost-reconciliation at the memorial. (This episode marked the final appearance of the late stage and screen actor Tom Aldredge, who played both Nucky and Eli’s dad and Carmela’s father on “The Sopranos.”) Nucky responded to his dad’s death — the psychological aftershock of the second assassination attempt against him, this one set up by his surrogate son Jimmy Darmody — by declaring that he was quitting his job as Atlantic City treasurer and was going to try to mend his ways and become a respectable citizen. (Fat chance of that happening on a show like this, but it was still a fascinating development that let star Steve Buscemi show us intriguing new shadings.) Nucky even asked Margaret’s son to address him as “Dad” rather than “Uncle Nucky” — a huge step toward commitment and emotional availability, even though it was conveyed in a rigid 19th century manner. Van Alden hired a nanny to take care of his baby with Lucy, in the process confirming his near-total inability to respond to the child as a father should, but revealing very faint glimmerings of potential near the end. (Or was that just wishful thinking on my part? Probably so — Van Alden is such a rancid sour persimmon — and so encrusted with lame graphic novel pathology, from religious fanaticism to sexual hypocrisy to cold sadism and murderous rage — that the writers might be unable to salvage him as a workable character.)
You read the rest of Matt's piece here at Salon.
Matt Zoller Seitz is TV critic for Salon and publisher of Press Play.