In retrospect, perhaps we’ve been too generous about the slow pace of “Boardwalk Empire” season three. After all, even one of our comrades at IndieWIRE, Anne Thompson, said she was dismayed at HBO’s decision to renew the show for a fourth season considering the molasses like rhythm of season three so far. It’s a wee bit hyperbolic a statement in the scheme of things, but it’s also a valid point: “Boardwalk Empire” has been moving painfully slow and the absence of the conflicted, but charming and handsome Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is still being felt like an ache. While the season could be seen as a mourning of such, everyone, and every plot line, is taking far too long to develop. As patient as we’ve been, we’d like the fog to lift, the metaphorical grieving to stop, and for everyone to move on and move forward.
But apart from its fractious Gyp Rosetti storyline, a new hot-heated Sicilian gangster introduced this season played by the always-excellent Bobby Cannavale, the Terrence Winter-created show (a writer and producer on “The Sopranos"), is spinning its wheels. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident in “Blue Bell Boy,” the fourth episode that traps Atlantic city kingpin Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), his criminal enforcer) in the cellar of a alcohol stash-house for almost an entire episode. And for what? So Nucky can murder the young Rowland Smith (Nick Robinson) -- a thief who had managed to steal a large sum of his booze supply earlier in the season, who is finally tracked down by Nucky’s Feds on the payroll (astute viewers will recognize Rowland Smith as the name of an unseen accomplice to a thief that enforcer Manny Horvitz brutalized before he was murdered by Richard Harrow).
Nucky, Sleater and his men catch Smith as he returns to the stash house, only to find out this career thief is nothing but a precocious 19 year-old boy who still looks positively wet behind the ears. But just as Nucky is sizing up the boy who has been robbing him blind, Philadelphian Prohibition Feds raid the place and Nucky, Rowland and Sleater are forced to hide out in a basement for days.
The point is, after spending two days at the bottom of a dank cellar, the charming young Rowland had ingratiated himself to Nucky proving he was an ambitious, resourceful and crafty kid who could prove to be an asset now that he wanted to lend his services. And there he is: cocky, young, likely loyal and cunning, a new Jimmy Darmody just waiting to be taken under Nucky’s wing. Which is why it was shocking, surprising and perhaps apropos that Nucky killed the young adult just as the teenager believed Nucky would bring him onto his team. But Nucky, still quietly grieving himself for having to kill off Darmody, clearly wanted to not get attached; and ruthlessly so. But did showing he means business have to take up an entire episode in a basement as they chit-chatted, got to know each other, traded jokes and waited and waited until the Feds left? The definition of idling, perhaps the writers of “Boardwalk Empire” could have conveyed his newfound brutality and lack of compassion in a more dynamic way. And that’s part of the key problem of this season.
Elsewhere, as Nucky and Sleater were trapped, Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), the shrewd and impish bootlegger, is forced to make decisions on his own. While Nucky, before he went AWOL, said to avoid Tabor Heights -- the waystation between Atlantic City and New York that Gyp Rosetti now has a stranglehold on -- with the crime boss indisposed, the dimwitted Doyle decides to run the show his way. Nucky’s brother Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), the disgraced former police chief turned low-level bootlegger, is itching to get back into the action. His canny intuition and street-smarts tell him Doyle is making stupid moves, but stripped of his power, he can do nothing but watch the thoughtless Doyle make his bed. Early on, he begs Nucky to let him help out and be proactive, but the crime boss isn’t really having it, reminding him that if he ever gets out of line and dares to betray him again, he will pay with his life. “Letting you go to jail was the last gift I’ll ever give you,” Nucky snarls, reiterating to his younger brother that he spared his life at the end of last season despite Eli’s deep treason.
This critical liquor-delivery call of Doyle’s has dire consequences. Despite Eli checking out the Tabor Height situation for himself and recognizing that the police-pay off isn’t going to work, he cannot prevent Nucky’s bootleggers from driving straight to their deaths in an ambush. This of course, mean Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) is once again not going to receive his booze shipment, and there will be hell to pay.
And so this is the guts of “Blue Bell Boy,” named after another, rather sweet, storyline in the episode. Still in first gear, still fumbling around with several story threads, but failing to make an engaging tapestry, "Boardwalk Empire" is still looking to gain some forward momentum this season. That’s not to say the show is getting boring, as Anne Thompson said, but how long does it take to build and build to the inevitable showdown? [B-]
Bits and Pieces
- As mentioned, “Blue Bell Boy” derives its title from a storyline involving Chicago gangster Al Capone (an always excellent Stephen Graham who is underused on the show). Still a lower-level criminal at this point, decades away becoming the feared mob boss who is still infamous today, in this episode the often-wise cracking Capone shows his compassionate side. When he finds out his deaf son is being bullied in school, coming home with a big shiner, the budding gangster is beside himself with sadness and anger. His inability to toughen up and defends his sensitive son is heartbreaking. And so when one of his fat and smelly Chicago Southside crime associates is beat up making a delivery by Dean O'Banion’s (Arron Shirver) Northside guys, Capone sees this as the big guy picking on the defenseless. He flies into a rage and beats the culprit to death. In the conclusion of the episode he plays “Blue Bell Boy” to his son on a ukulele as all the stories threads come to an end. It’s a tender and gentle moment of characterization, but as far as advancing the plot, all it does is nudge the Johnny Torrio feud with O’Banion an inch further. And hasn’t this show become a collection of small measurements hopefully one day leading to something compelling and heated?
-- Speaking of inching forward, while the last episode seemed to promise some major sparks in the the ongoing beef between Italian gangster “The Boss” Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), Charley “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), what is actually received is a lot of posturing and the scenario is exactly the same. Masseria doesn’t like his fellow Italian Luciano for consorting with a Jew as a partner (Lansky), and he still blames them both for the death of his nephew. While they were ordered to call a bloodshed truce in season two by Arnold Rothstein, the more powerful Masseria is still giving the young upstarts a hard time. He wants a big, toothy cut of their burgeoning heroin trade mostly just to put them in their place, and to prove he’s still boss, and Luciano and Lanksy are losing their patience having to bend to his will. And while both sides are steaming, a tete a tete leads to nothing but more friction, veiled threats and the like. Fortunately for the show and its producers, great character actors like Piazza make these showdowns as compelling as they can be, even if they are narratively hampered and redundant.
- While it’s only just explored, one of the more interesting ideas floated in the episode is that Owen Sleater, off gallivanting with Nucky’s maid Katy (the rather gorgeous Heather Lind), is dropping some of his responsibilities and forgetting key aspects of his enforcer job. With Eli itching to get back in the game, it’ll be interesting to see if his wits and resourcefulness will put him back in Nucky’s good graces later in the season, perhaps in contention for Sleater’s job. Meanwhile, Sleater’s past affair with Nucky’s wife Margaret (Kelly McDonald) seems to be dormant and forgotten as things with him and Katy are heating back up again.
- With so many characters and storylines in “Boardwalk Empire” it seems like some supporting characters have to sit by the sidelines and tag out every few episodes. Hence the Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Wiliams) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) stories taking a back seat while the oft-absent Capone is almost center stage this week.
- Margaret’s pre-natal care storyline is still the burden of the show. They have to give her something to do, and so her birthing clinic and pregnancy-education courses are her focus, but her dogged approach to combating the nuns and the hospital staff at every turn are not ingratiating herself to anyone, including the audience. Then again, with her marriage strained, what else is she going to do outside of pour herself head first into her interests?
- Viewed only for a brief moment, even before his liquor shipment is delayed, Arnold Rothstein’s patience with Nucky’s inability to manage Gyp Rosetti is wearing thin. When he cannot reach Nucky -- because he’s indisposed in a cellar -- he venomously chews out Mickey Doyle. Telling him he never ever want to have to speak to him again, so his boss (Nucky) better make himself available next time. Rothstein is a small part of the show, but Stuhlbarg is tremendous and its a joy watching him become livid and unlike we’ve ever seen him on screen thus far. That’s pretty much the key to the show thus far: superb actors performing strong material that’s narratively weak in the momentum and stakes department.