It’s difficult (futile?) to write a “Boardwalk Empire” in the face of the “Breaking Bad” finale, one of the most talked-about, pored-over and beloved shows in recent TV memory. And ironically, “Boardwalk Empire” had its best episode this season so far last night. While a bulk of the show was still chess-piece writing, it felt more charged and alive than usual, especially the unexpected and magnetic face off between Atlantic City's Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and the Big Apple's Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg).
The last episode was spent in Florida, where Nucky has lucrative business opportunities in the booze trade. Needing a partner and pragmatic businessman, he turns to his New York adversary Rothstein, as he's one of the few men who can afford to shell out half a million dollars. But wary of the events that went down last season, Rothstein isn't so sure and decides to engage Nucky in a high stakes game of poker at the Onyx club to learn "what kind of man" he really is. A master gambler and notorious for being instrumental in the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, Rothstein is in his element, but nevertheless luck is not with the poker player on this evening, as "All In" provides a rare moment of watching the calculating mobster stumble hard.
In fact, in a crucial game with the stakes over $200,000, Rothstein loses his shirt to Nucky. Worse, Rothstein keeps going, bleeding out more money to the house in order to save face. It's not until his lieutenant Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) advises him that he's embarrassing himself, that he comes to his senses, but by then it’s too late. Rothstein had entered the game intending to understand Nucky's true nature and the tables have turned on him. It's Rothstein who has unintentionally revealed all his cards and therefore what kind of man he is—one that Nucky decides to not do business with. "Anyone who wants to win that badly" is bad news, Nucky tells Lansky. But having seen his boss at his lowest, the enterprising right hand man smells opportunity and tells the Atlantic City kingpin to make him the business partner. With some reservations and conditions, Nucky agrees. Lansky however is not quite satisfied until he enacts a pound of flesh from one of the anti-Semitic poker players who had been dogging Rothstein all game (pride, ethnic or otherwise, being a big theme of this episode).
Elsewhere, William Thompson's (Ben Rosenfield) revenge scheme horribly backfires. Embarrassed by his peers when caught with a boner when making out with the object of affection last episode, the son of Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) wants to one up his college nemesis Henry (Josh Caras), despite Dad's recent imperious monologue of keeping his nose clean and getting an education. William and a his classmate Clayton (Owen Campbell) spike Henry's drink with milk of magnesia—William having scored some of dad's booze and becoming the college's de facto mini alcohol supplier—but the chemistry is off. While Henry is embarrassed with projectile diarrhea in front of his classmates, the brew has a more potent effect and later that evening he's found dead by his classmates—his entire insides burned up and his mouth bleeding out profusely. This is a one way ticket to expulsion for William and if it goes this way, there will be a sure fire hell-to-pay consequence from his overbearing father.
Over in Harlem, in his earnest efforts to switch teams and join forces with Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), Chalky White's (Michael K. Williams) lieutenant makes a blunder—showing up at Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association to do business. Offended he would sully the establishment with illegal dealings, the particular Narcisse admonishes him. But later, after selling a story about the preservation of the race and the difference between the Negro and the "nigger," Purnsley makes it up to Narcisse by pummeling some sap. While Purnsley is swayed by the persuasive aesthete, it appears he's trading one boss for another, but don't be surprised if this is some grand ploy by Narcisse and Purnsley is just a pawn who ends up with the short end of the stick.
Speaking of chess piece writing—narrative moves laid down only in service of something further down the road in the plot—it appears that Eddie Kessler’s (Anthony Laciura) promotion hasn’t been much of a character development device at all. In the episode’s least successful storyline, Kessler goes to Chicago on business to meet Ralph Capone (Domenick Lombardozzi). The episode takes pains to spend time with the two men convivially breaking bread and getting to know each other; even pausing for Kessler to talk about himself and the pride he has in his new position. But if you were asking "what is the point of all this?" It appear to be a long-winded tangent in service of setting Kessler up as a patsy. Earlier in the episode, J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) is being debriefed by undercover FBI Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty). Knox contends that Nucky, Rothstein, Capone, Masseria and many other criminal organizations across the nation are in business cahoots, and therefore in conspiracy together. Hoover asks: how are we going to infiltrate these disparate organizations to link them all together? Find them at their “weakest link” Knox says and that becomes Kessler when he gets nabbed by the Feds at the end of the episode. If he talks as much as the G-Men want, it could be the beginning of lights out for Nucky.
Bits And Pieces:
— There’s a whole other storyline between Al and Frank Capone (Stephen Graham and Morgan Spector) with Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller (Michael Shannon), but it doesn’t say very much other than showing the former FBI agent how ruthless the Chicago thugs are and how very much in the middle he is.
— Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and Richard Harrow’s (Jack Huston) story lines take a backseat this episode as well.