[This is a review of Boardwalk Empire season 5, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
Nucky Thompson is filled with want. Not only that, he’s inundated by the wants of other people, too. He’s also recently become aware of how his death might facilitate those individuals achieving their goals. That’s an interesting place for a key player to be in the second episode of a new (and final) season. It’s also something Boardwalk Empire has typically delayed in past seasons, to focus languorously on the finer details of the show’s immaculate setting and tremendous amounts of atmosphere.
All of that is still here in the final season, but in episode two there’s a palpable desperation in Nucky that goes beyond his typically irritated-by-everything persona to dig deep into what he wants – which he states rather flatly to his laconic bodyguard who is, perhaps, the titular good listener (played with hushed menace by Paul Calderon) as being: to “live long enough to cash out.”
That, of course, requires a great many things to go Nucky’s way. In the season premiere, Nucky was in Cuba to secure a U.S. Senator’s help in getting prohibition repealed, while also courting Bacardi and locking up North American distribution rights for the as-yet still illegal product. Now he’s back home, attempting to entice would-be partners with his expertise in liquor distribution as a means of further legitimizing the empire that will be his legacy, only to be tacitly shot down by all but Joseph Kennedy (Matt Letscher).
The notion of legacy, the deeply felt need to have built something that will endure long after you’re dead and gone seems to be driving Nucky toward his goals; it also helps to better justify the still unnecessary flashbacks to his childhood.
In ‘The Good Listener,’ the flashbacks are primarily concerned with the death of Nucky’s sister, and how it pointedly demonstrates the way in which Ethan Thompson and the rest of the Thompson clan continue to feel the effects of what seems to have been a land deal with the Commodore that left Ethan feeling shortchanged.
There’s not a great deal of detail given, and there doesn’t need to be. The flashbacks are already superfluous to some degree, but here the violent resentment Ethan has for the Commodore – which is worsened by the fact that his son is now in his employ – helps color the resentment Nucky has toward everyone else who has already accomplished what he hopes to, and didn’t have to “wade through blood” in order to get it.
In a sense, Nucky’s search for legacy and legitimacy is indicative of his gaining years and the weariness that comes from having to protect what he does have time and again from would-be usurpers like Jimmy Darmody, Gyp Rosetti, and now Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Like the now-retired Johnny Torrio tells him, after a certain point, it’s time to take the hint and retire.
The suggestion being that organized crime is a young man’s game, and Luciano and Lansky (along with Benny Siegel) are going to usher in that future by any means necessary. It’s a familiar demonstration of defiance against the establishment that was once the driving principle of Nucky’s world. But now that world has turned on people like Nucky – a fact that’s confirmed by Tonino when he spills the plot against Maranzano, before being delivered back to Lansky, dead and without an ear.
The reciprocation of violence creates an interesting juxtaposition between generational attitudes toward acts once freely engaged in by everyone.
Later on, Nucky’s thirst for legitimacy is mirrored in the storylines of Gillian Darmody and even Nucky’s exiled brother Eli, who has been partnered with George Mueller (a.k.a. Nelson Van Alden) in Capone’s ever expanding empire. There is a noticeable weariness in all three (and even Mueller – though he’s always been something of a world-weary fellow) that illustrates the tone of the nation outside the realm of criminality these characters are otherwise immersed in.
And although Gillian’s interaction with the nurse at the “booby hatch” subverts the obvious sexual connotation of the woman’s leering stare to reveal a desire for an article from Gillian’s old wardrobe, the fact that Gillian – and all three characters, for that matter – must submit themselves to the whims and desires of others to get what they want generates a certain level of conflict. It is a conflict that pits Nucky, Eli, and Gillian against expectation as much as it does the various forces acting in opposition to them.
That building sense of anxiety (perhaps even despair) over their current circumstances suggests that for those who see want as typically being followed by the realization of such a desire, another realization is slowly setting in: All achievements are fleeting, and power may be the most fleeting of them all.
Boardwalk Empire continues next Sunday with ‘What Jesus Said’ @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Macall B. Polay/HBO