It was certain that Boardwalk Empire would make things difficult for Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) as he began to press for war with Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi). After all, he was going at it after seeing the whole Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) situation escalate from an minor annoyance to an attempt on his life – which left him without his favorite boardwalk eatery, mind you.

So, without the help of his key business connections like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) – and, to a lesser degree, Rothstein’s associate Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Nucky devises a plan to eliminate Masseria, in an effort to leave Rosetti without an army to protect him.  However, as Nucky – and everyone else – soon appreciates, a plan is only one possible outcome of many. And so, ‘A Man, a Plan…’ sees just how the best laid plans can offer a conclusion no one saw coming.

Well, that may not be entirely true. Most everyone saw that Jess Smith (Ed Jewett) would reach the end of the line, but the sight of him putting the barrel to his head, rather than continue to point it at his would-be assassin, Gaston Bullock Means (Stephen Root), may have come as something of a surprise. Nearly as surprising as his friend and associate, Harry Daugherty (Christopher McDonald), giving Means the go-ahead to bump Smith off – especially after the lengths to which Daugherty was willing to go in order to keep Smith from trouble. At any rate, Smith is just another example of how far back plans can go, and how quickly they can spiral out of control.

But surprising outcomes need not be in the form of some grisly demise (even on Boardwalk Empire). Certainly, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) had devised for himself some sort of plan by which he could continue to pursue the affections of the rather lovely Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt). But after assaulting her father following another of his drunken, profanity-laced tirades, it would have seemed utterly improbable that things would escalate to the point of a romantic interlude spent below the boardwalk.

Richard’s long-overdue romance leads us to the issue of Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) and Owen Slater (Charlie Cox), whose plan was to run away together, leave Nucky Thompson and his war far behind, and have a go at it in St. Louis. It was the kind of plan that had tragedy written all over it, but Boardwalk Empire treated us to a bit of emotional deception by letting the audience know just what Margaret had on the line with this plan. Of course, anyone who has not been keeping up with historical facts while watching this season, may have surmised that Terence Winter had intended to do away with Jess Smith and Masseria on the same night – giving Nucky the leverage he needed to do away with Gyp Rosetti and get back to the business of turning booze into vast piles of money.

Naturally, with two episodes left, this would not be the case, thanks to the impatience of Luciano and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), who afford Masseria an opportunity to avoid assassination and send Owen’s body back to Nucky in a wooden crate. Owen’s death certainly has some heft to it – he was, after all, Nucky’s right-hand man. But more importantly, the way in which Margaret reacts is far more impactful. Those screams aren’t of someone startled by a dead body being delivered at four in the morning, and Nucky’s suddenly aware of a transgression he’d somehow overlooked.

But Owen’s death doesn’t just escalate the war with Masseria, it puts Margaret back into an all too familiar position of being stuck – this time with a new child on the way. And for all the opportunity and chance at a fresh start that child represented, now it’s just another reminder that her journey ended before it really ever began.

Highlights from the episode:

  • “Would you pay a dime to see this?”
  • Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) have another run-in, which leaves the former treasury agent mumbling at a table with a fork in his face. Here’s hoping this turns into something substantial down the line.
  • Margaret and Dr. Mason (Patrick Kennedy) lose their women’s health class, but gain an admirer in the unlikeliest of women.
  • Means stands to make $80,000 from a guy shooting himself.

Boardwalk Empire continues next week with ‘Two Imposters’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview of the episode below: