Well, ‘Blue Bell Boy’ makes two things very clear: Al Capone (Stephen Graham) has little tolerance for bullies, and Nucky (Steve Buscemi) does not suffer smart-mouthed youngsters very well.
For whatever reason, Boardwalk Empire, has never really played Capone up as a figure on his own – he’s always been stuck with Jimmy or answering to Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) – but ‘Blue Bell Boy’ paints the soon-to-be larger than life gangster in a distinctly human way. Entering season 3, Capone has risen from smart-mouthed troublemaker to a man who knows the benefit of presenting himself as someone with style, class and character. It’s a role he’s playing - like everyone else who bothers convincing the world around them they’re not just a gangster – and as much as Capone enjoys the part, he’s got a big soft heart when it comes to his deaf son – and, by extension, anyone else who’s being bullied for the way they are.
So Capone’s big episode sees him handling things for one of his guys, Jake Guzik (Joe Caniano), after one of Dion O’Banion’s cronies, Joe Miller, throws him a public beating on account of the way he smells. At this point, anything O’Banion related is guaranteed to get a rise out of Capone, but considering his kid just spent the day home from school because of being bullied, well, Al isn’t going to stand by and let another fella get roughed up – especially when he can do something about it. It’s swift and brutal retribution for an unnecessary beating, and likely won’t go without reprisal of its own, but for the time being it brings some peace of mind to Capone. At least enough that he heads home and sings ‘My Buddy,’ while his son’s hand feels the vibrations on his throat.
At first it seems odd to pair up Capone’s surprisingly emotional storyline with Nucky and Owen (Charlie Cox) trapped in a cellar with the elusive Rowland Smith (Nick Robinson), but once you begin to appreciate just where Nucky is this season, it quickly becomes clear. But that’s only after Nucky, Owen and Rowland spend a day or so in a cold, damp cellar while a bunch of Waxy Gordon’s lawmen unload all the stolen booze from Rowland’s house. It’s a long night, and while Rowland sleeps it away, thinking he’s earned a reprieve from Nucky’s wrath on account of his winning personality and ability to spin his circumstances into something that may be beneficial, Owen is just waiting for the day he and his boss can look back on all of this and laugh.
As it turns out, Nucky’s not exactly in a laughing mood these days, and he’s certainly not going to trust some kid who ripped him off just because he’s got a nice smile and some chutzpah. Credit where it’s due: the Boardwalk writers dangle Rowland in front of the audience and Nucky like the second coming of Jimmy -and even Owen seems to be warming up to the kid, right before Nucky puts a bullet in the back of his skull. There’s a look of fear and disappointment in Owen’s expression when he turns to see Rowland lying face down in his living room, blood dripping between the floorboards. It’s a look that likely mirrors the audience’s reaction, and helps to underline just what changes have taken place in Nucky’s psyche since last season’s betrayal.
Whereas Capone is defending his people (and in a way, his son), Nucky’s ensuring everyone is kept at arm’s length, and that the last thing anyone sees him as is vulnerable. Someone may be able to hit Doyle’s warehouse, but sooner or later, Nucky’ll find them, and he won’t be considering them for a position on his crew simply because they’re good at stealing stuff. The only person who gets a second chance is Eli (Shea Whigham), but according to Nucky that’s the last gift he’ll be getting from his brother.
Still, as thankless and demeaning as trying to earn Nucky’s forgiveness is, it sure beats answering to Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), and watching as he explicitly ignores orders and sends a convoy of men out to be killed by Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) and his crew. So Eli puts himself in harms way and tries to keep another of Rothstein’s shipments from not reaching its destination. Nucky’s brother or not, it seems no one is interested in what Eli has to say – which leaves him listening as Doyle’s crew gets gunned down at what is rapidly becoming the scariest gas station on the East Coast.
It’s the second shipment Rosetti’s managed to screw up, and people are beginning to take notice – the wrong kind of people. Earlier, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) put in a rather terse phone call to Nucky to figure out exactly why his booze isn’t coming, even though he’s paid for it. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that Rothstein winds up getting a dumbfounded Doyle on the phone, so it’s not like any kind of understanding was reached. And now Nucky’s caught between two New York gangsters with similar bones to pick.
It’s a troublesome situation, but as Gaston Bullock Means (Stephen Root) mentioned in ‘Spaghetti and Coffee,’ Nucky’s the kind of person who can take trouble and turn it to his advantage. Since HBO just announced Boardwalk Empire would be moving on to season 4, it stands to reason Mr. Thompson will be figuring things out soon enough. Until then, it seems he can make a little time for some boardwalk conversation with Eli – even if it is just more bad news.
On the surface, ‘Blue Bell Boy’ may seem like another low-key effort, but in terms of quality drama and characterization, it’s the high mark for Boardwalk Empire season 3.
Boardwalk Empire will continue next Sunday with ‘You’d Be Surprised’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview of the episode below: