'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Head Case

In the aftermath of tragedy, Nucky concocts a counterattack – with little support

jack huston wrenn schmidt boardwalk empire
Macall B. Polay
Jack Huston as Richard Harrow and Wrenn Schmidt as Julia Sagorsky in 'Boardwalk Empire.'
By |

Last season, I presciently titled one of my recaps "The Student Becomes the Teacher." The episode in question showed Jimmy dispensing the wisdom he had gleaned from Nucky's tutelage. Now, even in death, Jimmy's sagaciousness continues to haunt his former mentor, with his prophecy from the end of Season Two ringing true: "The only thing to worry about is when you run out of company." The attack on Babette's Supper Club, which killed Billie and injured Nucky (now suffering from a concussion), sent a very clear message to all East Coast bootleggers, which is that Joe Masseria and Gyp Rosetti are not to be fucked with. That means Nucky had better start making some new allies fast, because the old ones aren't interested in protecting him anymore.

Nucky, You're Out of Your Element!

Plagued by double vision, tinnitus and images of a blond, smiling Billie with embers raining down her face, Nucky grapples to maintain balance and control over his body and his empire in "The Milkmaid's Lot." He mixes up names (he calls Margaret "Mabel," his first wife) and forgets Chalky is an associate, not the shoeshine boy, but is determined not to let his "temporary lack of mental acuity" preclude him from seeking vengeance against Gyp. The Sicilian, who wastes no time in retaking Tabor Heights by paying off the townspeople $200 a month in exchange for their complicity, further riles up Nucky by bragging about the coup during a phone call – with a snarky recitation of an article about Billie's death thrown in for good measure. Nucky, taking a page from Van Alden's playbook from last week, begins trashing his Ritz-Carlton office upon hearing that not only has Gyp regained the New Jersey town, but he's being backed by someone as powerful as Joe Masseria. Once Eli manages to restrain his brother (who doesn't recognize him at first), Nucky orders a meeting of all the local bootleggers that night. He's going to kill both Gyp and Masseria, because it's the only way this war can be resolved. Owen, Eli and Chalky all think this is a bad idea, and Owen tries to talk some sense into his employer – "Joe Masseria has an army," he murmurs – but it's of no use.

Nucky's cognitive instability is also taking its toll on Margaret, who has taken to stealing quiet moments with Owen whenever her husband passes out from overexertion. Ever since the Thompson family relocated to the Ritz-Carlton for their own safety, Margaret looks to Owen for honest answers about her husband's troubles. He explains that Gyp was behind the attack at Babette's – and he wants Nucky dead because he told him " 'no,' when he wanted to hear 'yes.' " After a disoriented Nucky ruins Emily's birthday party by hacking into her multitiered cake like it was a certain Italian bootlegger and summarily freaking the poor kid out (although I'm still laughing over Nucky's "I'm on top of it, Bismarck" line to Eddie Kessler), Margaret considers Owen's proposal that they run away together – even though she thinks he's bluffing. But he's not: "I'm not as complicated as you," he says. And with those six words, Owen Sleater has won me over, because he knows Margaret better than Nucky ever will. In the first sign of true affection these two have shared, Owen presses Margaret to his chest and rubs her back, stroking her cheek before she returns to her daughter's party. And when she does, she's actually smiling.

That evening, Owen and Eli try one more time to get Nucky to reconsider his plan to off Gyp and Masseria. It's unlikely his associates will be supportive, especially given his weakened condition. Nucky, unwilling to accept that he is no longer in control, refuses to listen and slowly descends into madness as the night wears on, even displaying shades of Gyp-esque rage: "I'll wear that fucking dago's guts like a necktie!" Just before he is supposed to preside over a room full of gangsters, Nucky is hunched over the toilet, his health having considerably worsened due to his lack of rest. He calls for Margaret to help him and, in a brief moment of clarity, he unwittingly gives her the escape route she so desperately needs. After admitting that Billie is dead and that it's his fault, Nucky gives his wife a portentous warning: "No matter what you think of me, there's no walking away." He knows that the men waiting in his office may turn their backs on him, "and that's as good as dead." So under the guise of a supportive wife, she encourages him to tend to his business, when in reality she's sending him into the lion's den. As Owen closes the door to the meeting, she whispers, "We'll go, as soon as we are able." Translation: "We'll get the hell out of Dodge once Gyp Rosetti kills my husband."

As Owen and Eli predicted, Nucky's meeting is an absolute shitshow. Waxey Gordon, Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and several other bootleggers fill the Ritz-Carlton office and listen to the fallen king of Atlantic City plead for their support in the form of "new opportunities" and partnerships. But the bottom line is: no one wants to get involved in Nucky's beef with Gyp. Rothstein – who has convinced everyone in the room to not join forces with Nucky – diplomatically wishes him "all the luck in the world," but Lansky is a little more blunt: "Business with you is more trouble than it's worth." The men begin to trickle out, with Nucky unwilling to believe that so many of his associates are walking away from him. He urgently calls out to Rothstein (“Arnold! Arnold!”), as if the more he says his name the more likely the New York gambler will miraculously change his mind, but he's only met with deaf ears.

Gyp, on the other hand, closes out the episode by presiding over his new army: a battalion of men loading up crates of liquor on a New Jersey beach at sunrise. Having received a quick lesson on "Mad" Anthony Wayne at the Tabor Heights library, Gyp views himself as the modern-day version of the Revolutionary War general, mainly because Wayne had an Italian first name and Masseria implied that someday Gyp would make a good general. Though it's not off the mark that a lunatic like Gyp would feel a kinship with a man nicknamed "Mad Anthony." So, like any sensible leader, Gyp steals the three-cornered hat from the wax figure of Gen. Wayne, and with battle drums heralding his arrival, shows up on the beach – wearing the hat – ready to assume command.

A Little Romance

There wasn't much of a break from the Nucky-has-a-concussion-and-wants-to-kill-Gyp storyline this episode, which is why the brief scenes between Richard and Julia Sagorsky were a welcome respite from the drama over at the Ritz-Carlton. The two have a sweet date at an American Legion hall dance, where Julia gently coaches Richard through the etiquette of courting a lady (offering his arm, asking her to dance, etc.). At the end of the night, Richard arrives back at the Artemis Club with lipstick on his mask (initiated by Julia), and the hope that he can save Tommy from a lifetime with Gillian becomes more of a reality. I'm not one for accelerated relationships, but for Tommy's sake, I think we need a wedding by the end of the season. With Tommy left to his own devices, the boy wound up walking in on his new pal Josephine while she was, ahem, "servicing" one of her clients. Naturally, Gillian blamed Tommy's faux pas on Richard's absence, but if that kid winds up being scarred for life it will be due to her decision to raise him in a brothel, not because his babysitter wanted a night off! But Richard may end up having the last laugh: Gillian's cunning attempts to make her grandson think she's his mother have officially backfired. When Tommy wakes up from his rum-and-milk stupor (Gillian's brilliant method of putting him to sleep), he tells Richard that he "wants to go home." Whether he means with Julia and Richard or Jimmy and Angela, one thing is for certain, he's had enough of his creepy meema.

Wrap-Up We got more evidence this episode that the "vagrant" terrorizing the Thompsons' neighborhood a couple of episodes back may have been Gyp after all. Teddy tells Nucky "the gypsy" is on the phone when Gyp calls. Also, Teddy calls his dog by her given name, "Regina" – but when Gyp first unloaded Regina onto Margaret in the season premiere, he called her "Scruffy." Sounds like Gyp reacquainted himself with Regina one day while Teddy was taking her for a walk...

Previously: Bombshell

x