'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Performance Anxiety

From Chicago to Cuba, knowing your audience is a matter of life and death for this HBO show’s dapper, desperate major players

Steve Buscemi in 'Boardwalk Empire'. Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Power is a performance. It's a matter of knowing your audience, picking up on whether you should be funny or scary, when to play to the cheap seats or act with awards-caliber subtlety. Isn't this the obstacle faced by Steve Buscemi in the minds of many viewers? His quiet, hangdog intensity as Nucky Thompson is an outlier in an era of volcanic, Byronic TV antiheroes. But that's the point: For all his successes before and after Prohibition, Thompson's decision to become more than "half a gangster" has forced him into a role he can't quite master. As Boardwalk Empire hits the halfway mark of its final season in tonight's episode — "Cuanto" — it examines the nature of that performance, and those of other characters who've found themselves shoved onto stage.


As a boy, the future chairman of the boardwalk is brought before the Commodore, who offers the young Nucky a glimpse of his grand plans for the Jersey shore (and an unwitting peek at his collection of photos of sexualized young girls), grinning when the kid notes that this is Atlantic City "as you wish it to be." That wish includes everything from a stronger transportation infrastructure to segregated housing. But Nucky's ability to follow along does nothing to placate his boss. "You think you're a smart boy." "If I say yes, you'll think I'm boasting. If I say no you'll think I'm lying." "Don't try to parse me." The boy is trying his best, but this command performance is unscripted, in front of the toughest crowd in town.

So he's naturally flabbergasted when he and his brother Eli are rewarded for going off-book. After catching them breaking into the Commodore's hotel for a taste of the good life (read: indoor plumbing), Sheriff Lindsay takes the Thompson boys to his own house for a home-cooked meal with his kind, politically minded wife and smart, friendly family. They eat good food, they tell corny jokes, they negotiate a role for the patriarch in Mrs. Lindsay's temperance crusade, over which the Sheriff conspiratorially shares a nod and a wink with Nucky. It's too much for the kid, who breaks down crying at his first glimpse of a life that's emotionally rewarding — a life where he can simply be himself. Cut to an hour later, when he's asking the Sheriff to assassinate his own father. The terms with which Lindsay demurs are revealing: "Don't go where you don't belong. Don't take what isn't yours. Don't pass your burdens on to others. Don't make me do my job — because I will." Know your role, Deputy Sheriff Thompson.

In the "present" day, Nucky and his estranged wife Margaret have made a similar peace. Over drinks — many of them, inducing a for-the-ages performance of drunkenness from actor Kelly MacDonald, who's never been better or sexier — the two realize they are each comfortable with the nature of the other. Margaret recognizes Nucky as a man who solves precisely the kinds of problems she's having with Carolyn Rothstein. Nucky marvels at Margaret's successes after leaving him: getting the better end of a deal with Arnold Rothstein, holding down a good job, raising two kids, all on her own terms. "Is this a fight?" Margaret asks when the conversation turns to their past infidelities. "We've had all the fights we're going to have," he replies, calmly, securely. They don't need to keep up an act anymore. What's there to fight about?

For other characters, the stakes of their fakery are much higher, the consequences of failure much more severe. When Lucky Luciano (referred to as such for perhaps the first time) comes to Chicago to sell Al Capone on the idea of a nationwide umbrella organization for Italian gangs, Al's skeptical – but less so of Luciano's suspicion that "George Mueller," aka former G-man Nelson Van Alden, is the Fed who jacked him in Jersey a decade ago. In a command performance to end them all, Van Alden talks his way out of imminent execution by playing on his employer's vanity: Sure, I may be a Fed and a murderer, but isn't Luciano undermining your authority a worse crime? For Capone — a guy who privately screens newsreel footage of his criminality over and over – this act hits all the right notes. It's an unlucky underling, whose only crime is a failure to provide an appropriate laugh track, who pays the price in Van Alden's stead. He's beaten to death with a statue of the Empire State Building in front of portraits of Lincoln and Washington, in case you were worried Boardwalk Empire was getting subtle on us in its old age.


The most gut-wrenching failure, though, is Sally Wheat's. Far more confident and less needy than any other woman the show has come up with, Patricia Arquette's Southern-fried bootlegger has always felt beamed in from another series — which, frankly, is a great thing. Though she's astute enough politically to hang with major players in organized crime, she's done so (like Margaret) on her own terms, running her own business and calling her own shots. Naturally, she reacts to the soldiers who stop her after curfew like another eager audience, willing to enjoy any song and dance she serves them if the price is right. Even after the writing is on the wall in the form of the chilling phrase "You're what's wrong with Cuba," she finds she can't come up with the necessary lines to placate people who are, by definition, implacable when it comes to criminal capitalists like herself. She dies, a gun in her hand like a Capone-inspired kingpin in a 1930s Hollywood movie. Those films had a code: No matter how charismatic the performance, the bad guys always got it in the end.

Previously: All That You Can't Leave Behind