Boardwalk Empire is a famously strong finisher, which can make its beginnings a bit tricky. After all, we're talking about a show that needs two full episodes simply to introduce all of its main characters. But tonight's Terrence Winter–written episode — "The Good Listener" — accomplished its task with style, as well as everything from low comedy to high weirdness. Aside from the one thing that, by definition, it couldn't do (end a season), it did everything this HBO prestige-TV project does well very well indeed.
One of those things, oddly enough, is mining murderers for laughs. Our first glimpse of Al Capone this season reveals him in the full blossom of his power not just as a ganglord, but as a media personality. While Capone holds court with Belushi-esque bluster (courtesy of actor Stephen Graham), a diminutive tailor attempts to measure him for pants, a reporter shouts questions with the rhythm of 1930s gangster movie dialogue, and multiple characters repeatedly report on the whereabouts of Capone's lieutenant Mike D'Angelo like something out of an Abbott & Costello routine. The whole thing is brisk, breezy, and refreshingly ridiculous for a Big Serious Drama. But it's revealing, too: There's a moment when an underling walks into the room and instinctively joins in the laughter over a Capone wisecrack he didn't even hear that tells you everything you need to know about Scarface's power over these people.
The comedy continues into the elevator where two more of our major characters spend much of their introductory screen time: Atlantic City exiles Nelson Van Alden and Eli Thompson. Watching them exchange barbs and dodge society matrons' feathered caps, it's easy to forget the places they once occupied in Boardwalk's moral universe. Van Alden was a terrifying zealot who scourged himself for impure thoughts and murdered a fellow agent as much for being Jewish as for being crooked. Eli weathered countless ins and outs with his older, more powerful brother Nucky, his own failures driving home Nucky's quiet but insatiable desire to succeed.
Now they're comic relief. Eli is saved from getting arrested by legendary G-man Eliot Ness (The Wire's Jim True-Frost) only by being laid up with a wicked hangover, while Van Alden seems equally perturbed by his disapproving Scandinavian wife ("Sometimes I find it easier to despise someone than to love them") as by the occasional murder-by-shotgun ("Why must it always be pandemonium!"). It's a testament to the talents of actors Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham that both sides of these characters work as well as they do.
Elsewhere, Gretchen Mol demonstrates why she may be Boardwalk's MVP as Gillian Darmody. This has always been a show that's had a hard time with its women, even more so than many of its macho peers. Margaret has often felt tangential to the action (remember that sex-ed subplot?). Angela Darmody's entire story depended on her not being able to do anything she actually wanted to do. Nucky's string of showgirl girlfriends (beginning with the delightfully batshit Paz De La Huerta) had little to do but be frivolous and naked. The two women around whom Chalky's storyline centered last season, singer Daughter Maitland and Chalky's own daughter Maybelle White, were both fascinating — and were each gone by the finale.
Gillian is different. As a character, she's required to get naked on command as much as anyone — it used to be her job as a showgirl, and her route to continued influence over the Commodore; now, in an insane asylum following her unwitting confession to a murder last season, it's a condition of her imprisonment. But her nudity has a terrible energy to it, informed by her rape when she was a girl, and her subsequent determination to turn that victimization to her advantage. Here, that energy is reflected in the freakish image of a room full of mental patients erupting out of strait-jacketed bathtubs like aliens from chest cavities. When Gillian herself finally emerges, slowly and deliberately instead of in a panicked fit, her naked body is both a come-hither and a middle finger all at once. That's part of what made the shaggy-dog-joke nature of her caged-heat storyline in this episode so satisfying. No, her female warden isn't the queer-predator cliché she seems; she's just one woman bargaining for a taste of the good life with another woman who fought tooth and nail to taste it herself.
Ironically, this is one aspect of her life that Nucky Thompson can relate to. We learn that as a boy, he was forced to bury his own sister by a father who resented his connection to the Commodore, who'd apparently fucked the old man out of a lucrative land deal. Today, he's equally starry-eyed over Joe Kennedy, a fellow Irishman who's made a dishonest fortune but without having to wade through rivers of blood to get to it. Yet when his nephew Willie imparts a lesson he learned during his very straight-and-narrow job interview with the Manhattan district attorney — don't admit your willingness to break the law when applying for a job to enforce it — Nucky can't help but apply that lesson to the murder business.
See, our antihero has a problem: He suspects, but can't prove, that Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano conspired to have him killed in Cuba. Elder statesman Joe Torrio offers earthy advice: since most mobsters "get the retirement papers straight from the grim fuckin' reaper," Nucky should take the hint and call it quits. But Luciano and Lansky's co-conspirator Tonino (the charmingly hapless goombah who dealt the killing blow to Gyp Rosetti a couple seasons back) spills the beans in hopes of getting into Nucky's good graces. It backfires: Just as the D.A. couldn't trust Willie if he said he'd break the law to get a conviction, Nucky can't trust a criminal so eager to break the code. So he sends Luciano and Lansky a message — in Tonino's blood.
It's a neat little mob morality tale, a one-and-done storyline studded with real-life icons that wraps up the arc of a memorable supporting character and reveals new wrinkles to Nucky's shrewd ruthlessness. Add that to the Capone comedy hour and Gillian's sexual power play — three very different storylines handled with equal efficacy — and you've got a pretty clear picture of how Boardwalk Empire can flourish even when the finale is weeks away.
Previously: Boss of All Bosses