“Two Boats and a Lifeguard” brought Boardwalk Empire‘s protagonist back to the forefront after he spent several episodes as the victim of a tiresome plot line. Nucky may not be back on top, but he’s more on his game now than he’s been all season, and for once we’re eagerly anticipating his next move. The arrival of Assistant U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph has forced Nucky to reconsider his strategy, which results in his relinquishing his post as county treasurer. But while his enemies revel in their ostensible victory, they’re oblivious to the fact that the fight has only just begun.
(Just Like) Starting Over
It’s no wonder Nucky is plagued by sleepless nights: His former protégé tried to have him killed. Then he gets the news that his abusive father, Ethan, has died. Oh, and he’s been backed into a corner in his election-fraud case. At a meeting with Randolph and her chief investigator, Clifford Lathrop, the prosecutor is all too happy to inform Nucky that not only does she have plenty of evidence to use against him, but also he is now indebted to her team: Lathrop is the federal agent who saved Nucky’s life.
Dejected and out of options, Nucky confers with Margaret that evening. Her lack of passion for him aside (see last week’s little indiscretion with the help), she resumes her “wife” role by encouraging him to think practically. “How long can you push your luck before you’re killed?” she asks. When he objects, she reminds him of what’s important: “You’re alive, and we have each other.”
The following day, knowing he’s up a creek, Nucky solicits advice from Johnny Torrio and Arnold Rothstein. The calculating Rothstein tells Nucky he has no choice but to “do nothing.” The career gambler explains that it’s the only way Nucky can win: “There are weeks, sometimes months, in fact, when I don’t make a bet at all, because there simply is no play. So I wait. Plan. Marshal my resources. And when I finally see an opportunity, I bet it all.” The World Series fixer is at his most sinister when he’s this calm.
As Nucky prepares to make peace with his enemies, there is one rival whom he refuses to forgive. At their father’s wake, Nucky remains cold toward Eli for not stopping the murder attempt (better not tell him it was your idea, Sheriff). The two brothers descend into a heated argument in front of the coffin, with Eli condemning Nucky for being so callous toward their father, even in death. “You’ve obviously forgotten key events from our childhood,” Nucky sneers. (For those who missed the first season, hot-poker scars and beatings punctuated Nucky’s formative years.)
Eli exits, leaving Nucky alone with his father’s body. He notices one of Ethan’s shoes is untied. As he attempts to tie it, Nucky, who has presented a façade of indifference up until now (“People die,” he tells Margaret), breaks down in tears. It’s just a shame no one was around to see him release so many years of pent-up rage and sadness. Well played, Buscemi.
His emotional outburst complete, Operation Do Nothing commences. First he visits Jimmy, Gillian, the Commodore and Leander Whitlock at the Kaestner mansion. In one of Nucky’s best performances to date (with one of the Commodore’s enormous stuffed bears standing behind him – weird), he explains that his father’s death and his own brush with the same made him realize he doesn’t need the drama that comes with running Atlantic City. Margaret and the children are all he needs; he has enough money to retire, so he’s stepping down as county treasurer. Jimmy and his family are elated – and they just bought into the biggest load of bullshit Nucky Thompson has ever fed them.
Nucky also encourages Chalky to get the African-American workers in Atlantic City to strike. During tourist season. It’s a move that will shut the city down – and it will be all Jimmy’s problem. Shrewd Nucky is back, and he won’t even be in the country when this goes down. That night, he takes a meeting with Sleater, asking the Irishman why he was MIA when he was shot. Sleater is shitting his pants as Nucky interrogates him about his whereabouts that day, but he loosens up once he realizes Nucky isn’t alluding to his romp with the boss lady but his IRA-related activities. Nucky wants Sleater to arrange a meeting with John McGarrigle in Belfast, suggesting that he’s out to recruit some treacherous allies over in Ireland.
But Nucky’s selfish quest to recoup his power may come at the expense of his new family. His overseas trip arrives on the heels of having just asked Teddy and Emily, who has been battling a mysterious illness throughout the episode, to start calling him “Dad.” Can’t say Nucky is being much of a father with plans to leave the country while his “daughter” is sick, especially when her fever spikes in the closing scene.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
In light of the failed assassination attempt, Jimmy tries to maintain control without acknowledging his relief that his former mentor is still alive. As he reprimands Al Capone for sending a hit man incapable of finishing the job, Angela unwittingly eavesdrops on the phone conversation. Vulnerable after learning her detached husband is also a murderer, she’s in the perfect position to meet Louise, a sassy San Francisco (of course) novelist who makes waves at the beach by flouting the modesty law. Think she was based on this woman?
An awkward chat with Jimmy the next day only drives Angela into the arms of her liberated new friend. The Darmodys confront the harsh truth that they married out of societal obligation, not love, and it’s a fascinating conflict to observe. Angela may not be a fan of penis, but she still cares about Jimmy, and she’s saddened that he was willing to take out his father figure. Jimmy admits that he didn’t want Nucky killed, but he agreed to it anyway. Angela asks what changed his mind: “My mother,” says Jimmy, confirming his wife’s worst fears, which is that Gillian will always take precedence over her. You can’t blame Jimmy for keeping Angela on the periphery, but judging from the gentle kiss she initiates with Louise that night, perhaps she’ll find some happiness after all.
Following Nucky’s resignation, Jimmy celebrates his victory at Babette’s. But the party takes a grim turn when buzzkill Eli warns Jimmy not to underestimate his brother: “He’s smarter than you are, and a lot more dangerous.” These are probably the wisest words Eli has ever uttered, but Jimmy’s got too big a head to listen (maybe because Whitlock called him “Prince James”). He tells Eli to fuck off, because he has more pressing matters at hand. Manny Horvitz continues to badger Jimmy about repaying his debt, and when the Philly butcher shows up uninvited, Jimmy’s had enough. When Horvitz beckons Jimmy to join him downstairs on the dance floor, Jimmy sends him a deadly message by tossing their associate, Mickey Doyle, over the balcony. No loss there – Doyle’s nervous laugh was grating on my nerves.
Wrap-Up: Jimmy and company better enjoy themselves while they can, because between the impending workers’ strike and whatever Nucky has up his sleeve, they’re in for a very rude awakening.
Last Episode: Welcome Back, Peggy