It’s always difficult to criticize a series I have a deep affinity for, but “Blue Bell Boy” was a weak, if not altogether dull episode. Hell, even Sesame Street’s four-minute parody “Birdwalk Empire” was more entertaining. If I hadn’t already seen next week’s episode, which is the antithesis of what just graced our screens, I would be pretty worried for Boardwalk‘s future. The good news is, the series has been renewed for a fourth season, and this episode was merely a momentary blip in its solid third-year run. Still, this week’s two major plot lines weren’t entirely necessary. We’ve already established Nucky as a merciless killer, and we’re well aware that Gyp isn’t leaving Tabor Heights without several dead bodies in his wake. I came away from the episode with only two things: a new affection for Al Capone‘s paternal instincts, and a reminder that Eli may be a valuable asset to Nucky after all. Otherwise, it was an hour of television that makes me wonder if Boardwalk shouldn’t go the 10-episode route like Game of Thrones and, now, True Blood.
At Mickey‘s warehouse, Nucky addresses the death – or rather, according to the Atlantic City Daily Press, “tragic accident” – that befell the Tabor Heights sheriff, Victor Sickles. His latest plan is to have the liquor caravan avoid the calamitous town entirely and instead take back roads in order to get this much-delayed shipment delivered to Arnold Rothstein. When Mickey makes the astute (the only time this happens) observation that the back roads are covered in ice and there’s nowhere to get gas, Nucky orders him to do some recon work in Tabor Heights. In the meantime, Nucky’s got his hands full searching for Roland Smith, the partner of the young man he had killed in the season premiere. Manny Horvitz would’ve taken this guy out three episodes ago if Richard hadn’t put a bullet in his head, so now Nucky and Owen are saddled with the job.
In short, Nucky and Owen, with the help of Agent Sawicki, track Roland down at an abandoned house filled with hundreds of crates of whiskey – half of which Owen surmises is Nucky’s. Roland turns out to be a snarky, precocious teenager who isn’t one bit intimidated by Nucky or Owen. And when Prohibition agents surround the house, he proves his mettle when the three men are stuck hiding in the cellar for the next two days. I could recap this story line in more detail, but it was one of the most interminable “two days” of the series, and even though Nucky ultimately deciding to shoot Roland in the back of the head came as a complete surprise to Owen (you going soft on us now, Mr. Irish Republican Army?), I was just sorry he couldn’t do it sooner (he had to wait until the “Prohis” finally left), because that kid was more annoying than Mickey. Since the feds confiscated the liquor, leaving, as Nucky points out, both him and Roland empty-handed, Nucky had no choice but to do away with the person who robbed him. Whether Nucky would’ve kept him alive if the alcohol was still intact remains a worthwhile question, but it’s a moot point, because this just seemed like a tacked-on development to further remind the audience that Nucky is scary, ruthless and will kill you at the drop of a hat.
During this time frame, Eli joins Mickey in Tabor Heights, determined to do more than just lift crates into trucks – even though things are rather tense between the brothers Thompson. Before Nucky went looking for the Great Atlantic City Liquor Thief, Eli asked his brother to let him take more responsibility, reminding him that he did what he asked by going to prison. But Nucky isn’t ready to do Eli any favors: “Allowing you to simply go to jail is the last gift I’ll ever give you.” Nucky may want to reconsider his current chain of command, though, because his previous mistakes notwithstanding, Eli has a much better bullshit detector than Mickey. When the two men interrogate the new Tabor Heights sheriff, former deputy Ramsey, Eli doesn’t trust that the local police are going to just let Nucky’s convoy pass through without any trouble from Gyp. And Eli should know – he’s been a corrupt cop long enough.
A couple of days later, Nucky is still stuck in Roland’s cellar when Mickey receives a loaded phone call from Rothstein, demanding his liquor by the next morning. Caught between a rock and a hard place, and refusing to listen to Eli, who begs him to reconsider, Mickey makes the reckless decision to send the shipment out that night – through Tabor Heights. Eli drives ahead to stake out the town, but a single man who carries zero weight in Nucky’s regime is no match for Mickey and a convoy of booze-filled trucks. Eli’s suspicions are confirmed when he spots a gang of armed men waiting by the gas pumps, but all attempts to flag down the cars heading into the town with his screams of “It’s a fucking ambush!” are for naught. Fortuitously, Eli’s life is saved when his car won’t start, but the sound of gunshots and the screeches of tires in the distance tell a much different story for the rest of Nucky’s men.
We cut to a tracking shot of corpses (one of whom might be Mickey – hard to tell) and cars strewn about the road as Gyp approaches to inspect the damage. Satisfied with his goons’ handiwork, he announces, “I’m gonna fuck the redhead [waitress]” and leaves the scene.
Later that night, as Nucky walks the empty boardwalk alone, Eli emerges from nearby. Through a wide shot from inside the Ritz-Carlton, we hear Nucky try to dissuade any conversation, but Eli insists his brother hear his news. They talk in silhouette as the camera pans away, and with hope, this will be the start of a new relationship. Because if Nucky doesn’t start taking Eli’s advice, Jimmy‘s prediction of his mentor running out of booze and company will come true sooner than any of them realize.
Capone the Crooner
The other threads in “Blue Bell Boy” came off as inconsequential, although there were some amusing moments: Margaret and Dr. Mason‘s planned women’s-health classes are off to a rocky start with a hospital nun raising concerns with “infelicitous language” such as “vagina,” “pregnant” and “monthly time.” Wonder how she’d feel about “hoo-hah,” “knocked up” and “surfing the crimson wave” instead? Lucky Luciano finds himself torn between loyalties to his Italian elder Joe Masseria and his Jewish partner-in-heroin, Meyer Lansky.
But the most poignant story line came from the unlikeliest of characters: Al Capone, sad and frustrated over his child Sonny‘s inability to stand up for himself (even deaf schools have bullies), takes his anger out on Joe Miller, one of Dean O’Banion‘s hoods who repeatedly insulted and roughed up his nebbishy associate, Jake Guzik. After beating Miller to a bloody pulp, Capone administers one final, fatal blow with a bar stool, tossing several bills on his lifeless body (“For his funeral”) before walking away. That night, Capone, his mandolin in hand, wakes up Sonny and – harking back to a story he told Jimmy in Season One – places his son’s hands on his neck and chest before singing an elegiac version of the 1920s tune “My Buddy.” It doesn’t excuse his deadly short temper, but Capone has been displaying a much more mature attitude toward Sonny since originally deeming him a “dumbbell” in the first season. When Sonny broke down in tears in response to his dad trying to teach him how to throw a punch, instead of getting angry, as he did in the past, Capone pulled his son into a tight hug. Aww, gangsters can be such pushovers.
Wrap-Up Aside from the above-mentioned reasons for why this was such a disappointing episode, there was also no sign of Chalky, Van Alden, Gillian or Billie. And there was certainly not enough Gyp to go around. But it gets better. Next week.