'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Performance Anxiety - Rolling Stone
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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Recap: Performance Anxiety

Nucky dabbles in showbiz and Arnold Rothstein debates waging war with Gyp

Meg Chambers Steedle as Billie Kent in 'Boardwalk Empire'Meg Chambers Steedle as Billie Kent in 'Boardwalk Empire'

Meg Chambers Steedle as Billie Kent in 'Boardwalk Empire'

Macall B. Polay

I freely admit I’ve been waffling on the subject of whether or not Nucky is in love with Billie, but considering he poured more energy into saving his mistress’ clunker of a show than keeping his suffering business afloat this episode, this may not be just a fling. Then again, as Margaret points out, he sure does like rescuing the ladies, be it from abusive husbands or crappy co-stars. Plus, now that Billie knows about Lucy Danziger and her lover’s penchant for discarding showgirls like worn-out pairs of shoes, the honeymoon could be over before it ever begins.

With Nucky off playing impresario, “You’d Be Surprised” provided ample screen time for certain faces previously pushed to the wayside in order to build up the Nucky-Gyp story line: Van Alden plunged deeper into a purgatory of his own creation, Margaret took more control over her stagnant life and Gillian established that she’s either completely delusional, or Nucky did a hell of a job convincing her that Jimmy did re-enlist in the Army. True, it was too much crammed into one episode, but after last week’s snoozefest, the overkill of plot and character appearances was warmly welcomed – because it got Boardwalk Empire back on track. 

Out-of-Town Tryouts

While Gyp is celebrating his victory in Tabor Heights – scarfing himself to a happy ending with the redheaded waitress – Nucky meets with Eli, Owen, Rothstein and Luciano to address the 11-person massacre of the night before. With circumventing Tabor Heights out of the question, Rothstein is presented with a most difficult conundrum: take a bath on the liquor, or take out Gyp Rosetti and potentially start a war between crime syndicates. See, Gyp answers to Joe Masseria, “with whom I have a very delicate truce,” Rothstein explains to Nucky. “What might solve a problem for you creates an even bigger problem for me.” Since Rothstein has grown weary of Nucky’s putative apathy toward his affairs, his decision to meet with Gyp at the Tabor Heights diner to forge a new partnership seems like a natural course of action. And Gyp is all too willing to become Rothstein’s supplier if it means putting the arrogant Nucky out of business. From this perspective, Nucky has just lost his biggest (and only) client to his chief rival.

If he has, he’s too busy being an absentee landlord to notice – because Billie’s in Atlantic City rehearsing for a musical called The Naughty Virgin. But sassy titles do not a Broadway smash make. The show is a bore, Billie’s co-star likes to get a little handsy (which only bothers Nucky) and Lee Shubert is ready to close before opening night, turning the chorine’s ever-present smile into a cute little pout. So Nucky takes his good friend Eddie Cantor to lunch at Babette’s, plies him with Passover vodka and asks him to break his contract with the new Jerome Kern show to headline Virgin. And when that doesn’t work, Nucky sends two thugs – in the form of Dunn Purnsley and Chalky, resplendent in his red coat – to browbeat Eddie into submission. I can only hope that Michael Kenneth Williams’ busy filming schedule (RoboCop, Twelve Years a Slave) is the reason why Chalky has been relegated to a background character this season. The hired-muscle role doesn’t suit him.  

But Billie’s excitement over the resuscitation of her show is short-lived. Eddie is understandably bitter as they prepare to take the stage, but he too has the power to ruin people’s lives, even if it doesn’t come in the form of intimidation. He asks Billie if she’s ever heard of Lucy Danziger. When she sheepishly shakes her head (Jealous! We wish we could forget her), he snaps, “The next one won’t know a goddamn thing about you either.” And if that isn’t enough of a wakeup call, then maybe Billie should think about the lyrics coming out of her mouth during the song “You’d Be Surprised”: “He’s got the face of an angel, but there’s a devil in his eye.” Start hoarding your money now, toots.

Back in Tabor Heights, Gyp is up to his erotic asphyxiation tricks again – while the redheaded waitress is taking it up the ass. But a trigger-happy paperboy who looks suspiciously like Meyer Lansky‘s teenage hit man, Benny Siegel, interrupts their bedroom gymnastics. All told, when Owen reports the news to his boss later that evening – thus confirming Rothstein’s decision to wage war with Joe Masseria on Nucky’s behalf – four people are dead, “and none of them Gyp Rosetti.” You owe Rothstein big-time, Nucky. You can’t have other people fighting your battles for you anymore. 

Class Action

The only problem when your mistress is in town? You run the risk of bumping into your wife. When Margaret stops by the Belle Femme to ask a strangely twitchy Madam Jeunet (oh, how we’ve missed the “Mar-gar-eet” pronunciation) to keep a stack of fliers for the women’s-health class in the boutique, she’s stunned to see her husband there – shopping with Billie. But at least she gets the last word. With daggers in her eyes, Margaret hands an embarrassed Billie a flier, sniping, “I doubt that you’re free in the evenings, but . . .” Later in the day, Nucky stops home to apologize for his “bad form,” but the damage is done, their charade fully unraveled. No formal decisions are made, although now that his affair is out in the open, Nucky suggests to Margaret that she “might want to start asking [herself] some practical questions.” Not to worry, Nucky. Should your wife need to support herself, she may have found her calling as a sex-ed, ahem, women’s-health instructor. That evening, a medical emergency prevents Dr. Mason from teaching the class at the hospital, so Margaret – much to the uptight supervisory nun’s astonishment – steps up to conduct the lesson on “development.”

Move Over, Bonnie and Clyde

After several red herrings hinted that the feds have finally caught up with him (incomplete tax forms; the Prohibition agent from Episode Three, Emmett Coughlin, leaving his card), it’s getting increasingly more difficult for Van Alden to go about his daily routine without a panic attack. Desperate to unburden himself of his secrets, he tries to confess his deeds to Sigrid, but she insists she already knows the whole story, which is to say she doesn’t: She’s aware his name isn’t George Mueller, but it’s only because he’s been defamed by “the bad person.” Van Alden, comforted by his wife’s unfaltering support, decides to affirm Sigrid’s assumption and says nothing further. The next night, he arrives home to find Coughlin waiting to talk to him. But he’s not after the salesman to extort more money or arrest him for a man’s murder – he just wants to return the “piece of junk” iron he bought. Unfortunately for Coughlin, Sigrid didn’t hear him, and she whacks him from behind – twice – with what looks like a heavy lead pipe. Knowing they can never get away with assaulting a federal agent, Mr. and Mrs. Mueller exchange a silent glance before Sigrid, without batting an eye, announces, “I’ll hold his legs.” Van Alden pulls out his handkerchief and instructs his wife to “avert [her] eyes” before smothering Coughlin to death. I’ve got to hand it to these two – they make a great team. Out of options, Van Alden goes to the only person who can help him dispose of a body – Dean O’Banion. With two men dead at his hands, Nelson Van Alden has now crawled into a hole from which there is unlikely no escape.

Gillian’s Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy

Over at the Artemis Club, the only whorehouse in Atlantic City that doesn’t seem to bring in any revenue, Leander Whitlock, mutton chops and all, is berating Gillian for mismanaging her business. But Gillian brushes him off, preferring to live her life the way she pictures her brothel: “in a dream.” Whitlock reminds Gillian that she has no ownership of the house because she refuses to have Jimmy declared legally dead. Is Gillian so off her rocker that she believes Jimmy is still alive somewhere? Or did Nucky cover his tracks so well that she doesn’t know her son was murdered? Whatever the answer, Jimmy lives in Gillian’s mind, merely “prone to long disappearances” – even if the letter she writes begging him to come home has no need for a stamp.


Nucky can’t avoid his business dealings forever – a couple of brief scenes featuring James Cromwell as Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon at a Senate hearing (presided by Nucky’s foe, Sen. Walter Edge) and Gaston Means as a very interested observer of the proceedings suggest that the corruption permeating the Harding administration is teetering dangerously close to exposure. Means’ solution? Have Harry Daugherty put one of the bootleggers in jail. Three guesses as to whom they’re going to target.

Previously Who’s Minding the Store?


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