Boardwalk Empire: "All In," or Arnold Rothstein, Not Goldstein by Donald McCarthy

In season two, Meyer Lansky said he learned a lot from Arnold Rothstein but qualified it with the line “nobody wants to be in school forever.” We saw him and fellow Rothstein man, Lucky Luciano, branch out a little in season two and then even further in season three, with Luciano leaving Rothstein and going with Masseria. This season Lansky is still with Rothstein and still very loyal, almost loving, to him, but is ready to start going out on his own a little. He does so by taking Nucky Thompson up on the deal that was previously offered to Rothstein. Meyer going into business with Nucky is a huge step and you can see it on Meyer’s face and by how quickly he repeatedly says yes to Nucky’s conditions. Meyer is ready to be a player but does he have the skills?

If you consider history a spoiler then skip this paragraph. The real Meyer Lansky, and I imagine this show will stick to his history in at least broad strokes, lived until he was 80 and died in Florida, the same place where the land he’s dealing with Nucky will be. By the time of his death, Lansky had control over a criminal empire that was almost nationwide. Despite the government’s best intentions they were never able to nail him. You can see the formation of this Meyer in the show as he begins to mature. He’s even starting to grow out of his alliance with Lucky Luciano, another real life mob figure who wasn’t quite as successful as Meyer (although his story in the late 30s and 40s is fascinating- look it up). Meyer wants to be his own man, beholden to no one and he might just have the chops to pull that off.

Of course, Meyer learned from the best: Arnold Rothstein. Through most of Boardwalk Empire’s run, Rothstein has come across as an almost omnipotent figure, one who is well aware of what deals he should and shouldn’t make. Only at the end of last season did a few cracks begin to show. In “All In” we see Rothstein isn’t quite as infallible as he first appeared.

Despite Boardwalk Empire’s fondness for sudden violence, it’s nothing violent that reveals Rothstein’s flaws; it’s not a threat from another mob leader. No, it’s a game of poker. Appropriate, no? After all, those gambling metaphors Rothstein makes had to be telling us something about him.

I think the audience was as shocked as Nucky when the reveal came that Rothstein had been steadily losing and needed to keep putting in more and more money in an effort to dig himself out. He tries not to lose his cool but the smile he gives, either to Nucky or to a fellow player who keeps needling him, becomes more and more that of an unhinged man, a man desperate to keep up a front. Eventually, as his pockets continue to be drained, Meyer says to him, “Wouldn’t it be best if people didn’t see you like this?”

It’s a stunning line, one that wakes Rothstein up. This one line pulls back the curtain and shows us two character traits. One, Rothstein has a very serious gambling addiction. He acts like he’s a man in complete control, likely because he knows there’s one thing he can’t control. Two, Rothstein deeply respects Meyer. If Eddie had said the same to Nucky, Nucky would wave him away. If Jesse said this to Walter in Breaking Bad he’d get an angry speech full of condescension. If Christopher said this to Tony in The Sopranos Tony would lose his cool and give Christopher a lot of shit for it. I can hear him now: “Who the fuck told you to get involved, huh?! If I needed your advice I’d FUCKING ask for it!”

I’m reminded of the relationship between Nucky and Jimmy, with Jimmy eventually branching out and then turning on Nucky. It’s possible Meyer will do the same but I don’t see it. Meyer implores Nucky not to allow Rothstein to gamble like this anymore even though he makes a deal with Nucky that was once Rothstein’s two minutes later. Meyer wants to strike out on his own but he still has love and respect for his mentor. I’m not sure the same could be said for the relationship between Nucky and Jimmy. Jimmy was emotionally scarred and sexually abused and Nucky was much more difficult to deal with and had no problem being nasty if he was in a bad mood. The only time Nucky seems to be nice to his subordinates is when he absolutely has to and even then he does it with exasperation- although, to be fair, he does most actions with exasperation. This left Jimmy raw and borderline insane. He eventually turned his rage on Nucky and ended up dead in front of a World War I memorial. Meyer isn’t on the same path as he makes a deal with Nucky.

Still, this leaves us with the question of whether Rothstein will lash out at Meyer or, more likely, Nucky since he’s no longer in on the Florida deal. I’m not sure. He might realize that his actions at the poker table revealed a little too much of himself and Nucky made the right choice. Who knows? Rothstein is a complicated man which is why he’s one of the show’s best characters (and my personal favorite).

“All In” ends with a cliffhanger, something Boardwalk Empire only does from time to time. Eddie Kessler is taken in by the FBI after he is seen delivering money for Nucky. His new position has turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. It’s appropriate for Eddie’s loyalty to be tested now, just as we saw how far the loyalty between Meyer and Rothstein goes. Will Eddie cave? I don’t think so.

At least, not at first. But we’re now dealing with some very stubborn lawmen…

This week’s analysis was delayed due to Breaking Bad’s finale but we’ll be back to regular business next Sunday. If you’ve been watching Breaking Bad I urge you to catch up on Boardwalk Empire. This episode has given me a fair bit of faith in the season and I’m eager to see where this goes.

For those of you who have been watching, what do you think of the season so far?


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.