Those of you who have been reading my reviews so far will no doubt be able to safely say that I really enjoy Boardwalk Empire. I find the show thoughtful, moving, surprising, humorous, and well crafted. However, up until tonight, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it be all that touching. I’ve been moved by the show, especially with the last two episodes of season two, but not touched- there’s a difference there. That changed tonight with two characters’ stories.
Let’s start with the most surprising character: Al Capone. Perhaps the most famous portrayal of Capone is Robert De Niro’s in The Untouchables. After all, it gave us thisextremely fun scene. Outside of that, though, De Niro didn’t do anything too exciting with the part, and in his defense the script didn’t let him, and he just comes across as a mobster with a temper and nothing more. Stephen Graham, who plays Capone on Boardwalk Empire has been masterful and has given Capone layers that I doubt even the real one had. Graham has not gotten enough press for his performance which is a damn shame as it’s one of the best of the show. He was good from the start but the introduction of his deaf son has given Graham something to work with. I recall last season, when Capone saw Jimmy’s son playing and talking, how his face grew sad as he thought of his own son who could barely hear others. It was a nice moment, one that was all about expression as opposed to dialogue. I even popped onto You Tube to see if it was on there because it’s worth linking to but, alas, it’s not.
In this episode we see Capone’s reaction to his son, “Sonny,” being picked on because he’s deaf. In a moment that plays against the cliché, it is Capone, the father, who is more upset while the mother gives the age old bullshit adage “boys will be boys.” Capone’s first instinct is to teach his boy how to fight but instead of Sonny learning boxing he gets scared at his father’s rage and, shockingly, Capone’s face almost breaks and he hugs the kid. As someone who has never been fond of the fact that television rarely shows affection between fathers and sons, I was very happy to see this scene. I was even more pleased at the episode’s end, when Capone comes into his son’s room and plays the guitar while singing him a song about how he’s his buddy (my own father calls me “Buddy” which made it land even harder for me). Oh, and before you wonder how Sonny can hear it, in episodes past Capone has mentioned how his son can feel the vibrations from musical instruments- a nice note.
The other emotional subplot comes from Eli Thompson, a character I’ve always been fond of and I’m glad he’s getting his due this season. Last year, Eli was involved in an assassination attempt on his brother, Nucky. Nucky and him made peace with the understanding that Eli would take the fall for some of their past sins and do a year in jail. We haven’t seen any of Eli’s time in prison but it’s clear it’s made him a more depressed man. Ironically, though, his anger seems to be gone, his anger towards Nucky with it. You don’t think of people getting LESS angry when they come out of jail but Eli’s been doing some thinking it seems. Nucky tells Eli that he’s not going to be doing any favors for him and, while that’s certainly understandable, I can’t help but feel bad for Eli because he’s trying to do right by his brother after everything that happened in the past.
So far this season Eli has had to answer to the idiotic Mickey Doyle whose decision to continue sending alcohol shipments through Tabor Heights despite the presence of Gyp Rossetti there ends up getting a dozen of Nucky’s men killed. Eli saw this coming and warned Doyle. It didn’t take a genius to guess that the giggling idiot wouldn’t listen.
But that’s not where the emotional heart of the story comes from. The heart comes at the end, when Eli takes it upon himself to try to stop the convey and, after failing to do that, goes to Nucky to tell him what happened. Nucky cruelly rebuffs him first but Eli pushes, telling him he needs to hear this. We don’t hear the dialogue but we see the two brothers standing there and you get the feeling that Eli Thompson wants redemption. In a show filled with very criminal people, it’s nice to see a redemptive figure even if he is still mired in the criminal world.
Boardwalk Empire has always been very interested in slowly building its characters and if it hadn’t taken the time to do so, neither of these two plots would’ve succeeded. Some say that the show is too slow but I’ll take the slower episodes if they lead to conclusions like this.
Okay, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked about the biggest shock of the episode: after leading on a young thief, Nucky shoots the kid in the back of the head. It was a great twist and I’m very interested in seeing where it goes but I want to hold off analyzing it too much until we see how it plays out. Nucky is a hard to read character but there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be seeing ramifications of this throughout the season- I can’t help but be reminded of his execution of Jimmy at the end of last season.
Line of the night: Arnold Rothstein’s fantastic call to Mickey Doyle: “Mr. Doyle, why am I speaking to you? Why is this conversation even occurring?”
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.