After last week’s premiere made it loud and clear that the final season of Boardwalk Empire is gonna be All About Nucky, the show had some extra groundwork to cover tonight. Nucky’s still around and very much in focus, hunting down legitimate business partners and ruminating on his terrible father figures. But virtually all of the supporting players from “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” have been swapped out, showing just how much pipe laying was pushed aside in favor of flashbacks and cute Cuban kids. Case in point: we’re a quarter of the way through the season, and we only just got to Chicago!
I’m biased because Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller/General Zod is and always will be my favorite character on this show, but I’d rather have seen more of him—and Eli, and Gillian, and Al Capone—earlier than spend quite so much time in Nucky’s past. As horrible as it sounds, the flashbacks improve once the Thompson’s terminally ill sister is out of the picture. Still, the issue isn’t whether the flashbacks are good; they are, or at least they are this week, when they start to shed light on Nucky’s motivations for entering a life of crime. It’s whether they’re good enough to justify limiting our time in Van Alden’s pre-suburbia suburban hell to a mere minute or two.
The dynamic between Eli and Van Alden, now seven years into their working relationship, is simultaneously the most entertaining and the most interesting new element of season five. Because Van Alden’s involved, the Chicago scenes are straight-up funny: an old lady shoves a puppy in Van Alden’s unsmiling face; Chester learns clouds float “because…of…the atmosphere”; a stick-up ends with Van Alden screaming “WHY MUST IT ALWAYS BE PANDEMONIUM?!?!” like a Sunday school teacher pushed to the brink. Eli adds an odd-couple vibe to Van Alden’s schtick, playing the disheveled, urine-reeking mess to Van Alden’s uptight lapsed Calvinist.
There’s a serious undertone to the character pairing, however, that keeps the duo from becoming a punchline. Eli may be safe from the feds for now, but in exchange for getting away with the murder of Agent Tolliver, he’s lost everything he valued about his old life. Eli has always defined himself—in opposition to his brother, of course—as a family man; cut off from his wife and children for seven years, he’s an unshaven wreck. When the episode’s opening sees Eli wake up from a trip down memory lane and discover his warehouse mid-raid, he can’t even muster up the urgency to make his “Fuck!” sound convincing. Outside Capone’s office, he’s practically asleep on the bench.
Where Eli becomes miserable without his family, Van Alden’s become miserable with one. After literally screwing on a pile of money last season, Van Alden and his Scandinavian wife have settled into a life of Girl Scout meetings, fights about grammar, and complaints about smoking as a “thoroughly unladylike habit.” Van Alden doesn’t feel constrained by his wife and kids, though, so much as he feels like he doesn’t know how to stop making himself miserable and embrace the happiness that’s right in front of them: “Sometimes I find it easier to despise someone than to love them.” Letting go of rabid Puritanism is a lifelong process, apparently.
As Van Alden and Eli negotiate their work-life balance, Al Capone is now at his peak. His hotel suite [Stefon voice] has everything: tailors with dwarfism! Variety reporters! Obnoxiously large piles of cash! Status hasn’t done anything for Capone’s temper (or his coke habit, probably, though that hasn’t made it on-screen yet). Little does he know, however, that the henchman he’s screaming for—did people really say “PAGING ________!” in the ’30s?—is actually a Prohie, and his new boss is none other than Eliot Ness.
Also making her season five debut is Gillian Darmody, currently in a The Knick meets Girl, Interrupted type situation. Women’s mental health care, while probably better than prison, doesn’t seem like it was particularly stellar in Depression-era New Jersey. Gillian and her fellow inmates listen to the episode’s namesake “agony aunt” (an old-school name for a female advice columnist—you learn so much when you recap period pieces!) while buttoned and tied into bathtubs; when things get out of hand, the warden delivers a monologue that would do Nurse Ratched proud. Between this and Penny Dreadful‘s Eva Green lobotomy, TV’s doing a lot these days to remind us how awfully society has always treated “hysterics.”
Always the show’s most tragic figure, Gillian has been reduced to bartering relics of her glamorous former lifestyle for a pen and paper. “It’s all a jumble. I need to get my thoughts straight,” she tells the warden. I’m honestly not sure where Gillian’s story can or should go from here to give her character closure. My first instinct is to say “far away from men,” but as the warden proves, you don’t need to have a Y chromosome to abuse your power over somebody—just look at the way she ogles Gillian’s naked body after she has her charge declare herself a “good girl.” But as Boardwalk‘s most traumatized, most complex female character, I genuinely hope there’s a happy-ish ending in store for Mrs. Darmody.
And that leaves us with Nucky, who doesn’t need Johnny Torrio to tell him that most gangsters “get their retirement papers from the fuckin’ Grim Reaper.” The problem, as he muses to his silent bodyguard, is that as much as he’d like to escape the gangland grind, Nucky has to respond to an attempt on his life. So in a move that would certainly not impress the board of the Mayflower Grain Corporation—a subtle signifier for WASPy old money if there ever was one—he figures out that Meyer and Lucky are not on the outs after all. True story: I literally screamed YAAAAAAAS when the BFFs showed up together again. Bugsy Siegel and his Yiddish-language grandma impression can hang, too. Anyway, Nucky kills two revenge-birds with one stone and sends them Gyp Rosetti’s former henchman Tonnino with a knife in his back, plus a “Greetings from Havana!” postcard.
There’s also 19th-century Nucky. He didn’t fit into the episode itself all that well, which is why he’s relegated to the end of this recap. Anyway! This week the contrast between Biological Dad and Surrogate Dad is thrown into especially high relief. Biological Dad spends Nucky’s sweeping money on booze. Surrogate Dad spends his own money on the funeral that money was supposed to be for. Biological Dad has no business acumen. Surrogate Dad has lots of business acumen, which he used to buy some promising land from Biological Dad. Biological Dad takes out his resentment of Surrogate Dad by having Nucky bury his own dead sister. Moral of the story: crime pays! Except when you’re future Nucky and you’re looking for a way out.