Goddammit, Boardwalk Empire. I was on board with so much of “Cuanto,” an episode that distinguishes itself on several fronts. The flashbacks still aren’t relevant, but this week’s at least cohere into a nice mini-episode about a day in the life of Nucky ‘n’ Eli. Back in the present, the combination of Van Alden/Mueller, Mickey Doyle, and Drunk Margaret makes “Cuanto” straight-up funny in a way that Boardwalk doesn’t get a lot of credit for being when it’s on top of its game. And then the last two minutes give us a one-two punch of tired prestige cable clichés, squandering lots (but not all!) of those warm ‘n’ fuzzy feelings from Nucky and Margaret’s unromantic reunion.
First, less annoying things first: how ’bout that Capone temper, huh? Ninety percent of the Chicago stuff this week rocks, but that poor henchman’s demise comes off like the product of an HBO Checklist for On-Screen Violence. Is the outburst sudden and brutal, but also the result of long-simmering tension? Yup! Are there improbably large blood spatters? You bet! Was there an unusual murder weapon for symbolic and/or black comic effect? Thank God for the Empire State Building—that spire’s perfect for stabbing when rendered in miniature.
But that’s a minor annoyance compared to this week’s WTF moment. Ending a love triangle with a death is bad; ending a love triangle with a death to hastily reunite a more longstanding couple is worse. And coming on the heels of True Blood, which pulled the same move in its final season for the sole purpose of letting two awful main characters stare into each other’s eyes with nary a spark to show for it, Boardwalk Empire‘s decision to kill off Sally Wheete seems even more clumsy. Nucky and Margaret are great together, and four episodes isn’t enough time to get Sally out of the picture in a less plot device-y way. Still: ugh.
So let’s rewind past Sally’s sassy-to-the-end face-off with the revolutionaries, past all the telltale mentions of unrest in the countryside, past even “Que amable. Can I have my money now?” Despite the loss of a truly great Southern accent, “Cuanto” had its moments. Let’s talk about them!
No, we didn’t need flashbacks to tell us Nucky hates his dad, nor a monologue to tell us he’s got a chip on his shoulder re: dumb spoiled tourists and their indoor plumbing. Yet this week’s blast from the past stands out, in some ways because it’s the complete opposite of “What Jesus Said’s” dreamy aimlessness. Last episode leaned heavily on atmosphere, introducing Mabel but otherwise ditching plot for talk about flowers and love. “Cuanto” offers up a tight narrative, complete with framing device: the Thompson brothers get locked out of the house while their parents have some alone time, so Nucky and Eli spend a day without supervision. Nucky’s first stop, of course, is the Overlook and its swanky bathtub.
Once they’re caught, the siblings continue their misadventure with Sheriff Lindsey, who’s a foil to the Commodore just like the Commodore’s a foil to Nucky’s dad. The Commodore finds Nucky amusing, and he occasionally drops practical advice: “Did you do something wrong? Then don’t enter the room like a question mark.” But the Commodore is all big plans and bottom lines, so he couldn’t care less that Nucky’s family needs the money now that there’s no room for him in the operation anymore. The Sheriff keeps his head down, compartmentalizing like a champ (“That was done for the Commodore, and that has its own rules”) so he can enjoy family dinners, complete with silverware Nucky doesn’t know how to use. In the long run, of course, Nucky goes for the Commodore’s cold-hearted bastard approach, despite the Sheriff’s kindness; it’ll be interesting to see how he gets there.
Speaking of bastards: Nucky and Margaret! Margaret and Nucky! I am so, so here for what’s happened to this relationship now that both parties have ceased to give a fuck. Margaret’s “oops, I got us blackmailed for thousands of dollars by your dead friend’s widow” and Nucky’s “did you seriously sleep with Arnold Rothstein? EW” (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much) have an identical honesty to them, the kind of honesty that comes only when you’ve had someone do terrible, unforgiveable things to you and realized life goes on anyway. “We’ve had all the fights we’re going to have,” Nucky tells Margaret, and that’s what finally makes them work. They’ve been through it all, and they’ve been through it all together, and they have an understanding of each other that neither Sally nor Joe Kennedy and his oysters can match. I’m still pissed Sally had to die for this to happen, but this couple and only this couple might make up for it.
Finally, we go back to Chicago, where an unlucky run-in and a well-placed Prohie blow Van Alden’s cover. Much of the episode’s aforementioned humor comes from the combination of Capone’s cokehead ego and Van Alden’s signature deadpan. Case in point: “Are you successful?” “Not really.” “Why?” “I have a feeling my boss doesn’t like me.” We know from the Great Iron Incident of Season Three that Van Alden has a tendency to do amazing things under pressure, and he does not disappoint here. Gun in mouth, he manages to hit all of Capone’s sweet spots, turning the tables against Lucky Luciano by appealing to Al’s pride. All without letting on that he wet himself!
It’s too bad that Lucky Luciano happens to recognize Van Alden in front of an undercover Prohibition agent. But considering that Lucky proposed a national Italian crime syndicate in front of said agent, he’s probably about to have issues of his own. There are lots of winking references here to when or if Lucky will end up at the head of his own operation; for now, he’s running errands on Maranzano’s behalf, and can’t accomplish much besides pissing Capone off and screwing over a poor schmuck who’s just trying to make a (dis)honest living. Van Alden’s speech to Capone this week was good, but I’m sure it’s nothing compared to the violent rampage that’s coming when it’s his former boss, not his current one, that’s backing him into a corner.