Boardwalk Empire: “A Man, A Plan...”
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Boardwalk Empire: “A Man, A Plan...”

Ever had one of those dark nights of the soul? One where you toss and turn, cataloguing your woes? Sometimes the best way to pull out of that tailspin is to start making plans. There’s something so powerful in a “maybe.” Maybe you could move. Maybe you could look for a new job. Maybe you could take a day off and go for a long, relaxing drive. It doesn’t matter what; just the speculation of what you could do can be enough to dispel the shadows.

There’s a lot of “maybe” in this week’s Boardwalk Empire. Chalky makes his pitch to Nucky to build a Cotton Club-style venue on the boardwalk where Babette’s used to be, and when Nucky cuts him off by saying there’s still a racial “dividing line” in Atlantic City, Chalky growls, “That line can move.” Meanwhile, Nucky’s sending out his own maybes across the country. Doyle gets shipped out to Pennsylvania to run Mellon’s distillery. Eli is off to Chicago to convince Torrio to commit soldiers to the fight against Masseria. One of Nucky’s business associates tamps down his disgust with Italians and visits Tabor Heights to become a Gyp Rosetti client (and thus serve as a Nucky mole). And in the boldest play, Owen and Agent Sawicki head up to New York to ambush Masseria in a Turkish bath.

But it’s Owen and Margaret’s maybes that dominate “A Man, A Plan…,” at least in terms of the emotional content of the episode. Margaret’s feeling low because she’s still stuck at the Ritz with her antsy kids and estranged gangster husband, and because the bishop has canceled her women’s health classes (even though the supervising nun was starting to get something out of the discussion). And while her doctor friend is suggesting that maybe they could start up in a boardwalk storefront clinic, Margaret is ready to proceed with Owen’s plan to pick up and head west. (“What’s St. Louis like?” she asks him, at once nervous and hopeful, and above all energized by the fantasy of starting over somewhere else.) As for Owen, on the same day he promises to whisk Margaret and her kids away, he all but proposes to Katie as well. Which woman was he being true to, and which was he trying to mollify? Or was Owen just keeping his options open, trying to get through another miserable day by making as many plans as he could?

Contrast Owen and Margaret’s situation to poor Jess Smith. Ever since Remus got nicked, the walls have been closing in on Jess, and with his former associates worried about how he might implicate them when questioned by the authorities—“Such is the nature of hysterics,” Gaston Means warns—Smith is clearly marked for disposal. And Means offers his services as the disposer to both Nucky and Harry Daugherty, at $40K apiece, even though as he later admits to Jess, “I never actually have brought down the curtain.” In the meantime, Means busies himself making Jess Smith feel cornered and out of options, such that Jess can’t conceive of any plan of escape. There’s no “St. Louis” for our Jess. Before Means can kill him, Jess kills himself.

“A Man, A Plan…” is mostly a very strong episode, with major events transpiring, and real weight and meaning ascribed to those events. But coming so late in the season, so close to the finale, there’s also a lot of channel-flipping involved, as the episode checks in on the various subplots, without really advancing them much. I’ll always love seeing Richard spending happy afternoons and evenings with Julia (and seeing him stand up to her dad in an especially badass way), but at times their scenes in this episode feel like they are only there to keep fans happy and to vary the mood of an oft-despairing hour. There was a little more forward motion in Chicago, where Capone’s men catch George Mueller selling spirits on the south side and bring him in for a good threatening. But again, this is more of a “let’s see what’s happening with Van Alden and Capone” scene than a major moment in this Boardwalk Empire season, though it may prove to be significant later. (The scene between them is delightfully tense though, as Van Alden starts mumbling about Job and Capone stabs him in the cheek: a hearty “fork you.”)

The biggest wheel-spinner of “A Man, A Plan…” is the action in Tabor Heights, where Gyp is annoyed that two dozen crates of whiskey were dislodged from a shipment and allowed to wash up on the Atlantic City shores from the spume and bubble of King Neptune’s watery depths (to quote the big show on the AC beach). The cousin of Gyp’s lieutenant Tonino Sandrelli draws on his experience as the son of a fisherman to suggest that the shipment may have been upset by a “rogue wave,” and from that point on, it’s only a matter of time before either Tonino or his cousin agitates Gyp enough to get rage-killed for being a know-it-all. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, though this subplot does have the benefit of an especially wicked rage-killing, as the cousin gets buried in sand up to his neck and then has his head thumped soundly by Gyp’s shovel. (A hell of a week for unconventional weaponry: forks and spoons, basically.) It was also amusing to watch Tonino nervously monitor his boss’s mounting ire, knowing that his cousin was overstepping every time he said “rogue wave.” (If he’d started humming “Lake Michigan,” he’d have been dead even sooner.)

It may be more useful to see all the place-holding in this episode in the context of what Rothstein tells Luciano and Lansky about his favorite snooker move: “A shot to nothing.” That’s where the shooter attempts to pot a ball, knowing that even if he fails, the cue ball will be left in a difficult spot for his opponent. In the context of the New York mobs, Rothstein’s “shot” is to let Masseria and Nucky beat each other bloody, then see what’s left on the table once they’re done. In the meantime though, Luciano and Lansky can’t wait any longer on the heroin deal that Rothstein has just passed on, and so they take it to Masseria, along with inside info on Nucky that Masseria can use. So while from the perspective of Rothstein it looks like nothing is happening, in fact there’s rather a lot going on.

Ditto for Nucky. He sends Owen to take out Masseria, and Owen’s corpse comes back in a crate (in the middle of the night no less, and accompanied by some disturbing, horror-movie-like distortions on the soundtrack). To Nucky, this is a big loss, though beyond robbing him of one of his best soldiers, in the larger war it leaves Nucky more or less as he was before Owen left. But when Nucky sees the way Margaret reacts to the death—weeping and screaming—it dawns on him that he may have missed something important that’s been going on right under his nose.

“A Man, A Plan…” breaks with the usual Boardwalk Empire structure and style at the end, doubling back to show more of a scene between Margaret and Owen that we saw the beginning of earlier. It’s the “What’s St. Louis like?” scene, which is now expanded to include the part where Margaret tells Owen she’s pregnant. This is no big surprise, since earlier in the episode Dr. Mason had remarked that Margaret looked pale and she responded that it was “nothing I haven’t been through before.” Yet the reveal is poignant, because it’s part of Margaret’s whole conception of a Nucky-free life, with her kids and a new baby, in a new city. It’s such a hopeful plan. But then her man comes home in a box, and she’s right back where she started. Like a palindrome.

Stray observations:

  • Katie on Margaret’s demands of Owen: “Maybe she needed your help removing a pea from under the mattress.”
  • Margaret’s diaphragms arrive, a bit too late. But the delivery of same does allow Dr. Mason to boast that he felt “like a German spy” smuggling them in, and to admit to Margaret that his fiancée is also “a bit like you,” in that she’s apparently a strong-willed feminist. I suspect we’ll be meeting her at some point. Perhaps when HBO greenlights the inevitable Margaret-centered spinoff: Boardwalk Abortionist.
  • If you’d like to read The Redemption Of David Corson (recommended by Gaston Means!), it’s available in full, here.
  • Anyone identify the little board game that Nucky is playing when Chalky comes in? Is it one of those “try to leave one peg” solitaire-type games, or something else?
  • Masseria narrows down his problem with all of Jewry to what he’s been led to believe is their joylessness. (“They fuck their women through a hole in the sheet,” he smirks.)
  • I know Chalky’s an illiterate, and the show has made that a humanizing element of his character, but I still found his “I ain’t got to spell ’em, I just got to pay for ’em” line regarding chandeliers and candelabras to be a little wince-inducing. 
  • After Gyp kills Tonino’s cousin, he tells Tonino “you owe me.” Gotta love Gyp-logic.
  • Sorry about the “fork you” joke. That was uncalled for.
  • Last week some of you let me know in the comments that you find my policy of putting spoiler warnings on links to information about historical figures to be idiotic, and while I hesitate to drag that debate up again, the death of Jess Smith this week—and the non-death of Joe Masseria—was the main reason why I put those warnings out there in the first place. It’s not an issue that’s come up very much in my reviews (I think I may have put up a spoiler warning two or three times at most, mostly after I read about Jess Smith and realized he was likely to die this season); and we haven’t really had any problems so far in the comments of people writing about what’s upcoming for Capone/Rothstein/Masseria/what-have-you and other people complaining. Honestly, it hasn’t been that big a deal before, and I don’t expect to be that big a deal ongoing. But while the makers of Boardwalk Empire surely know that anyone with access to Wikipedia can learn a few key potential plot details if they so choose, they’re still structuring the show in such a way that certain moments will be suspenseful to those who don’t choose. If you hadn’t read up on Smith and Means, you could easily have expected that the former would shoot the latter in tonight’s episode. And if you hadn’t read up on Masseria, you might’ve thought that Owen was going to succeed in his mission. Conversely, with a few clicks right now you could find out how long O’Banion will last, or Torrio, or Waxey Gordon, or any character who’s not fictionalized. I don’t think it would ruin the show if you read up on these things; after all, I do it myself. But it’s not a major imposition on me to insert a quick “hey watch out” when I post a link to a biographical sketch, and if you want to talk at length in the comments about how some upcoming death will affect the direction of Boardwalk Empire (which you should feel free to do, I hasten to add), I don’t think it’s a major imposition for you to alert your less research-minded commenters that you’re about to do so. If you can’t abide the word spoiler, just put “history warning” or something. I have no plans to police this diligently, or to delete such discussions if they lack a warning (unless it happens a lot and there are significant complaints, or unless you post the dates of character deaths without any further comment). I am asking this only as a favor.

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