As soon as I heard the name Rowland Smith in this week’s Boardwalk Empire, I did what I usually do when a new character makes an appearance on the show: I paused the DVD and hit the Internet, looking to find the name of the actor playing the character, and seeing whether or not the character is based on any historical figure. The answer to the latter was “no,” but I was surprised that I couldn’t find anything out about who was playing Rowland, especially given that the character had been mentioned before, in the season première. (He was the kid that Manny was heading out to kill when Harrow put a bullet in Manny’s nice new hat.) I was even more surprised once I resumed watching “Blue Bell Boy,” and saw that young Rowland was on track to be a major player. He’s an eager beaver, who butters Nucky up by remembering how he brought a Christmas turkey to the Smith family back in 1914, and helps Nucky and Owen hide out from some of the feds on Waxey Gordon’s payroll. Rowland Smith was looking very much like a new Jimmy Darmody for Nucky to take under his wing, thus giving Nucky that human connection he’s been lacking lately.
But then Nucky shot the kid in the back in the head. So much for Rowland.
I’m not going to contend that “Blue Bell Boy” was, top-to-bottom, the strongest episode of Boardwalk Empire. It was hushed, dingy-looking, and uneventful on the surface, with the most significant action (at least in terms of the overarching plot) taking place offscreen. But after watching the episode earlier this week, I’m still haunted by the last five minutes and what it has to say about loyalty, strange bedfellows, and what Nucky has become. So I am going to contend that “Blue Bell Boy” was the most powerful episode of this season so far, albeit quietly so.
It’s a measure of how much I liked “Blue Bell Boy” that I even thought the Margaret storyline was effective. Granted, it’s still traveling in a straight line, as Margaret begins setting up her classes on prenatal care with Dr. Mason (and, perhaps, continues on the path that will lead to a fling with the smug doctor). But the Margaret scenes this episode are very much in keeping with the idea of unexpected alliances. Margaret and Dr. Mason stand united against one of the hospital’s priggish nuns, who takes issue with the “rather infelicitous” terms they’re using in their curriculum (like “vagina,” “pregnant,” and “menstruation”). It’s funny to see the nun trying to put a medical doctor in his place, as though he were some jackanapes schoolboy. And it’s funny to see Margaret push back, reminding that nun that she herself is a woman, and might be able to make use of this new product she’s distributing to the ladies: “Ko…tex?”
But the scene with the nun is also an early an indication that Margaret can’t count on sisterhood (so to speak) to get her prenatal message across. When she takes to the boardwalk—in her spiffiest hat—she runs into the miscarrying patient that inspired her crusade in the first place, and discovers that even if the poor woman wanted to learn how to take better care of herself, her demanding husband and brood of kids might not allow it. He shrugs off his wife’s loss, saying, “That’s how the lord must’ve wanted it,” and adds, “When she’s up to it, we’ll try again.” He doesn’t seem like a bad man, and she doesn’t seem like a weak woman. But they still might be beyond Margaret’s reach.
So it goes throughout “Blue Bell Boy,” an episode in which Joe Masseria upbraids Lucky Luciano again for being in business with Jews instead of his own people—“We’re two feet from each other,” Masseria says, referring to more than just their actual proximity during a sit-down—and an episode where Doyle takes it upon himself to ignore Nucky’s directive to route his trucks through the icy back roads, instead telling them to go straight through Tabor Heights. Doyle tries to pass off his responsibility for the decision, telling Eli, “I’m not doin’ nothin’; they are,” while gesturing to the drivers. But the truth is that Doyle was pressured by Arnold Rothstein, who called him up when he couldn’t get hold of Nucky, and asked, “Why am I talking to you? Why is that even occurring?” It’s a valid question. The whole point of this new arrangement is that Rothstein and Nucky only deal with each other. Doyle is supposed to be an agent, not a decider. And in trying to cross that line (while pretending he ain’t crossin’ nuttin’), Doyle fucks everything up royally. Eli tries to warn the convoy, but it’s too late. Offscreen, we hear their arrival in Tabor Heights, where Gyp Rosetti’s crew ambushes them.
But the most moving examples in this episode of the differing meanings of “loyalty” and “alliance” are evident in the contrast between the Al Capone and Nucky Thompson storylines in “Blue Bell Boy.” In Chicago, Capone is upset because his son’s being bullied by the other kids at his deaf school—“Boys will be boys whether they can hear each other or not,” his wife reassures him—and some of that sympathy for the defenseless colors his reaction when one of his guys, Jake Guzik, gets beaten up by one of Dean O’Banion’s guys. It’s okay for Capone to make fun of Jake for smelling “like a sardine’s twat,” but he’ll be damned if some outsider’s going to do it (and in public, no less). So Capone goes to the bar where Guzik got humiliated, and he exacts some revenge.
Nucky, meanwhile, spends the kind of “all in this together” evening with Owen and Rowland—hiding out in a hard, cold basement—that should lead to a lifelong bond. And Owen does try to nurture that. He tells Nucky stories about life back in the old country, treating him more as a friend and fellow countryman than a boss. But Nucky is stewing throughout, remembering how Doyle asked Owen whether he approved of Nucky’s rerouting plan. After both his brother and his protégé tried to kill him last season, Nucky’s no longer in the “trust” or “loyalty” business. He guns down Rowland, to prove a point to Owen that he’s not to be thought of as weak, or able to be undermined.
Which brings us to that ending that’s been haunting me, where we get to see something that’s only been described to us before: Capone playing his mandolin and singing to his son, who enjoys feeling the vibrations. The song, “My Buddy,” speaks to Nucky’s sense of loss and loneliness, and plays on the soundtrack as Nucky runs into Eli on the boardwalk. Eli, to whom Nucky said earlier in this episode, “Allowing you to simply go to jail is the last gift I’ll ever give you,” does the brotherly thing, informing Nucky about the ambush. Will this be the start of a reconciliation? Because man, if anyone could ever use a buddy, it’s Nucky.
- As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Boardwalk Empire has been renewed for a fourth season, which is probably good news for the season we’re watching now. It means (perhaps) that HBO is satisfied with both the ratings and the creative direction of the episodes we haven’t seen yet. It also means we can look forward to another round of “this show is nothing special” think pieces next fall.
- Margaret sees in the paper that her aviatrix heroine Carrie Duncan’s plane has crashed. In one of the advance reviews I read of this season, one of the Boardwalk Empire naysayers pointed to this moment as an example of the show at its most thudding, but honestly, it just struck me as more informational than anything, especially since it’s not tied to any major setback for Margaret. It’s a meaningful symbolic moment, sure, but hardly gravid with import.
- Nick Robinson is the actor who played Rowland Smith, by the way. (I was forgetting to add the “w” to his first name; that’s why I couldn’t find him via Google right away.)
- Extending the notion of factions: Everyone on Boardwalk Empire has their own bought-and-paid-for feds, and apparently gangsters can be busted by their enemy’s cops. (That may explain why Nucky did not much enjoy it when his fed joked “looks like you stepped straight into our trap” when he and Nucky met at Rowland’s place.)
- I mentioned the loveliness of the Tabor Heights set last week, but the exteriors around the Rowland Smith house were pretty evocative too.
- Nobody ever respects good phone etiquette on TV, particularly if they’re having sex when they get a call. That always drives me crazy. Give it a rest, lovebirds; respect the person on the line.
- Hello, anyone there? Lon Chaney? Norma Talmadge? Mr. Poofles?