Boardwalk Empire: “Bone For Tuna”
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Boardwalk Empire: “Bone For Tuna”

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Boardwalk Empire

“Bone For Tuna”

Season 3, Episode 3

Last week, I wrote a little about Boardwalk Empire’s ongoing explication of how a massive moneymaking enterprise can be undone by something as simple as a gas pump. “Bone For Tuna” pushes that idea even harder—starting with its title. Just as “Spaghetti & Coffee” hinged on the peskiness of Gyp Rosetti, so “Bone For Tuna” has to do with how Gyp, to quote Nucky, “can find an insult in a bouquet of roses.” Early in the episode, Nucky pays a visit to Tabor Heights to offer Gyp a one-time-only offer of one more liquor-of-the-month shipment, plus an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlantic City. Everything seems reasonably settled, but then Nucky doesn’t show up at the morning liquor-delivery, instead telling Owen to pass along the message “bon fortuna” (which Owen mis-hears as “bone for tuna”). Gyp’s not sure which is the bigger insult: Nucky’s inattention, or what Gyp sees as his condescending “good luck.” So he decides he’s not leaving Tabor Heights any time soon, and to underscore this point, he torches a local lawman in a gasoline fire. It’s the ol’ “for the want of a horseshoe nail…” routine. 

I could go on citing examples of how “Bone For Tuna” keeps this motif in play. There’s Lucky Luciano slacking off on paying for basic repairs at The Artemis Club. (He tells Gillian that the roof’s not an issue, and that it’ll only be a problem “when the cooze start leaking.”) There’s Bugsy Siegel toting a pound of heroin yet needing to borrow money for cab fare. There’s Mickey Doyle using the death of Manny Horvitz to squeeze more money from his distributors, by implying that he did the shooting—a rumor that makes its way back to an unhappy and demonstrably dangerous Richard Harrow. It’s not just that “you can’t be half a gangster” in this season of Boardwalk Empire; you also apparently can’t neglect even the smallest detail of the business, lest all your big plans go awry.

But the prime example of what I’m talking about arrives via flashback, when Nucky recalls what would turn out to be the pivotal event of Boardwalk Empire’s first episode: The moment he gave what should’ve been Jimmy’s territory to someone else. Throughout “Bone For Tuna,” a sleep-deprived Nucky slips in and out of half-dreams and hallucinations, most of which involve a bloodied child that we can presume represents poor, dead Jimmy Darmody (most likely as he looked as a lad). Frankly, I haven’t been too crazy about Boardwalk Empire’s dream sequences in the past, and I can’t say I liked them all that much this week either. But Nucky’s non-dream sequence, remembering how he screwed over the real Jimmy? That I thought was very apt, setting up Nucky’s subsequent comment to Gyp that he knows “what it’s like to end up very far from where you started.”

In fact, this episode as a whole seemed more on-point than last week’s, even though at this stage of the season, there’s still a lot of jumping between disparate characters, as their stories move toward points that seem fairly inevitable. The biggest case-in-point—once again—is Margaret’s storyline. Two weeks ago, she learned that at the Catholic hospital she’s helping to endow, pregnant women get poor prenatal care; last week, she offered her help on this issue to a skeptical doctor; this week, she ambushes the hospital administrator by telling the bishop of their diocese that the administrator would like to start a women’s clinic if only Margaret would fund it. It’s been fun to watch Margaret use her wiles to get what she wants, but thus far, this storyline has been following a straight, narrow path.

The same could be said of the subplot involving iron salesman “George Mueller” in Cicero, though maybe that’s because I’m presuming we’re eventually going to see Mueller become a mob enforcer. (Then again, my presumptions are often wrong; check the Stray Observations for a representative mea culpa.) In “Bone For Tuna,” Mueller gets the business from his co-workers—who splatter him with a gag ink-pen—and after some motivational sexing from his wife, George accepts his colleagues’ “no hard feelings” invitation to join them at a speakeasy called Herc’s. Only Herc’s gets raided, and Mueller has to pay the traditional bribe to his friendly neighborhood Prohie to avoid being arrested. When even the law is getting paid under the table—something the former Nelson Van Alden knows something about—how long can it be before our man Mueller decides that it doesn’t matter what side he’s on, so long as he gets a piece of the action?

Yet even though the Cicero storyline is looking predictable (maybe), it does feature two of the best scenes in “Bone For Tuna,” in Mueller’s encounter with the G-man, and in his boss’s evangelical speech about the power of a good iron to “make the world smooth.” As I’ve expressed many times before, I don’t think Boardwalk Empire gets enough credit for how well-crafted it is from moment-to-moment, with dialogue and performances that are just a pleasure to watch (and re-watch). I worry sometimes that there’s too much destination-not-the-journey to modern TV-watching, which is antithetical to the unique qualities of this medium—not to mention to how shows are actually made. Overarching narratives and a sense of purpose are important, don’t get me wrong. But so is Margaret saying, “It’s not my intention to pry,” and Nucky saying, “Now there’s a sentence that means its opposite.” The simple joy of good actors pinging snappy dialogue off each other should never be underrated.

It was also nice this week to see Nucky and Margaret share something like a tender moment, as she fusses over him a little while making sure he shows up at church for his big Catholic award. It’s clear that these two have come to an understanding over the past year, in which Margaret gets the use of Nucky’s money, Nucky gets to sleep wherever he wants (and with whomever he wants), and the two of them keep up appearances for the sake of their mutual business interests. But much of “Bone For Tuna” has to do with how isolated Nucky feels, with Billie as a free agent and his wife at arm’s length. So it’s sweet when the two of them re-connect, if even for a moment. And it’s sweet—in a weirder way—when Harrow shows up at Nucky’s office with a gun pointed at Doyle’s head, announcing that he killed Manny, not Doyle, but that Nucky has nothing to fear because he and Margaret have been kind to him. Then the two men bond over how terrible it feels to kill folks.

Is it possible that Richard could soon be a Nucky ally? Because if not, he may be soon be Nucky’s enemy, just by virtue of his association with Gillian, who this week spills all the juicy Nucky-gossip to Gyp, giving Rosetti some good ammunition to use in the coming war. Gillian’s been very quiet so far this season, as she continues to pretend (?) that Jimmy’s still coming home. But she’s a volatile element, who like Nucky knows that lost feeling of being totally alone. “Lose your own flesh and blood, what do you have?” Gyp muses to Gillian at one point. And she answers, “You don’t have anything.” It could be that robbing Gillian of all she has will turn out to be the horseshoe nail that costs Nucky his kingdom.

Stray observations:

  • When I wrote up the Boardwalk Empire third season premiere, I suggested that Richard Harrow killed Manny under orders from Gillian, which I assumed to be the case since everything else he did in that episode was by her command. Many of you said that you didn’t agree with me 100% on my police-work there, and I said that I’d cheerfully retract if proved wrong. Well, while Richard’s confession to Nucky this week didn’t completely exonerate Gillian, I now agree with you objectors that it really doesn’t make sense that Gillian would want Manny dead for shooting Angela, a woman she never liked much. So consider this a retraction. (And feel free to tell me to go milk a cow.)
  • Tabor Heights sure is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m really enjoying how Terence Winter has been using that town to vary the look of the show, which has been so AC-bound for much of the first two season (barring the occasional trip to Chicago, Ireland and Brooklyn).
  • I know it’s a real New Jersey location, but “Pine Barrens” will always mean Sopranos to me, which makes it kind of distracting when someone on Boardwalk Empire mentions it. 
  • I think Eli and Nucky have figured out the best way to defuse Gyp’s touchiness, at least when they’re face-to-face with him: Just call him on it. After Nucky very carefully tries to explain away an offhand comment, saying, “Not that I’m implying you live among trees,” and Gyp bristles, “Like a monkey?,” a not-having-any-of-this-shit Nucky sighs, “We’re starting with this now?” And Gyp backs down.
  • In bubbling-under/could-be-significant-later news, Lucky and Lansky are just about sick of giving Joe Masseria a cut of everything. “He has his dinner, then he has yours,” they grumble, in another example of this episode’s flavorful dialogue.
  • At The Artemis Club, you have to suffer through Gillian’s idea of high class theater before you can get off. “Didn’t understand a word of that, but very beautiful,” Gyp mumbles. (“Doves,” his henchman nods, sagely.)
  • Mickey Doyle knows all about the “Kama Sutree.” (“You screw upside down and you don’t blow your stack, neither.”)
  • Meanwhile, Gyp’s driver can tell you all about the plot of Nosferatu. It’s no Kama Sutree, but it’ll give you the willies.
  • Memo to Van Alden: You do not have “just one of those faces.”
  • Nice touch: After Gyp gets worked up about Nucky’s “bone for tuna” insult, the scene cuts to a bouquet of flowers at Nucky’s place, echoing his earlier comment about Gyp’s short fuse.
  • Wakin’ to bacon… is there anything more comforting?