Hey, it’s old acquaintances week on Boardwalk Empire! And new acquaintances, too. I’ll get to the new characters in “Ging Gang Goolie”—who amount to a couple of substitute Darmodys, a couple of alcohol-friendly grumps, and a phantom derelict—but first, I want to talk about what a pleasure it was to see Margaret and Owen sitting around the breakfast nook together again, talking about a fire at the Thompson house, and speculating playfully that it might’ve been started by a Púca (but in the form of a horse and not a rabbit, because “how would a rabbit start a fire?”). The two of them must’ve enjoyed their little chat too, since the episode ends with them getting reaquainted carnally, in the ashes of the Thompsons’ gutted greenhouse.
Also a pleasure: Nucky having breakfast with the much-missed Esther Randolph, who crosses Nucky’s path again and barely takes a beat before she starts laying out some of that old Ester Randolph charm, bantering out lines like, “You see yourself as some sort of paterfamilias, don’t you?” and, “I’m all lace and potpourri,” and, “Is this where Eve gets offered the apple?” Sheer delight. And Nucky gets his licks in too, needling Esther as, “Queen of the night court, scourge of the saloon-keeper…”
Nucky can say that to Esther because that’s where she’s been consigned since her failed prosecution of Nucky last season. Esther’s now trying to put low-level bootleggers and booze-hounds behind bars, while appearing in front of a judge who doesn’t want to hear any speeches from the prosecution or defense; he just wants everyone to pay their five dollar fine and move on. Nucky becomes one of those five-dollar dudes—“Can you break a hundred?” he asks the clerk—busted for buying under-the-counter whiskey at a train station by a couple of Harry Daugherty’s goons, who are trying to send a message that Nucky can’t push Harry around. The justice department is looking for a big bootlegger to bust, to show that the Harding administration isn’t in the pocket of the gangsters, and while Nucky thinks it should be Remus—because Nucky “delivered the state of New Jersey so your fuckin’ puppet can pretend to be president”—Daugherty won’t do that because it would stain his old friend and assistant Jess Smith. [Spoiler warning! Don’t click that Jess Smith link unless you want to learn something that may affect this season’s overall story arc.]
So Nucky appeals to Esther’s sense of justice, arguing that he’s only “five dollars worth of trouble,” while the real criminals are Randolph’s bosses. And if it means we get more Esther Randolph on the show, I’d be more than happy to see Nucky turn rat. (There is hope for Nucky beyond Esther, though. At the end of the episode, Gaston Means calls Nucky up at Billie Kent’s apartment—“the naughty virgin’s number is listed,” he explains—and suggests that the simpering Jess Smith has lost his confidence, and that he may be willing to help Nucky bring Remus and Daugherty down.)
Anyway, what’s most interesting about Nucky’s little adventure in D.C. is how it so strongly indicts the whole economy and culture of prohibition, which allows murderers to operate freely so long as they pay their fees—be they legal fines or illegal graft. The focus on one crime leaves another unpunished. Similarly, when Margaret and Owen are talking about the fire that destroyed the greenhouse, they talk about Gyp Rosetti’s threats, and how Nucky has extra men watching his family while he’s away, and they get away from the rather obvious possibility that the one who first spotted the fire—little Teddy, a known firebug—may have set it.
Did Teddy set the fire? He’s discovered later in a neighbor’s garage, carrying a bag containing kerosene and matches. But when Margaret punishes him for it, Teddy responds that he’s just trying to protect against “the gypsy man” who he says has been prowling about, and whom he accuses of starting the greenhouse fire. Margaret doesn’t believe her son, except that—curiously—Owen later does track down a vagrant, and “takes care of him,” to ease Margaret’s mind. Meanwhile, Teddy is telling scary stories to his sister about how “the gypsy man used to be a rabbit,” and how he’ll kill the gypsy with his knife if he threatens their family. This is all some seriously disturbing stuff, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an overt metaphor, there are at least some parallels between the government collecting fines for minor crimes rather than prosecuting major ones, and Owen deciding that some (probably) random hobo is Teddy’s arsonist—not to mention a parallel to the Harding administration looking for one patsy so that many more can stay in business.
So consider “the gypsy man” to be one of the new characters introduced in “Ging Gang Goolie,” and perhaps the most significant in a way, since he represents so much of what this episode’s about: scapegoating, substitutes, and how children learn to lie. This week we also met Alby Gold (played by Peter Appel), a pragmatic hooch-slinger whom Nucky befriends while sitting in stir. Not much happens with Alby beyond a brief conversation, but Boardwalk Empire likes to introduce some characters in small ways before making them a bigger part of the story, so I’m guessing it wasn’t unimportant that we actually heard the man’s full name (twice, in fact, since his case was called out at night court after Nucky’s). And we met Paul Sagorsky (played by Mark Borkowski), an angry, alcoholic veteran who hangs out at the American Legion, drunkenly disparaging the conspiracy between corporations and politicians to send young men out to fight and die for the sake of big business.
Richard Harrow is impressed by Sagorsky, but he’s even more impressed by his daughter Julia (Wrenn Schmidt), who explains to Harrow that his dad’s still bitter because her brother was killed in WWI, shortly before the armistice. “He goes off to the Legion Hall like he’s going to find Freddy,” she says. Richard meanwhile, shows up at the Sagorsky house like he’s going to find Angela Darmody, because of the way that Julia looks him in the eye and treats him with respect, like Angela once did.
And Richard’s not the only smitten one. Just when it looks like Gillian’s going to start listening to the advice of people like Leander and Luciano (the latter of whom tells Gillian to start letting her girls tart it up a little rather than dressing like schoolmarms), and move past her obsession with her dead son, she finds a Jimmy lookalike on the boardwalk, an Indiana hayseed named Roger. She takes Roger home, where they enjoy a good rogering, and she suggests a nickname for him: “James.” Speaking of old acquaintances, it’s always good to have Crazy Gillian back.
The title of “Ging Gang Goolie” refers to a song sung by a troop of Boy Scouts at a Washington luncheon in honor of the good lessons boys learn while scouting. Of course, that’s the same luncheon where Jess Smith breaks down crying on the dais, embarrassing Harry Daugherty (and alarming Gaston Means). What did the kids learn from that? And what is being learned by Teddy, whom Nucky refers to as “a brave little scout.” And what will Gillian teach young Roger-James? Perhaps, like the Boy Scouts, they’ll all learn the story of the “honest injun,” who took responsibility for his mistakes and was made chief. Or maybe, just maybe, they could become the next Warren G. Harding.
- Boy, this show’s been pretty dongtastic lately, huh?
- I guess that wasn’t Gaston Means’ goldfish after all, but property of the hotel, since it’s still there in its bowl after Means checks out. (Unless of course Means just left it there, and the mysterious Frenchwoman with the perfume that stayed in the room after him left it there too. (Unless of course that was no Frenchwoman at all, but the dandyish Mr. Means himself.)) Anyway, this is all a long way of saying that I wish today’s hotels were more goldfish-friendly.
- The pacing of this episode was very assured for the most part—slow, but purposeful—but I didn’t quite get why the very suspenseful “Margaret creeps down to the greenhouse with her shotgun” scene was interrupted by the wistful “Harrow looks at pictures of his sister” scene.
- The reviews are in for The Naughty Virgin! “As the object of Izzy’s affection, Bille Kent is heaven-sent.” (I wish I’d said that.)
- It was only a matter of time before Margaret’s interest in women’s health issues brought her to the work of Margaret Sanger. Should be interesting to see how that plays out.
- You’ll have to excuse George Remus. He’s from Cincinnati.
- As I mentioned last week, this week’s review was later than usual because HBO didn’t send a screener. However, apparently other critics did get screeners for this episode, so… I don’t know what to tell you about next week. I’m hoping we’ll be back to reviews posting right when the episode ends. If not, look for it about the same time as this week’s.