“Just offer them something that they want.” That’s what Eli suggests to his brother Nucky when the two of them are standing around a beat-up old automobile, wondering how two guys who’d started with nothing had ended up back on the skids after running an entire city. Nucky’s in despair, but Eli’s optimistic, having lived with his brother long enough to know that Nucky will undoubtedly find an angle and will work it until he’s rebuilt some kind of empire—if not on the boardwalk, then somewhere else. On the other hand, Gyp Rosetti’s thinking is much the same at the end of this episode: that he can leave Atlantic City with empty pockets and still start over in a new burg. And Gyp gets killed by his right-hand man Tonino Sandrelli before he can even get out of sight of the ocean.
I wrote last week that I thought “Two Imposters” would be hard for the Boardwalk Empire season-three finale to top, and I think I was right about that. “Two Imposters” mostly narrowed its focus to just a few characters, and because it threatened those few with ruination and/or death, the episode was incredibly suspenseful. By contrast, “Margate Sands” is littered with corpses, which makes it exciting, but less tantalizing; and the episode expands its scope to include almost all of the cast (minus one major player), which dulls some of the scene-to-scene momentum. But this is still a very good Boardwalk Empire, and one that’s fairly bold in how it expresses the themes and overall direction of a season that on the whole has been far more subtle than the show used to be back in its “Nucky’s muddy footprints” days. Rather than just exploring how power can corrupt a man, Boardwalk Empire now is considering power’s other effects on the individual and the community, and doing so in the context of an era where the relationships between business, government, and crime were all changing.
And it all goes to back that simple question Eli poses to Nucky: What do people want, and how can we get it to them? That’s why to me the key scenes of this episode—and this season, really—are the ones between Gillian and Gyp. When “Margate Sands” opens, Gillian has been rendered so powerless that she can’t even get her grandson to let her in to his little wigwam—not even with the promise of a ham sandwich, a dill pickle, a glass of milk, and Oreos. But when Gillian goes to Gyp and asks him to let her and Tommy leave The Artemis Club, she gets a glimpse into whom she’s dealing with when he describes himself as “a little bug, crawling around on” her toe. Her lifetime of experience of dealing with men’s pathetic needs kicks in, and she suggests that there’s no reason for Gyp to feel ashamed about how he likes to have fun. (“That’s what this club is all about.”)
That initial conversation between these two is well-staged by director Tim Van Patten, with the angle changing depending on whoever has the leverage between these lunatics. But that’s only an overture for the oratorio to come, when Gillian takes Gyp to bed and listens to him hiss that he’s going to work her over until there’s “nothin’ left but a wet spot and a hunk a hair,” before she turns the moment around and lets him know he’s “a worthless piece of shit” and “an ugly little ape.” They’re each playing the role that the other wants them to, but Gillian’s also trying to get Gyp into a position where she can restrain him and inject him with heroin—her new preferred method of execution. But she moves too soon, and Gyp injects her instead.
Everything about this scene is remarkable, from the constantly shifting role play to the fact that it’s really all about this core idea of what people want and how they get it. And it’s not insignificant that this is all taking place in the former home of The Commodore—where, Gillian reminds Nucky, she once “went upstairs like you said to, and the man, he did something very bad to me”—or that Gillian began this season by turning one of Atlantic City’s oldest and most prestigious properties into a brothel, which is what some might call a hell of a metaphor. So many of the characters on this show make money off of vice, be it prostitution, booze, heroin, or gambling. But their own vice is often how greedy and impatient they can be when it comes to taking what they feel they’re owed. That’s what fells Gyp and Gillian, and it’s why from the moment they start sizing each other up, they’re both doomed.
Well, Gyp is anyway. The fate of Gillian is left undetermined at the end of “Margate Sands.” She’s been dosed heavily with heroin, but that same amount of smack was only enough to incapacitate her Fake Jimmy so that she could drown him a few episodes ago—and Gillian wasn’t anywhere near a bathtub when Gyp shot her up. Chances are she’ll survive into next season, thanks in large part to Richard, who delouses The Artemis Club in this episode’s second-best scene. The montage of gangland slayings that opens the episode is pretty slick, and the scene where Chalky and Capone team up to ambush and slaughter Masseria’s men as they drive back to New York is fairly badass too, but neither of those action sequences top Harrow assassinating one Rosetti goon after another (shown at one point via a super-cool overhead shot). My main anxiety during this scene was that Richard would accidentally kill Tommy during his rampage, but instead he shoots the man holding Tommy hostage, after warning the boy to close his eyes.
I’ll return in a moment to the meaning of Richard’s request and what happens to him at the end of “Margate Sands.” Before that, I should talk about the most overt theme of the episode, which has to do with risks, percentages, and odds. When Luciano is talking with the two men who arrested him on the rooftop last week, he cockily says that he likes to gamble, not realizing that this whole time he’s been in a game with the most successful gambler in the country: the man who rigged the World Series. It turns out that these two “cops” are actually in the pocket of Arnold Rothstein, who uses them to get Luciano to turn over his huge supply of heroin, which Rothstein then passes along to Masseria to get him to pull his soldiers out of Atlantic City. Rothstein does this because Nucky has promised to give him a stake in Andrew Mellon’s massive Overholt Brewery operation. (“99 percent” is what Rothstein deems fair.) But Rothstein doesn’t realize that he too is playing in a fixed game. As soon as Nucky relinquishes Overholt, he calls on Mellon, who then calls on Esther Randolph to shut the operation down, leaving Rothstein with 99 percent of nothing—and presumably more legal trouble.
The repercussions of this move will surely be felt next season. For now, it’s another compelling example of how the means of power keeps changing, and how the old alignments may soon become meaningless. There’s a lot of jawing in the episode over ethnicity, for example, as Capone’s men tussle with Chalky’s men, and Gyp dismisses the threat of Chalky’s gang because they’re not whole people, and Rothstein warns Lansky that when it comes to Italians like Luciano, “There’s only so much civilizing effect a man can have.” (Luciano meanwhile, when asked where he got his heroin, says, “Some chink. Name sounds like a toothache.”) But Nucky appears ready to make his enterprise one where such factionalism doesn’t matter as much. And he’s going to do this by becoming anonymous.
This, ultimately, appears to have been the major arc of season three: not just Nucky ceasing to be “half a gangster,” but Nucky realizing that there’s no future in “gangsterism” as it exists circa 1923, with all the flashy headlines and colorful nicknames. After Nucky makes his play to strip Gyp of power, he then spares Sandrelli’s life in exchange for Sandrelli killing Gyp, telling the former lackey to go to Masseria and say that this can be the end of their troubles or the beginning. (“I’ll oblige him either way,” Nucky says.) Then he tells Eli that his days as the public face of crime in Atlantic City are over. At the start of the episode, the press laughs at Ed Bader when the mayor says that Nucky isn’t running things. Well, Nucky doesn’t want the press to laugh any more. He’s done telling jokes, and done strolling the boardwalk with a flower in his lapel. He wants to be more like Gaston Means, whose only appearance in this episode, tellingly, comes when he leans just a little bit into the frame, to whisper into Mellon’s ear.
Note how when Luciano is being questioned by Rothstein’s cops, the thugs hiss, “Pricks like you come and go; nobody remembers them.” It’s one of the rare times that Boardwalk Empire asks us to look back a little smugly at the past, because we know that the name of Lucky Luciano is going to live on. But this notoriety also means that it’s going to be very dangerous to be Lucky Luciano in the years to come. Better to retreat behind the scenes, and become the man behind the closed hotel door, collecting money in a goldfish bowl.
That, to me, is partly what the Richard Harrow storyline is about in this episode. Here’s this man in a literal mask, always trying to tamp down his emotions and hide his ravaged, violent side. (In that way he’s also “half a gangster,” to continue the show’s motif.) He lets that side out to save Tommy, but—to Richard’s way of thinking, at least—unpacking and using his arsenal costs him his sweetheart Julia Sagorsky, since the blood from his spree spatters across both sides of his face, making his true nature impossible to conceal.
That’s what Nucky’s looking to avoid by withdrawing into the shadows where nobody of importance is paying attention. One of the other big questions asked directly in this episode is, “How much are you willing to sacrifice just to prove some point that doesn’t matter to anyone?” Nucky presses this point with Margaret, when he goes to see her in New York—where she’s just had an abortion—and tells her that she can come home whenever she’s wants, because no one’s watching her or judging her. (Certainly not God, so far as Nucky is concerned.) He even offers her money with no strings attached, saying that money “doesn’t mean anything”—which makes her laugh derisively.
Of course money does mean something; it’s what gives Nucky the ability to risk so much. He may sob to Eli about what he’s lost, but even while holed up in a lumber yard, Nucky’s still a millionaire. Nucky has resources undreamt of by Rosetti, who keeps careful score until he comes up short, at which point he shrugs, “How can you lose what you never had?” Eli built from zip, just like Gyp, but he’s been rich and in charge longer, and he takes more pride of ownership in what he’s made, whereas Gyp—the poor dead bastard—was a smash-and-grab man, who never cared much about what he broke in the process. That’s the distinction that Nucky’s trying to preserve. And now, having made his fortune with ballots and bullets, he’s about to see whether he’s socked enough away to be able to afford to lose his biggest bet.
- What do we think was the full scope of Nucky’s brewery sting? My assumption is that Doyle was in on the Rothstein-suckering from the start, acting under orders from Nucky. But did Nucky ever plan to run the brewery, or was he always holding it for strategic purposes?
- When Andrew Mellon calls Esther Randolph and says who he is, she incredulously asks, “Is it really?” to which he says, “Why would I claim otherwise?” That Andrew Mellon is a ball of laughs, huh? Let’s get him and Van Alden together.
- Speaking of which: Where was Van Alden this week? Some had suggested that he might show up with Capone in Atlantic City, which wouldn’t really have made sense, given that people in Atlantic City would recognize that “George Mueller” isn’t who he says he is. Still, it would’ve been nice to have at least checked in with him.
- Let us say our farewells to the controversial Boardwalk Empire character Gyp Rosetti, responsible for some of this season’s best moments and some of its weakest. He is survived by two daughters, who may be 16 and 14. He loved Barney Google and could do a decent impression of Steve Buscemi. He will be missed.
- If I can get historical for a moment, it appears that Boardwalk Empire is about to diverge dramatically from the life of the real Enoch Johnson (although some historians would say that it veered off last year when Nucky killed Jimmy, since the real Nucky was not reportedly a murderer). Enoch Johnson remained a public figure throughout his life, and continued to sport his trademark carnation. Assuming the show does proceed next season with the storyline where Nucky tries to stay out of the spotlight, I wonder how that will synch up with Margaret’s possible plans to become an outspoken woman’s health advocate?
- Thank you all for another enjoyable season of Boardwalk Empire, a good show with its own unique pleasures that not everybody appreciates—but you guys do, and it’s been fun kicking it around with you. See you next fall, I trust.