There were two points I meant to make about “Resolution” last week, but failed to, given how much was going on with the Boardwalk Empire season-three première. For one, I had fully intended to talk about the proliferation of fake families and fake identities on this show. Gillian is pretending to her grandson’s mother. Nucky has stepchildren from a wife he doesn’t love. Nelson Van Alden and Mieczysław Kuzik go by assumed names. I contended last week that Boardwalk Empire isn’t a show about gangsters so much as a show about an America in transition, and in that context, all this business of people remaking themselves and redefining their associations is very much on-point.
“Spaghetti & Coffee” though is more about actual, biological families, as two Boardwalk Empire players who sat out last week return, and make their presence known. That’s right, folks… Eli’s comin’. Freshly sprung from the pen, Eli Thompson gets picked up by the mobster formerly known as Mieczysław Kuzik, which irritates Eli. “How the fuck are you still alive?” Eli grumbles. “I’m valuable,” Doyle giggles. “I bring people together.” To which Mickey adds that no one else is coming for Eli, and besides, “I don’t need any guff from the fellas that work for me.”
So this is where Eli Thompson finds himself at the beginning of 1923: Ignored by his brother, and given a choice between unemployment or subordination to Mickey fuckin’ Doyle, of all people. Meanwhile, Eli returns home to find that his oldest son—the one he bought a model plane for before being sent away to jail—has been working in a lumberyard to help support the family, and doesn’t seem inclined to quit just because his father’s ready to be the breadwinner again. The kid’s probably old enough to know what Eli did, and where he’s been because of it; and he’s choosing to distance himself from the old man, politely but resolutely.
The reverse is true for Chalky White’s daughter Maybelle. Smart young doctor-to-be Sammy, who dined awkwardly with the Whites last season, stops by the club to ask Chalky for Maybelle’s hand in marriage, but there’s a complication: Maybelle doesn’t want to settle down with some boring old doctor. Like her brother Lester—who’s turning his classical piano training toward hot jazz—Maybelle wants to live a more “interesting” life than the respectable one her parents have picked out for her. “Think you and me are havin’ some kinda discussion?” Chalky starts to counter, but he’s interrupted before he can complete his thought. And Sammy is interrupted later during his proposal at the club, by a man who bumps his table while dancing. Sammy protests, the man slashes Sammy’s face, and the man gets his ass beat in return. While Maybelle gasps, Chalky asks, “Am I interestin’ now?”
Unlike last week’s tense “Resolution,” I found “Spaghetti & Coffee” more diffuse, with less narrative drive overall. Perhaps that’s because the family troubles of Eli and Chalky are less interesting to me than faux-family troubles of Nucky and the Darmody clan. (Besides, any episode that lacks Richard Harrow has to get docked at least half-a-grade.)
Yet there was still plenty to like about “Spaghetti & Coffee,” including the expanded role of Billie Kent. Which brings up the second point I failed to make last week: Damn, Meg Steedle is good. Like, “future superstar” good. She made an impression as Billie last week during her musical number and her flirtations with Nucky—not to mention her nude scene, which I shall refrain from commenting upon, as I am a gentleman of refinement—but in “Spaghetti & Coffee,” Steedle all but steals the episode, as she continues to lounge around post-coitally with Nucky, while making plans for a comical vaudeville number about a hummingbird who’s too small to fuck. Steedle’s Billie is fun, alluring, and full of wisecracks, as when Nucky feeds her a one-skillet “hobo” meal and talks about how he never got to eat any of his own cooking as a kid because he’d “only steal enough for three,” to which Billie says, “Wasn’t Chaplin in that one?” Yes, if we’re going to be deprived of the witty Esther Randolph for the moment, then Billie Kent will do nicely.
Plus, the Billie scenes in “Spaghetti & Coffee” subtly advance what to me is a more compelling Boardwalk Empire theme than the one about the looseness of family ties. As much as Nucky enjoys being with Billie, he’s haunted by the presence of another man’s razor in her bathroom, even though she’s told him she’s not going to be his kept woman. Nucky tells her that he just wants people to be honest about what they want, no matter what, hoping perhaps that she’ll admit that she wants him to herself. Instead, she turns the question around on Nucky, asking what he wants. He says he wants to spend more time with her, though for that to happen, he’d have to get his real wish, which is: “I want everything to run all by itself.”
And here’s where the Billie situation is pertinent: Nucky loves Billie, but he can’t control what she does, any more than he could stop Margaret from giving away his property. And it’s not just romance where Nucky comes up short. Consulting with Rothstein later on a liquor shipment, Nucky forgets what day it is, then plays it off by saying that his underlings are on top of that. “As long as they have a calendar,” Rothstein smirks. Of course, Rothstein isn’t perfect either; he’s Billie’s landlord, owning an apartment with a busted radiator. And as this episode shows, those kind of small details that can trip a boss up.
Enter Gyp Rosetti. When I said that Meg Steedle all but steals this episode, I held back a bit on purpose, because Bobby Cannavale as Rosetti commits a little larceny himself. Last week, Gyp was introduced as a dangerous hothead. This week, we see that Rosetti can also be awfully shrewd. So Nucky and Rothstein have made their deal to streamline liquor distribution in the northeast. So what? Gyp can read a map, and can see that Nucky’s trucks won’t make it all the way to New York without a stop for gas in Tabor Heights, at the only filling station in the area. So he takes control of the station, thus stopping at least one big shipment of booze, and letting Nucky know he won’t just roll over and do what the big bosses say.
I guess in a way, the family theme and the control theme are connected, in that they’re both about authority figures making plans that the people below them either ignore or screw up. It’s an inefficient system, relying on others to execute an idea. The whole cockeyed nature of it is illustrated by the new character introduced in this episode: real-life Harding administration “fixer” Gaston Means (played by the always welcome Stephen Root), who intercedes on the behalf of bootleggers who visit him in his New York apartment and place their bribes in his empty fishbowl. “It’s the entire essence of the system,” he explains to Nucky, who wants to know why Means prefers to stay hidden behind a door in another room of his suite as his visitors drop by their largesse. It’s all so… roundabout, and counter to the more streamlined system that Nucky is trying to enforce.
The Means scenes provide another illustrative image in the fishbowl itself, which Means empties at the start of the episode, temporarily displacing its inhabitant. Which raises a question that any northeastern bootlegger not named “Nucky Thompson” or “Arnold Rothstein” may soon have to answer: Would they rather be a goldfish confined to a tiny glass, or flopping around in a rapidly draining sink?
- It’s indicative of how scattered this episode is that I barely registered what Margaret is up to in “Spaghetti & Coffee,” though she has several big scenes. Her most significant action involves her burgeoning role as a crusader for women’s health, which sees her haunting the hospital, asking questions—including having a terse conversation with the man I believe I’ll call Dr. S. Prick. (The “S” stands for “Smug.”) The standoff does have a satisfactory end though, as Margaret gets fed up with all his belittlements and asks him straight up if he has any answers to this pre-natal problem—and then chides him for his cheap pipe tobacco. Some interesting insight here into who Margaret is: She has money now, and determination, and she’s used to being an annoyance to powerful men; who’s going to tell her she can’t help the ignorant pregnant ladies if she wants to?
- That said, will Margaret’s powers of persuasion extend to being able to get Nucky to go to church to receive a Catholic award? That’s unresolved at the moment. But it’s gotta sting that she has so little influence over her husband. It’s a parallel in a way to the Nucky/Gyp relationship: Margaret got what she wanted from Nucky in terms of paying off the church, and now he exacts revenge in small but significant ways. (Or maybe it’s more like the Nucky/Billie relationship, in that Margaret, like Nucky, has a romantic partner who’s not tied down to her.)
- Dunn Purnsley: now Chalky’s own Richard Harrow.
- Eli gets another lesson in the limits of fealty when he reminds the sheriff of Tabor Heights that the man may be cocky now, but he once came crawling to Atlantic City, “lookin’ for any job with a badge,” to which the sheriff shrugs, “Found one.”
- “It’s like a… noodle?”