It was pretty clear that “Sunday Best” was going to be an all-time-great Boardwalk Empire during the opening scene, which sees Eli skulking around his yard, hiding Easter eggs while a crackling, haunting recording of “Motherless Child” plays on the soundtrack. We don’t see what Eli’s doing right away, but only at the end, when he places a red egg under a overturned flowerpot. This red egg, we later learn, is the top prize for the Easter egg hunt. The child who finds the most eggs gets a dime; the child who finds the red egg gets a quarter. Often during “Sunday Best,” we’re reminded that Easter and spring are a time of renewal and new hope, when “everything starts growing again.” And for Eli, this entire egg-hunt—and the Thompson family reunion surrounding it—is his big search for the red egg, in that he hopes that this big to-do will be enough to redeem him in the eyes of his personal lord and savior, Nucky Thompson.
“Sunday Best” was written by playwright Howard Korder and directed by one of the core Sopranos helmers, Allen Coulter, both of whom have been major contributors to Boardwalk Empire over the course of the first two-and-a-half seasons. I’m not sure that either of them have ever done better work on this show than they do in this episode, which is so full of flavorful dialogue and subtly effective staging that I almost don’t know where to begin citing examples of how good it is. Usually, I talk about the quality of Boardwalk Empire’s individual scenes, and say that it doesn’t always matter if they amount to anything. Well, every scene in “Sunday Best” is precisely measured and mesmerizing, and it all comes together beautifully.
In broad outline, “Sunday Best” is one of those “checking in with a bunch of different characters over the course of a single quiet day” episodes, which is a storytelling model that tends to work well with pay-cable dramas, especially, when there are no commercials to interrupt the deliberate pacing. (Although Mad Men has done well with these kinds of episodes frequently and well, even with commercials.) It’s Easter Sunday, and while Nucky, Margaret, Teddy, and Emily are paying their first visit as a family to Eli and his wife June’s home, Richard Harrow is taking Tommy Darmody with him to have lunch with the lovely Julia Sagorsky and her drunken lout of a father Paul, Gyp Rosetti is having an uncomfortable sit-down with Joe Masseria, and Gillian is having an assignation with her young Jimmy Darmody lookalike Roger. The episode cuts between these little gatherings, each of which includes a prayer, a meal, some playtime (if you consider Gyp beating and robbing a priest “play,” which Gyp probably does), and some brutal truth. There’s no urgency, really; this isn’t that kind of story. It’s more about the slow and inevitable way that the cycle of life takes hold, from the death of winter to the rebirth of spring.
The only one of these stories that’s not as effective as it could’ve been is Margaret and Roger’s, though that’s only because a couple of you commenters pointed out last week something that I hadn’t considered: that Gillian was seducing Roger not to recreate her perverted relationship with her son, but as a prelude to killing him and using his corpse as currency, to regain control of her business from her missing-but-not-yet-declared-dead Jimmy. So I watched “Sunday Best” more or less knowing what was coming in that particular storyline. But that’s on me; I have no beef with the actual way Gillian and Roger’s afternoon plays out, shown as a series of hazy, sensual pleasures culminating with her spiking him with “rather a lot” of “lovely heroin” (presumably left by Lucky Luciano, during last episode’s contentious visit). It was disappointing only because the rest of “Sunday Best” has that combination of purposefulness and organic flow that to me is the hallmark of the best TV dramas, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad—that sense that each scene and line is proceeding naturally and even spontaneously from what came before, yet is still headed towards a predetermined, possibly sad endpoint.
That feeling certainly runs all the way through Richard and Julia’s scenes. If nothing else, “Sunday Best” is the best episode for Harrow since last season’s one-two of “What Does The Bee Do?” (in which he sat for Angela and told her the story of his sister) and “Gimcrack & Bunkum” (in which he was saved from becoming a Memorial Day suicide by a curious dog and a couple of sage tramps). We get to see a lot of sides of Richard here, from the way he interacts with Tommy—somewhat exasperatedly telling the boy that Michigan Avenue is not the state of Wisconsin, where Richard grew up, and hearing in return that he needs to straighten up his glasses before he goes into the Sagorsky house—to the way he attempts to court Julia by thrusting flowers at her and muttering, “Hello. I’m here.”
At first, it seems like these segments of “Sunday Best” are going to be about the opinionated, irascible Paul Sagorsky, who sneers at the whole concept of Christianity and Easter, and is disappointed that Richard isn’t as cynical as he is. But it’s really about Julia trying to make Richard feel comfortable, by allowing him to eat his dinner away from the others (so that he won’t have to pick at his meal to avoid disgusting the other diners), and Richard playing the hero in return, by threatening to kill Paul, and demanding that Julia leave her dad and spend the afternoon on the boardwalk with him and Tommy. There are several spot-on pieces of writing in the Julia/Richard interactions, including him quietly but firmly chastising him for trying to be a tough guy, and her warily countering his “I’m used to him” (meaning Paul) by sighing, “You only think you are.” So much about Julia’s life and her understanding of who Richard is conveyed in just these few lines.
There are several marvelous pieces of direction in these scenes, too, including the way Coulter frames Julia and Richard in her kitchen, so that the swinging door is visible behind them, offering not much of a barrier between them and the corrosive spew of Paul in the dining room. I also liked that when a boardwalk photographer ropes Richard, Julia, and Tommy into a snapshot—assuming they’re a married couple with a child, when in fact none of the three are related—he shoots them with Richard looking at Julia and exposing only the “good” side of his face, such that he looks “normal.” (Naturally, Richard being Richard, he takes that photo home to paste in his “this is what human feelings are like” book.)
I was similarly impressed with one particular scene during the Thompson Easter feast. While June and Margaret are having some gab time, and June’s telling Margaret about Nucky’s first wife and his “good heart,” Margaret breaks down and talks about Nucky’s mistress and his shady business deals and his coldness to her, while Coulter shoots Margaret with her face turned just away from the camera. Then June shuts down the sudden eruption of honesty by cooing over Margaret’s cake—“You brought pineapple upside-down!”—though as she’s leaving the dining room, she silently puts a reassuring hand on Margaret’s shoulder. (Meanwhile, outside, a little girl’s voice can be heard shouting, “Red egg! Red egg!”) The awkwardness of this insta-relationship between two sisters-in-law who’d never met, and June’s way of trying to be sympathetic while restoring her idea of propriety… it’s just all so richly conceived and enacted.
The rest of the Thompson reunion is just as much of a rollercoaster. Eli does get to approach Nucky about giving him more responsibility in the business again, but Nucky’s very touchy about it, saying things like, “Is this the topic of conversation?” and “You think I’m bottomless!” and “Why does it always need to be such a melodrama with you?” But Eli’s patience and persistence pays off. Nucky and Margaret end up having a wonderful time entertaining all the Thompson children—he with his juggling and jokes, she with a silly song from the old country—but when they get home later, they fall back into bad patterns, as he passive-aggressively says about Teddy and Emily, “They seemed to have enjoyed themselves… that’s what you wanted, right?” and she rebuffs his playful offer to teach her to juggle, saying, “It’s too late.” So with none of that sweet reconciliation satisfaction coming from his wife, Nucky calls Eli, praises him for how he handled Tabor Heights, and offers him a promotion. Eli is risen.
There are many great Nucky lines in “Sunday Best,” though my favorites were the ones he used while describing his new relationship with the Catholic church to Eli. He says he has to go to mass every Sunday because “I’m a knight now,” and then explains how he received that honor: “It helps to lose an awful lot of money.” But at least he’s not required to go to confession. “That’s for the people in steerage,” Nucky quips.
I was also swooning a little over the writing in the first Gyp Rosetti scene, in which his lackey gives a long spiel about what the Tabor Heights set-to has cost them, in terms of money and manpower—“We don’t have it, and they know it. If we’re having that conversation.”—ending by handing Gyp an envelope that contains Masseria’s cut and saying, “And that’s why this is thin.” As for Gyp, he doesn’t say much in “Sunday Best” at first; he even relies on his cool, silent glare to get his lackey to stay for Easter dinner with the snappish Rosetti family. But he does say enough to Masseria to convince him to keep him alive, for a hard run at Nucky and Rothstein and Luciano. And he does make an angry plea to Jesus, shortly before he brains a priest, swipes the collection bag, and hisses, “Where’s God keep the rest of it?”
If you count Gyp’s rant in the church, there are six prayers in “Sunday Best,” most of which are just the characters perfunctorily saying grace before they eat. But it’s fair to say that few of the people in this episode—not even Margaret—are really looking to God for help on this holy day. Gyp’s turning to Masseria (or at least trying to spare his wrath). Eli needs Nucky. Julia and Richard each think they can save the other from his or her noble suffering. And Gillian’s taking care of herself. The last scene of “Sunday Best” is as powerful and artful as the rest, as on this day of resurrection, Gillian tells Richard that her son is well and truly dead—seconds before her whores find Roger’s body in the bathtub. The ladies scream, and shout for Mr. Harrow off-screen—not unlike the way that the little girl at the Thompson reunion shouted, “Red egg!”
- I liked the 1910 Philadelphia A’s World Series pennant on the door of the Sagorsky boy’s room. It’s an interesting touch that Paul is trying to preserve the memory of his son as a little boy, not the man he would’ve been when he was killed in action.
- The interactions between Paul and Tommy are well-done too. Paul almost seems like a lovable old coot when he tells Tommy that when he goes to the bathroom “make sure you aim that pistol straight into the bowl.” But then he flies into a scary rage when he sees Tommy playing with the toys in his dead son’s room. (“The cowboys are fighting the Germans,” Tommy meekly explains.)
- Speaking of Tommy going to the bathroom, here’s another example of how good the writing is in “Sunday Best:” When Paul asks if Tommy is “housebroken,” Richard grunts, “Mostly.” That can be read as a joke, or as Richard reflecting on the years he’s spent cleaning up after this kid; either way, it’s a touch that gives Richard’s character more dimension than if he’d just flatly answered, “Yes.” And there’s a lot of that going on with Richard in this episode, as when he bluntly tells Julia that her Easter party was kind of a disaster, and when she snaps that he’s supposed to be more polite about such things, he murmurs, “In that case, I had a wonderful time.” I like this wisecracking, quietly passionate Richard, don’t you?
- Gillian, who runs a whorehouse and is preparing to murder a nice young midwesterner with a syringe full of heroin, still fancies herself as a proper lady, as she warns Richard that “Tommy’s not to be subjected to any rough language.” (But Richard has his delusions, too. When Gillian describes him as having been “in the trenches” in WWI, he corrects her, saying that he was a sharpshooter. The army may have taken away half of his face, but Richard still has his pride.)
- At the start of the Thompson reunion, Margaret tells her new family that the polio-stricken Emily should be allowed to do everything for herself unless she asks for help. But then Margaret helps Emily with her prayers, and Eli’s oldest son William helps her gather eggs (and presumably helps her find the red egg, though since that happens off-screen I didn’t want to give her the official credit).
- Insight into Nucky and Eli’s family (and perhaps Nucky and Eli): On Easter their mother always put out three red eggs, one for each child, but then their father kept all the quarters.
- When Teddy tells Emily that “a girl can’t be a politician,” Nucky corrects him, saying, “Doesn’t England have queens?” So Nucky is willing to give a woman credit for being a leader, provided that she’s born into it.
- Another of my favorite little exchanges in this episode: Nucky telling Margaret that Eli’s never cheated on June, then adding that given how many kids they have, it’s clear that the couple is having sex enough that Eli probably doesn’t need to sleep around. I’m sure Nucky didn’t mean this as any kind of comment on his relationship with Margaret. I’m also sure that Margaret was thinking about her own marriage the entire time.
- For those keeping track, Korder and Coulter have previously collaborated on the superb Boardwalk Empire episodes “Paris Green” and “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” and are responsible for the upcoming 11th episode of this season. (Both of the aforementioned episodes were number 11 in their respective seasons as well.) In addition, Coulter directed one of my season one favorites, “Home,” and one of my season two favorites, “Peg Of Old,” and Korder is credited with the script for season two’s excellent “Gimcrack & Bunkum.” The nature of television production is such that which person writes and directs any given episode is often just a matter of who’s up in the rotation. Still, along with Terence Winter and Tim Van Patten, Korder and Coulter are clearly Boardwalk Empire’s muscle. If one or two of those four guys’ names is on an episode, chances are it’s going to be a good one. And since next week’s episode “The Pony” was co-written by Winter and Korder and is directed by Van Patten, my expectations are already high. I may need to watch my screener early this week; I kinda can’t wait.