Some time ago, I decided I should retire the phrase “on the nose” from my reviews because I was using it too much, but it’s always tempting to revive “on the nose” whenever Boardwalk Empire delves into Nucky Thompson’s subconscious. When Nucky dreams or hallucinates—or when, as in this week’s “The Milkmaid’s Lot,” he suffers from a concussion and has memory issues—he tends to say and see things that speak to his circumstances in ways that are, well, a little on the nose. But I’m going to continue to refrain from leveling that particular criticism at “The Milkmaid’s Lot,” and not just because I think the phrase is played-out. (Memo to self: Time to retire “played-out?”) I’m also holding back, because even though Nucky’s severe confusion leads to him spilling his guts literally and figuratively—from puking in the bathroom to stumbling into Emily’s birthday party and babbling about “the gypsy”—and the whole “unfiltered Nucky” element in “The Milkmaid’s Lot” also provokes one intense, nerve-wrackingly dramatic scene after another. From minute to minute, it always seems that the shell-shocked Nucky is on the verge of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, and bringing about an explosion of another kind.
This is a highly emotional episode in a lot of ways actually, by which I mean it’s an episode designed less to make viewers think and more to make us feel. There are sad moments, scary moments, triumphant moments, and—for me at least—the loudest “laugh out loud” moment of any in the entire run of this frequently very funny show.
I’ll start with the last one, which comes courtesy of Gyp Rosetti. When Rosetti and his crew—supplemented by Joe Masseria’s people—stream back in to Tabor Heights, they round up the town’s leaders and pledge to give them each a regular $200 stipend in exchange for the citizenry continuing to go about their business while looking the other way. When a townsperson interjects and asks about Bible camp, Gyp snaps, “Bible Camp’s cancelled. I’m not really doing questions-and-answers right now.” I know not everyone has been onboard with the Gyp Rosetti storyline, and I’ve found him a little excessive at times myself—such as at the end of this episode, when he liberates a revolutionary war hat from a local display case and wears it on the beach while a booze shipment comes in—but that one line justifies his entire presence on the show, I think.
And while Richard Harrow has often been underused on Boardwalk Empire, his romance with Julia Sagorsky continues to pay dividends, giving him the opportunity to reveal wit and emotional depth and not just sulk around tragically. When his pals at the American Legion social try to coax Richard onto the dance floor for grins, joking “He’s the one who taught Arthur Murray!”—“Who?” Richard murmurs—Richard surprises everyone by showing some pretty good moves, capped off by a twirl, a dip, and a kiss with Julia. If this episode had been showing in a movie theater, the audience would’ve cheered right there.
But there’s a price to pay for Richard’s lovely evening. While he’s out, Tommy is left unattended, and wanders into a room where his favorite friendly whore is doing her business. (The bit where another of Gillian’s girls encourages Tommy to go on in is another of this episode’s cringe-inducing-in-a-good-way scenes.) Gillian’s furious, and has to give Tommy warm milk with rum just to calm him down. But hey, Tommy was just filling his role as another displaced child in an episode replete with them. Besides the young Darmody, the two Schroeder (now Thompson) children are also uprooted in “The Milkmaid’s Lot,” holed up at The Ritz as a precaution while Nucky recovers. It’s there where Teddy takes a call from his personal boogeyman, “the gypsy” (aka Gyp Rosetti), and it’s there where Emily has her terrible pony-free birthday party, ruined by Nucky’s concussion-driven mania. All of the Boardwalk Empire kids are seeing and hearing things they shouldn’t this week.
The same is true of Margaret. Forced to live in close quarters with her estranged husband, Margaret finds out more about Nucky’s business than she ever wanted to know when Nucky fails to dismiss her from his room before he tells Eli and Owen that he plans to wear Gyp Rosetti’s guts “like a necktie.” And in his confused state, Nucky also confuses Margaret with the dead Billie, handing her the latter’s lost earring. “This belongs to someone else,” Margaret says quietly—and heart-breakingly, I’d say—, apparently having decided that Nucky’s well enough for her to stop humoring him. Or maybe it’s that she’s already decided at that point to take Owen up on his offer to split, and go far, far away from Atlantic City and Nucky Thompson. (“We’re thousands of miles already, what’s a few more?” he coaxes.) The question is whether Nucky would let her go. Talking about his partners in crime—and his partners generally—Nucky warns Margaret, “No matter what you think of me, there’s no walking away. It doesn’t work like that. I do it to them or they do it to me. That’s all there is.”
The scene where Nucky says this to Margaret—a scene where she also forces him to recognize that she’s his wife, and then orders him to “attend to your business”—is a series highlight, and as defining a moment as the “you can’t be half a gangster” line from earlier in Boardwalk Empire. It’s despairing and existential, and represents a rare moment of clarity for the desperately lonely, irrationally emotional Nucky, after an episode where he’s moved to tears by Emily not getting a pony, and an episode where he’s plagued by the sound of ticking clocks and the persistent ringing in his ears.
And it sets up the big moment at the end of “The Milkmaid’s Lot,” when a still-woozy Nucky stands up in front of a still-scarred Rothstein and the other bosses, saying that his fight will soon be their fight, unless they stand behind him and set rules that they can all prosper by. It’s a stirring speech—a grand vision of setting aside some small measure of self-interest in the name of getting even richer down the road—but the lonely Nucky remains all alone when he finishes. Everyone gives him the courtesy of hearing him out, and then wishes him the best of luck as they head home. Nucky hisses to Rothstein that he’s letting his post-explosion emotions get in his way, but Rothstein calmly replies, “Have you known that to be a habit of mine?” All absolutely crushing. (On the other hand, Arnold does subsist largely on milk and cake, “like a fuckin’ child,” so he’s got some issues.)
In last week’s episode, Nucky tried to get Billie to leave her job, saying, “How long is this business going to last?” and insisting that people will always want something new. This week, he’s arguing for stability, while his enemy Joe Masseria is telling Gyp the parable of the smooth rock, worn down by time. The quick score versus the long investment: That’s always been the defining dilemma when it comes to crime, politics, and business (the three of which can be scarily alike at times). “Is this how business is meant to be?” Margaret asks when she’s momentarily allowed to peek behind the curtain. At the end of “The Milkmaid’s Lot,” that question’s still open.
- Near as I can tell (or near as I can Google), the title of this week’s episode comes from a quote by Queen Elizabeth I: “That milkmaid’s lot is better than mine, and her life merrier.”
- Some fine sound design in this episode, especially in the blending of Nucky’s ringing in the ears and the sound of a telephone ringing.
- While Nucky is failing to persuade his fellow East Coast crime bosses, another element of his master plan is coming to fruition. We see a half-dressed Remus in his palatial home, belly all a-jiggling as he flees Esther Randolph’s men. (By the way, Randolph would be very interested in seeing Remus’ receipts from Jess Smith.) Nucky’s allies may not want to stand with him against Gyp and Masseria, but will they change their minds when they realize that he has the power to decide who does and doesn’t get prosecuted by the federal government?
- Hey, it’s a Chalky White sighting! For the most part, Chalky’s only role in this episode is to provide the muddy-minded Nucky with another chance to say something embarrassing. (“When did you get so uppity? Work on my shoes later.”) But Chalky also says something that could lead to a fruitful future storyline, when he says that he wants in on the rebuilding of the boardwalk and the space where Babette’s used to be. I’d love to see a whole subplot next season about Chalky trying to infiltrate the main Atlantic City entertainment district.
- I bet Teddy and Tommy would get along famously.
- The cast of historical gangsters expands dramatically in this episode, with appearances by Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan, William “Wild Bill” Lovett, and Frankie Yale at Nucky’s big meeting. (As always, don’t click those Wikipedia links if you don’t want to read potential spoilers for Boardwalk Empire.)
- “The rhinoceros is waiting for the train.” Cute kid drawing or metaphor?