Of course Nucky Thompson used to read Horatio Alger books when he was a kid. And of course he still holds onto his old copy of Ragged Dick, inscribed by his sainted mother. Remember back at the start of Boardwalk Empire’s first season, when Jimmy told Nucky he wanted an opportunity to make something of himself, and Nucky said, “This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stoppin’ ya?” That’s what in the Internet age we might call “shorter Alger.”
But as tonight’s white-knuckle episode “Two Imposters” shows, there are competing visions for how to achieve the Alger-style up-by-your-own-bootstraps American dream. When Nucky is forced to go on the run, and he begs for protection from Chalky’s close-knit crime family, Chalky calls in his future doctor son-in-law to tend to the wounded Eddie, and says, “We all take care of each other, son. That’s how it works.” Meanwhile, Gyp rolls in to Atlantic City and just starts taking things, from the desk in Nucky’s office—where Nucky’s copy of Ragged Dick is stashed—to The Artemis Club, which Rosetti and his men commandeer, with Gyp promising Gillian, “Everything’s gonna stay the same, only now you’ll have a pal in charge.” How do you build an empire? With cooperation, or by brute force?
There are a number of reasons why “Two Imposters” is one of the most exciting Boardwalk Empire episodes of the entire series, but the primary reason is that it’s relatively compact. When I interviewed Terrence Winter about season two, I asked whether he’d ever thought about varying the structure of the show, to have an episode stay with one character and/or setting for a long stretch, rather than intercutting between locations; and he told me that while he and the writers do weigh all their storytelling options, he personally doesn’t like to wait that long to see what the other characters are up to. That impatience is evident even in “Two Imposters,” which veers away from the main plot a couple of times to check in with Luciano in New York City, where Lucky proceeds with a heroin deal against the advice of Meyer Lansky, and gets his fool self busted. The episode also spends a few scenes with Richard Harrow, who comes back to The Artemis Club with a pocket full of sand and a head full of romance, only to find Gillian flipping through his secret human feelings book, telling him to “be careful about dreaming of things that’ll never come to pass,” and calling Richard a half-person whose “girlfriend” must be blind.
Yet even those digressions have urgency, because they create an overall feeling of pieces being moved into place. What’s going to be the end result of Richard being kicked out of Gillian’s employ? Judging by the way Richard is pulling out his guns at the end of “Two Imposters,” it’s going to be bad news for somebody. And it’s Luciano’s storyline that gives the episode its title, as he trusts two guys who represent themselves as dope dealers when they’re actually the law. Will the distraction of Luciano’s legal woes play a role in how the New York bosses handle the Nucky/Rosetti war?
It could be argued that Nucky and Gyp are actually the “imposters” in question: One a poor kid who’s been playing at being in charge for his entire life, and the other just a rank bully and usurper. While “Two Imposters” does veer away from its main plot occasionally, it’s mostly just the story of these two guys, who play a game of cat-and-mouse across Atlantic City over the course of a single nerve-wracking day.
Another reason why “Two Imposters” is so good is that it legitimately puts Nucky through his paces. Mere hours after Nucky is awakened in the middle of the night by a box full of Owen, he discovers that the phone lines at The Ritz have been cut, and that Rosetti’s men are at his doorstep. Eddie gets shot in the initial melee, and Nucky can’t just deposit his manservant at the hospital because his enemies have it staked out, along with most of the rest of the city. So while Gyp sits in Nucky’s chair, and while his men are defiling The Artemis Club by having sex with the staff in the sitting room, Nucky is all but begging Chalky White for succor. Nucky very quickly loses any sense of statesmanlike calm as the emergency deepens. At first he’s politely trying to pay a citizen for the loan of an automobile—“Just take it!” the non-idiot citizen replies—and patiently trying to ask the hospital staff to take Eddie. But it doesn’t take long before Nucky’s hissing at a doctor, “There’s a fucking wing here named after me! Get a goddamned stretcher!”
And then there’s the way that Nucky relates to Eddie himself: He initially tries to maintain his usual vaguely annoyed, irrationally demanding tone as Eddie bleeds out, but as Nucky realizes that he knows nothing about the private life of the man whose life’s work has been to “tend only to you,” his tone softens from knee-jerk anger to a confused kind of fear. It’s nice that in an otherwise thrill-packed episode, which begins with a badass Nucky prevailing in a gunfight—shooting Rosetti soldiers through shotgun holes in his office door—there’s time for a hushed, haunting scene of a rambling Eddie quoting Kipling in German.
The interactions between Nucky and Chalky too are in constant flux throughout “Two Imposters.” Nucky meets Chalky in a ragged beachfront shack, where Chalky sits on his throne and uses every bit of his leverage, getting Nucky to admit sheepishly that he doesn’t know Chalky’s phone number, and getting him to promise that Chalky will get to develop the former Babette’s property if Nucky regains control of the city. Finally Chalky says, “You safe here. For the nonce.” But Nucky’s not convinced. In the middle of a grueling scene where Samuel is cleaning out Eddie’s wound without the benefit of anesthetic, suddenly Gyp and his boys roll up, because why the heck wouldn’t they? How safe is Chalky’s compound, really, even with its armed guards? And what kind of guarantee can Chalky really offer that his men won’t be swayed by Gyp’s offer of $25,000 to whomever delivers Nucky to him; or, even better, to whomever lets Gyp “drag Nucky Thompson out by his dick?”
The scene where Gyp meets Chalky is another one of the best in the entire series, I think. From the chilly opening greeting—“How do I address you?” “You doin’ it.”—to Gyp’s awkward joke about how he and Chalky “both got left out in the sun too long,” this is a fraught, compelling give-and-take, with each man taking the measure of the other, trying to determine how aggressive he needs to be, and how accommodating. The scene is shot largely with handheld cameras, making it feel more subtly jittery, and it’s filled with colorful exchanges of dialogue, such as when Chalky denies Gyp entry to his shack, saying that he’s in the middle of a romantic liaison that he doesn’t want exposed, adding, “I just aim to keep my johnson hangin’ in its rightful place.” And throughout, we keep coming back to Nucky, unsure whether he should continue to help Samuel with Eddie, or whether he should pull out his gun and go out in a hail of bullets.
I suppose you could say that there’s no real tension in “Two Imposters,” since it’s highly unlikely that Winter and company would kill off the lead character of the show, with season four still waiting in the wings. But the death of Jimmy Darmody last season proved that Boardwalk Empire isn’t shy about killing other main characters, and at the least, throughout this episode there hangs the immediate threat that Nucky could lose everything. He’s left to rely on his wits (which is his greatest strength) and his personal relationships (his biggest weakness). It’s the tentativeness of the latter that has Nucky nervously listening to Chalky’s troops getting drunk and talking about Gyp’s offer, and only slightly less nervously listening to Chalky reminisce about eating rock-bread soaked in sweet-milk by way of making a point about how want leads a man to “see what you really need.” But it’s Nucky’s knack for making long-range plans that sets up this episode’s fist-pump-worthy finale, with Nucky walking out to face what he assumes will be his doom at the hands of Chalky’s turncoat subordinates. Then, through the throng, steps his brother Eli, back from Chicago with Al Capone and ample reinforcements.
Remember Capone? That dumpy young man who was puttering around Atlantic City back at the start of season one, just looking for some action? There’s a Horatio Alger story for you: The ragamuffin who transformed himself into a boss, with the power to roll in with a smile on his face and tell Nucky how it’s going to go. For now, Capone rests. But come morning, “You and me sit down and we talk about who dies.”
- Whether the Luciano subplot ultimately affects the main Atlantic City plot or not in the finale, I can’t beef about how it’s staged, with the creepiness of the fake-mute “Sam from Buffalo,” and the rippling clothes on the rooftop clotheslines creating the feeling that Luciano is both surrounded yet completely alone. This episode is credited to writer Howard Korder and director Allen Coulter, who last teamed up on the previous season three high point, “Sunday Best.” These guys know what they’re doing.
- I liked Samuel trying to hold on to some medical decorum in the middle of a messy situation, beginning with the simple admonition that he can’t call his patient “Eddie.”
- Weird, funny little sight-gag: Gyp’s henchmen slowly edging Nucky’s desk into The Artemis Club. It’s a nice touch to stay with that scene for an extra beat, to watch these guys in suits grunt and strain to move the desk.
- Another nice (and equally weird) touch: Gyp’s men defiling The Artemis Club while on the soundtrack, a famous novelty song about rascally, high-living cartoon character Barney Google plays.
- The title of this episode uses the spelling “imposter” instead of “impostor,” which makes my spell-check mad. Both spellings are acceptable, according to every dictionary I’ve consulted. Any etymologists out there want to explain why we might use one spelling over another?
- If nothing else, at least Nucky got Gyp to take his stupid dog back.
- Chalky’s apt response to Gyp’s “left out in the sun” line: “You just ain’t done cookin’ yet, friend.”
- Season finale’s next week. This week’s gonna be hard to top.