“You’d Be Surprised” was the last of the first batch of Boardwalk Empire episodes that HBO sent to critics before the season started, and for those critics who watched all five before filing their preseason reviews, I can sort of understand why they might have taken such a dismissive stance toward the show. Not that “You’d Be Surprised” is a bad episode—it’s an essential one in many ways, with multiple standout scenes—but plot-wise, it’s easily the most unfocused of this season to date, with appearances by just about every major character, but very little immediately apparent cohesion between any of its many threads. In Tabor Heights, Gyp has rough sex and strikes a side deal with Rothstein to deliver his hijacked liquor. In New York, more heroin arrives packed in Buddha statues, while across town Nucky (with the help of Chalky and Dunn) persuades Eddie Cantor to save one of Billie’s shows. In Washington, D.C., Gaston Means is keeping an eye on the investigation into Harding-administration corruption. In Chicago, Van Alden feels pressured by the prohie he met at the speakeasy a couple of episodes back. And in Atlantic City, Gillian has to face some fiscal realities, while Margaret gets her heart broken by both Nucky and her new doctor friend. I mean, this episode is just all over the place, and if you’re looking at it hoping to get some sense of what the arc of this season is going to be and how everyone fits into it, I get why you’d feel dissatisfied.
Here’s why I think “You’d Be Surprised” is important, though: In each of the first two Boardwalk Empire seasons, there have come moments where all the behind-the-scenes plotting and coy public conversations give way to outright violence and/or brutal honesty (aka emotional violence). And in “You’d Be Surprised,” those moments come early and often. Characters say what they’re really thinking. Characters act on what they’re really thinking. Decks are cleared and stages are set. Last week’s episode was one in which not much happened, but the emotional content was strong. This week was harder to connect to emotionally, but it’d be hard to deny that some serious shit goes down.
The cue for all of this, unexpectedly, comes from Margaret’s storyline. Her prenatal classes have spurred a lot of talk about euphemistic language, such that even one of her best friends makes fun of Margaret’s flier for the class with its vaguely mystical heading, “Do you wish for greater knowledge?” Margaret counters that she couldn’t just write, “Come discuss your vagina!” (a line that struck me as anachronistic, frankly), but clearly some explicitness is required here. And so some explicitness comes, albeit in forms that Margaret may not have expected. For instance, she learns that Dr. Mason, while he is now being kind and respectful to her, is apparently out-of-bounds as a romantic partner because he already has a woman he loves. And when Margaret drops into La Belle Femme to leave some flyers with Mme. Jeunet, she stumbles across Nucky buying a dress for Billie. (“Gosh!” says Billie, just before Margaret, in one of the most badass moves of this entire episode, hands the young lady a flyer.)
Later, Nucky tries to apologize to Margaret, but she’s not that interested in his sudden “honesty.” Instead, she warns Nucky that he’s ultimately not going to be happy with Billie because she’s not “in need of rescuing.” And Nucky seems to prove Margaret right when he swoops in to be the white knight for Billie when her crummy musical is in danger of closing (for being crummy), coercing Cantor to step in and star. Ironically, judging by the golfing costumes, this show—called The Naughty Virgin here—is meant to be Kid Boots, which was one of Cantor’s biggest hits, later made into a movie. But Cantor still resents the pressure from Nucky, and passes along his own warning to Billie: “Lucy Danziger… ever heard of her?”
The “truth-telling” theme continues in Gillian’s storyline, when racist coot Leander Whitlock tells Gillian straight-up that until Jimmy is officially declared dead, there’ll be no more credit extended to The Artemis Club. No more fantasyland for Gillian. No more big talk about how this club is “meant to be a dream” for its clientele. She’s got to face the reality of her situation: She’s the madame of a whorehouse that’s hemorrhaging money because it’s been running off the depleted bank accounts of a dead gangster who wasn’t that good at his job. Gillian seems to get that message, at least judging by her order to her girls to “get on the porch and attract some customers.” When one of the girls says that Gillian has always hated such crass come-ons, Gillian hisses, “Then why the goddamn hell would I say it.”
I loved Gillian’s awkward profanity there. It reminded me of Nucky, earlier in the episode, snipping to Lucky, “Must you swear every time you speak?” Yes, Nucky, he must. Because Lucky and Rothstein realize the fix they’re in with Gyp Rosetti, an unstable man with violent tendencies who likes to be bound and strangled when he’s having sex. Nucky blames Rothstein for getting him involved with this lunatic in the first place, but Rothstein is honest with Nucky: “You think I entered into this arrangement because I value your companionship?” And then Rothstein proves how on his game he is when he goes to see Rosetti himself, seeming to make arrangements with Gyp when in fact he’s making special note of Gyp’s room number at his hotel, so that he can send assassins to take this wild card out of the deck.
Rothstein’s plan fails, even though the gunmen arrive while Gyp is the middle of one of his erotic asphyxiation sessions. (A clever plot detail, that.) What follows is one of the bloodiest Boardwalk Empire sequences yet, capped off by a startling overhead shot of a naked Gyp walking down a hallway full of corpses. I can almost guarantee that when director Tim Van Patten was setting this scene up, he was saying, “And now here comes the Taxi Driver shot.”
It’s not the only stylistic flourish in “You’d Be Surprised,” either. Earlier in the episode, when a coworker jokes to “George Mueller” that the feds have finally caught up to him, the camera zooms out, expressing a stoic character’s inner panic. As it turns out, the prohibition agent that Van Alden’s been avoiding has caught up with him, but only because Mr. Mueller once sold him a malfunctioning iron. Before the agent can lodge his complaint though, George’s wife Sigrid knocks the prohie unconscious, forcing Van Alden to finish the kill. “Please avert your eyes,” he tells her, apparently unaware that the theme of this episode is confrontation not avoidance.
But then, Van Alden’s not the only one who still believes in delicacy and discretion. In Washington, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (played by James Cromwell!) is testifying before a congressional committee and trying to implicate Harding’s people without going on the record as a namer of names. And the proceedings are being monitored by Means, a man who says things like, “Your left shoelace is in a state of dishabille.”
So yes, there’s maybe too much going on in “You’d Be Surprised,” given that much of it is just groundwork for later showdowns. But it’d be a mistake to think that Chicago and D.C. and New York and New Jersey aren’t bound together, both by what might happen later in the season and by the way the characters are each grappling with how honest they need to be. Perhaps they should take a lesson from Means, who knows that you don’t always have to lie to be dishonest. Not when “the truth is surprisingly easy to obfuscate.”
- One strong complaint I do have with this episode: I previously haven’t minded Gyp Rosetti’s hair-trigger temper and its similarities to Joe Pesci’s Goodfellas character Tommy DeVito, but the scene in this episode where Gyp berates a paperboy for delivering news that “happened yesterday” before saying he was just kidding was so much of a Goodfellas copy that it was hugely distracting. (That said, it does set up the paperboy getting shot in the attempted Rosetti assassination, so there’s that.)
- When told that the boss wants to see him, Van Alden asks a coworker, “Did you perch a bucket of water on his doorjamb?” Even when describing a hilarious prank, our Mr. Mueller is utterly humorless.
- I’m not sure what to make of Sigrid Mueller, that sexed-up Norwegian who can’t tell the difference between “sleeping” and “napping,” and who apparently enjoys the sound of the phrase “hunky dory.” She’s a weird one. And that’s saying something, given to whom she’s married.
- Last week, I suggested that Eli and Nucky might be on the road to reconciliation; this week the journey continued, as Eli respectfully offered his input at the meeting with Rothstein, and Nucky thanked him for it, reluctantly but sincerely.
- I tried to figure out what “the new Kern show” was that Cantor would’ve been about to do before Nucky interceded. There’s no obvious answer; most of the new shows Jerome Kern would’ve been working on in 1923 were being mounted in London, not Broadway. I’m guessing that the Boardwalk Empire writers didn’t have any specific show in mind. (Or maybe, like me, they’d hoped that Nucky could’ve kept Cantor from doing Show Boat, until they realized the chronology was off.)
- Anyone else get kind of a Citizen Kane vibe from Nucky watching Billie perform in that reportedly terrible show—and from him forcing the show to stay open in the first place?
- I often say that Boardwalk Empire should be appreciated more for its individual scenes, which are frequently as well-written, acted, and directed as any on TV, even if they don’t always fit into an hour of narrative television that is as satisfying as the medium’s best. So this week I want to take a moment to marvel at the scene where Cantor performs his act for Chalky and Dunn, quickly realizing that his “Oh gee, oh gosh, oh golly, I’m in love” isn’t going to play in front of these guys. It’s funny, tense, and another example of “You’d Be Surprised” exploring the notion that playacting and soft language won’t do.
- Nucky is becoming quite adept at delivering toasts in foreign tongues. (“L’chaim!”)
- Warning: As of right now, I’m out of Boardwalk Empire screeners. In the past, HBO has kept critics supplied all the way up to the last one or two episodes of the season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do so again, except that I’ve heard from other critics that HBO has been shutting down screeners earlier on some shows lately. So who knows? If next week’s review is up at the usual time, you’ll know that HBO came through. If you don’t see it up at the usual time, it’s going to take a couple of hours to post (and will probably be shorter). Warning over.