Boardwalk Empire season 3 episode 2 review: Spaghetti & Coffee

Review Michael Noble
25 Sep 2012 - 10:49

Spaghetti & Coffee welcomes back two familiar faces to the world of Boardwalk Empire. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

3.2 Spaghetti & Coffee

One of the advantages that episodic TV has over film is its extended running time. Each season of a modern drama is around six or seven times as long as the average movie, so there’s much more room in which to build a world and fill it with people. It is a gift to writers to be able to devote so much time to showing how their characters grow and develop, or indeed, how they fail to do either. If making room means that certain characters have to step out of the way for an episode, then fine, better to give everyone the space to be treated properly. And so to episode two of the season, in which both Chalky and Eli return from their absence, while Van Alden/Mueller, Gillian and Richard sit out.

Eli’s return is an in-universe one. Having completed the jail sentence imposed at the end of the last season, he walks out of the clink straight into the unwelcome arms of Mickey Doyle, the most irritating man on TV. I have never found Eli to be the most sympathetic character, but it was difficult not to feel pity for him, walking back into a world that looked the same but which felt completely different. His fall from Sherriff to hired muscle was bad enough, worse is the loss of his family. They were all still there of course, and delighted to see him but they’ve survived well enough without him. Quite a smack to the ego, that.

For me, the episode belonged to Shea Wigham, who portrayed Eli’s quiet agony superbly. Obviously thinner than he appeared before his time in chokey, he even looks shorter. Standing next to his son, who had stood as breadwinner in his father’s absence, the man seemed smaller than the boy. Painful. Beautiful.

Also experiencing family troubles is Eli’s fellow returnee Chalky White. He’s still finding the gap between his own life and that of his children too great to bridge. His daughter’s suitor, the polite and well-mannered doctor Sam, is no longer an embarrassment to Chalky. Except maybe he is. Although Chalky now seems to be encouraging the relationship it’s hard not to see it as being more about Chalky than Maybelle. He is obsessed with his identity and his place in the world. He is of one experience, which he shares with Dunn Pernsley (excellent in the role of bodyguard), while his family and Dr Sam are of another. The space between the two worlds was perfectly illustrated through language and action. The contrast between Chalky’s mumbling vernacular and the mannered speech of his children is stark. The contrast between Sam’s ‘pardon me’ and the instant brutality of Pernsley is starker still.

Talking of instant brutality, let’s have another look at newcomer Rosetti. Last week, I expressed some doubts over his portrayal. Too obvious, I thought, too clichéd. This week, I am relieved to report, he is much more original in his thinking. He still carries menace, but this time it’s deployed in the service of his aims (and the plot). I admit that I cheered a bit when I saw him cleverly get the upper hand over the Thompson-Rothstein connection. It not only set the scene for the season’s key confrontation, but also showed what Rosetti was made of far better than any sudden beat-down could.

To be fair, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to put one over Nucky this week. His marriage to Margaret now empty, he’s investing all of his emotions in new squeeze Billie Kent. This is a mistake. She’s too young (or he’s too old) and the casualness of the relationship works better for her than it does him. Mind you, she probably has less to lose. Rothstein can see the signs, of course he can, and although his scene with Nucky is cordial enough, his tricksy potting of the pool ball neatly implies that he knows how to play them to his best advantage. It’s not a good time for Nucky to start moping about like a lovestruck jealous schoolboy, there’s a big Sicilian-shaped problem looming on the horizon and, temper or not, he’s set to make things very difficult for the wily Thompson.

This was a good episode, especially as it let the personal drama do most of the talking, and gave some much-needed space to a couple of the lesser-used characters. It was a real treat to see a little of the worlds of Eli and Chalky, not least because they showed how hard it can be to struggle against your time and circumstances. 

Read Michael's review of last week's episode, Resolution, here.

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