What goes up must come down. If Warner Brothers taught us anything about the physics of gangster movies, it’s that, as much fun as the ride is to glory, the descent into Palookaville is where the action is. Every movie mobster has to have a rise and fall, like an empire. The gangsters of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Little Caesar, Scarface, Angels With Dirty Faces, we cheered them up and held our breaths as they dropped. Atlantic City isn’t known for its rollercoasters the way Coney Island is known for the Cyclone, but on Boardwalk Empire, even a Friendless Child gets accustomed to the thrills.
Anyone who paid-one-price for a day at Coney Island that came with ten rides knows the Cyclone is the scariest rollercoaster in America, not because it has the sharpest dips, but because we heard the rickety frame pop and shake on the way up and knew there was always the chance that the ride you were on might be the one that dissembled the whole thing. Someday every rollercoaster falls apart. Tonight, it all comes crashing down for Nucky, with a quick stop on the way to show how he first lost his soul.
The opening scene was evocative of the mob war montage in The Godfather, headlines and corpses in black and white, the players mouthing their lines silently in color. The biggest difference in the scenes was that the tribal-sounding-war-drums of modern pay TV took the place of the slow out-of-key barrelhouse piano of the film. The voice of DA Hodge comes over the radio warning the good citizens of New York City that they live on a battlefield in a turf war; much like Pat O’Brien did in Angels With Dirty Faces.
The black and white newsreel footage cuts to a bunch of bottles on a table, a timeless image that is recognizable on any camera and as the frame gets colored we are in the action. Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Sal Maranzano (Giampiero Judica) represent the old guard, the wolves at the door are young, hungry and a more diverse pack. Maranzano is the patient chess master, Nucky the one who probably learned by hustling games in some park remembers “I’ve played chess, but it didn’t get me killed.”
On a historical note, Luciano and Maranzano were never really openly hostile. Sure, the mustache Pete asked Joey Adonis to whack Charlie from 14th Street and Lucky did have Maranzano killed, but it was all backroom cloak and dagger betrayals. Although Sal already anointed Nucky as Malta in the Roman regime, I don’t see him going to an outsider to deal with a Sicilian. Not without it being a contract. Not at that level. A Philly gang did the job on Mickey Duffey, not New York. While I’m talking history, a black woman in a law office in the 30s? I wish, but this is probably an anachronism. District Attorneys’ offices don’t have a history of progressive hiring *. Nucky and Maranzano are a progressive pair, as the Castellammarese boss already had a problem with a son of Sicily pairing up with Jewish mobsters.
Every pairing on Boardwalk Empire is illuminating. We could see Nucky fitting in very well with Sal if they were in better circumstances. Nucky is usually the one counseling for some kind of restraint. He takes care of problems as they come along, yes, but he doesn’t usually lose his shit until the last minute. It’s fun watching him smash bottles and pound tables through Maranzano’s eyes. He’s almost a kid again. Nucky regains his composure when he sees his own impetuousness might lead the new kid astray. Well, further astray than Nucky’d planned. The kid looks like he came right out of Billy Bathgate, a hick version of a Bronx bomber. Taking a gun out of the hands of a baby is something the former Sherriff of Atlantic City has been doing too long.
Little Gillian is very smart, knows how the law works. The young Gillian captures Gretchen Mol’s cadences, the toughness that wants betterment: the sinner who hasn’t had a chance to do anything wrong, but who is not too young to break commandments. Young Nucky (Nolan Lyons) learns to keep his eyes wide shut in this episode. The audience sees the schism between what he does because it’s the right thing to do and the things he does because he’s got the right. Nucky is young and doesn’t know how corrupt he really is. It is too much for an older sheriff to throw one more of the Commodore’s (John Elllison Conlee) charity cases who’s used up her purpose back on the dead end streets of Atlantic City.
Benny Siegel could be one of the Dead End Kids that wept for Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces. He’s got the easy charm and light abrasion that comes off funnier than it should on account of he just might split your lip for a laugh. Mickey Doyle too, he’s got a Huntz Hall thing about him. Benny, whether he’s tapping his childhood friend’s bride or singing about petting her pussy, shows what Bugsy is all about. He’s not kidding about being crazy. It’s no joke, it comes with a clarity that reasonable people, like Willie (Ben Rosenfield), Eli’s son, can never attain, even if they were crazy enough to pass the bar. Benny’s bugsy enough to almost shoot his way out of getting kidnapped and Siegel enough to Shanghai Will at the exchange.
The hostage exchange was the center point of the action tonight. It seems to have gotten out of control, but I believe it was perfectly controlled. Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Lansky got exactly what they wanted and exactly how they wanted it. They took out Nucky’s key guys and took on Atlantic City, right down to the last tassel on the last stripper. They even got a free contract out of the deal.
Shea Whigham channels Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) when Eli reunites with his son. The stubble, the far away look, even the chuck on the chin are of a different time. Seeing him transform into Maranzano’s executioner, taking on the mantle of history of Samuel “Red” Levine, Bo Weinberg, and Benny Siegel and pretending he was doing it with a badge, was redemptive. After the loss of Mickey, family has to come together, especially after Nucky is forced to kneel at the feet of Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef).
When it’s all over and the Boardwalk Empire is just more sand to be swept off planks, Nucky only has redemption to look forward to. As Nucky reads Gillian’s letter from the hospital, the audience sees him realize he left one more thing in the turf. In 1897, Nucky and his wife Mabel tried to save a young runaway from Trenton. In 1931, which Luciano has already deemed a good year, Nucky can finally bring her home.
Nucky Johnson lived long after the time Boardwalk Empire will end. So I don’t think Nucky Thompson will get a Walter White/Tony Soprano/Eddie Bartlett exit. Nucky will get redemption next week. Al Capone may go to jail and Luciano might even get pinched for pimping, but Nucky’s arc will be all about saving Gillian.
“Friendless Child” is a perfectly paced, expertly filmed and acted episode, just a pubic hair off par from the second to the last episode of The Sopranos. My only criticism is that they should have introduced the earlier plotline sooner in the series itself, though I understand that the arc is going to coalesce with the fall and rise of Gillian and Nucky together.
“Friendless Child” was directed by Allen Coulter and written by Riccardo DiLoreto, Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder.
* After this review was published, Den of Geek was educated on the woman lawyer in the DA’s office. The character is based on Eunice Roberta Hunton Carter, who smashed both gender and ethnic boundaries by becoming New York State’s first female African American assistant district attorney in 1935. She was one of the first black DAs in the United States. Though most books credit DA Tom Dewey with being the scumbag who coerced witnesses into naming Luciano as a pimp, he built the case on some very hard work done by Carter when she was an assistant DA. Luciano was prosecuted for prostitution, spent 10 years in jail and was deported. Dewey rode Carter’s work almost all the way to the White House. Carter was the first black woman to get a law degree from Fordham University. She worked for women’s rights at the United Nations. She was married to one of the first African American dentists in the U.S. and their son Lisle Carter Jr. served in both the JFK and LBJ administrations. He was also the first President of the University of the District of Columbia.
Thanks to whomever sent the email and please continue to keep me on my toes.