Boardwalk Empire season 3 episode 3 review: Bone For Tuna

Boardwalk Empire continues to serve up its deliciously dark take on 1920s Prohibition America. Here's Michael's review of Bone For Tuna...

This review contains spoilers.

2.3 Bone For Tuna

“It’s life, aint it? How can it not be personal?” asks Gyp Rosetti, rhetorically, during Bone For Tuna, an episode which takes many of its cues from that very question. Despite the lengthy plotting and theme-setting in relation to Prohibition and the changes that were wrought on America during the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire is still a show that focuses on the motivation of the characters and their relationships with each other and with the world they inhabit.

For the most part, this is very well done in this episode. The seasonal arcs are pushed forward neatly, and blended superbly with the private motivations of the individuals concerned. Whether it’s Luciano trying to manage his investment in Gillian’s brothel and his burgeoning heroin trade with Lansky, or Richard Harrow intervening to persuade Mickey Doyle not to take credit for murders that aren’t his, so much revolves around the preservation of personal pride.

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Some people carry their pride more lightly than others. Or at least they appear to. Exhibit A: Nelson van Alden, or Mr Mueller, as he now calls himself. I was concerned that his leaving the Agency would remove him from the plotline, so it’s great to see him plough a different furrow. As an agent, he was a little too weird. During the first two seasons I noted that his creepy weirdness seemed like an all-too-convenient flag, ‘this guy is responsible for policing Prohibition. He’s a bit weird and intense. You do the maths.’ Now though, freed from the narrative constraints imposed by his role as protagonist, he’s really able to fly. It’s a joy to watch and Michael Shannon is brilliant in the role, not simply because he has the best face of anyone who ever played a 1920s character (although that is certainly true). He is a physical actor, carrying his role through movement and gesture. Watch him opening his samples case in the season’s opener; hear his deliberate pauses when dealing with his tormenting colleagues this week. He delivers his menace silently. He’s suffering to endure the constant bullying of his colleagues, but this cannot last. Now, with his brush with the Prohibition man, and a further insult to boot, he can’t be far from snapping. And that’s never pretty.

Also happy to take her ego out of the equation is Margaret, who very adeptly manipulates both the Bishop and the Hospital manager to set up the women’s clinic she has set her heart on. It is a deft piece of politicking, a combination of lessons learned from Nucky and the inner steel that she has shown since the first episode. She has become a character of real purpose and conviction, so it’s tantalising to imagine what she’d do with some of the season’s bigger stories. Her hospital mission, though undoubtedly personal to her, is something of a cul-de-sac. It highlights, as does the brothel, the position of women in the 1920s, but it is structurally segregated from the show’s chief areas of interest.

The episode combines the matters personal and matters business best in its handling of Nucky’s situation, even deploying that most Sopranos-esque of devices, the Highly Symbolic Dream. Haunted by images of a gunshot boy, Nucky seems to be unable to handle the aftermath of killing Jimmy. Trying to seek answers from Richard, he and the audience get a glimpse into Mr Harrow’s messed-up moral universe. Jimmy was a soldier who lost. He was fair game. In killing Angela, Manny crossed a line. He had to go. It’s strange, Nucky gets a free pass because “…he and his wife were good to [Richard]”. Well, wasn’t Jimmy good to him too?

It’s a moment of particular darkness in a very dark show. The episode is lit well, by which of course, I mean deliberately poorly. Several key scenes take place in low-lit obscurity; Van Alden’s sleeplessness (mirroring Nucky’s of course), Richard’s ambush of Mickey Doyle, Rosetti’s loitering at the gas station. Margaret’s scenes, by contrast, are radiant with clean light. It’s a great visual metaphor for this cast of people grasping around for answers and stumbling blindly into themselves, and each other.

Read Michael’s review of last week’s episode, Spaghetti & Coffee, here.

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