Boardwalk Empire season 3 episode 4 review: Blue Bell Boy

Is Boardwalk Empire struggling to be an ensemble piece? Here's Michael's review of Blue Bell Boy...

This review contains spoilers.

3.4 Blue Bell Boy

There are several real-life figures in Boardwalk Empire. Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein… Several of them are known to history, particularly that section of the bookshop marked ‘Real Crime’. None of them, however, loom as large in the collective memory as Al Capone. His very name remains a byword for gangsterism and criminality over eighty years since he was finally arrested. He’s such a large figure that if the show was merely an ‘Al Capone –The Early Years’, there would be sufficient interest to sustain several seasons. 

Boardwalk Empire has larger ambitions than simply telling the story of Capone’s rise to power. Nevertheless, in this episode, Blue Bell Boy, Capone takes a leading role in a storyline that focuses on his family responsibilities. We’ve seen how touchy he is about his deaf son, all the more so when it appears the boy is being bullied at school. In a case of the apple falling very far from the tree, young Albert is weedy and reluctant to fight. The vacuum of violence is filled by his father, savagely beating one of Dean O’Bannion’s goons. Brutal? Yes. But it’s hard not to sympathise with Capone, especially given Stephen Graham’s performance, which adds more to the character every time we see him. Given the size of Capone’s reputation, it’d be easy to make him cartoonish, but Graham really manages to humanise him. We know how things end up for Al, but it’s great to watch them happen. 

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In doing so, we’ll have to make do with the occasional cameo. As we’ve had with Nelson Van Alden, Eli Thompson and Chalky White over recent weeks, dipping into other storylines has been a treat, but it can leave the viewer wanting more. 

It’s as if the show is struggling to be an ensemble piece. It’s still Buscemi at the top of the bill and in the opening credits sequence but the story is much bigger than Nucky Thompson. Indeed, much of the show’s appeal is generated by other characters, not least Mr Capone. 

There is some narrative justification for all of this, especially this week, which concentrates on the division of the characters along loyalty –and increasingly ethnic- lines.

In his meeting with Joe Masseria, conducted mainly in Italian, Luciano is reminded that Rothstein and Lansky ‘are not his people’. In Chicago, trouble is still brewing between the Italian Torrio/Capone operation and their Irish rival O’Bannion. We don’t even need to dwell on the difficulties coming between Nucky and Rothstein through the actions of Rosetti. 

In many ways, these divisions are natural. With so much mistrust and suspicion, it’s understandable for people to fall back on the familiar. It’s a shame for Nucky that he cannot trust the man he should most be able to. A shame for Eli too, he’s one of the very few people who can read the writing on the wall. 

As for Nucky himself, his ability to accurately read a situation has deserted him. The pressure is taking its toll. He’s snappy and irritable, and reduced to cowering in a damp basement for much of the episode. He’s a man under siege, literally in the case of the basement, and metaphorically with the various forces circling around him. Everyone else has the upper hand; Rosetti, an annoyed Rothstein, the agents prowling the house above. When he shoots the teenage Roland, it is not simply for stealing from him, it’s because he’s the only person over whom he has dominion. It’s a rum old turn for the once powerful Thompson. 

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Things are still shaky for Lansky and the aforementioned Luciano. Still struggling to out-think Masseria, they’re still finding their feet. However, the youthful bravado they showed in previous seasons has now gone. When Lansky reminds Lucky about sitting near the window he shows admirable caution. Like Capone, it’s a real joy to see these two maturing and becoming the powerful players they are destined to be. It’s a gift to actors Anatol Yusef and Vincent Piazza to be able to portray such steady and true learning curves. I confess to having been irritated by both of them in the early days but now I find myself rooting for them, nasty as they undoubtedly are. 

The episode’s best moments come at the end. The montage to Capone’s badly-sung My Buddy is pitch perfect – the tense meeting of the Thompson brothers, Margaret with the wind taken out of her sales, Rosetti enjoying his success and Capone himself, being the tender and loving father that we know him to be. Not a legend, just a human being.

Read Michael’s review of last week’s episode, Bone For Tuna, here.

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