This review contains spoilers
5.2 The Good Listener
According to some estimates, a little over 8 million people were unemployed in the US in 1931, which was around 15 per cent of the workforce. This figure does not include Al Capone’s harassed accountant, who, on the evidence of the colossal pile of cash in front of him, has more than enough work to cope with. Times may have been hard for many people in America, but Al Capone is living in a golden age. His exploits have brought him not only riches, but also fame as the Variety interviewer’s questions make clear. ‘Do you get fan mail?’ he asks, somewhat redundantly. Of course he does. And from all over the world too.
Of the three significant interviews in this episode, it’s the only one concerned with the present. And why wouldn’t it be? Capone, the legend in his own lifetime, is the man of the moment. Everyone wants a piece of him, from the low-level gangsters who encircle him to his many fans around the world, to the federal government,which has dispatched the half lawman, half politician Eliot Ness to pursue him. That Capone loves the attention is plain from his brash swagger, turned up several notches from previous seasons. Strutting around his suite in his boxer shorts, Capone is the epitome of the man who is too busy to even put his trousers on and too important to care. He’s the inspiration for Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, dismissing them as ‘comedies’ while gleefully accepting the enhancements they give to his notoriety. It’s a remarkable turn from Stephen Graham, who has done sterling work in bringing his character from his days as a pushy upstart to these, Capone’s Hollywood years. The screwball nature of the scene is an able depiction of the ultra-vivid lifestyle of the celebrity gangster that, thanks to the descendants of those early crime movies, still holds currency today. The episode offers a marked contrast between Capone’s Depression-era braggadocio and the 1880s self-confidence of the Commodore, whose baritone booms across his boardwalk bailiwick. They’re very different men, nestled at distant points on the gangster/politician spectrum that this show explores so well, but there are similarities. They both rely on their demonstrativeness to succeed.
The other two interviews both concern a man named Thompson seeking to defend his past in the pursuit of a brighter, more legitimate future. Both Nucky and Willie find themselves seeking the favour of men who would rather not be reminded of the methods by which the elder of the two made his fortune and both of them are forced to plea for the chance to rehabilitate their name. Despite this, their stories do not run in parallel, but instead threaten to intersect in ways that will shape the direction of the remaining episodes.
Unlike Capone, Nucky is partly fictional, and that gives his writers greater license with his destiny and means that he anything could happen from here. For now, the jury is still out, but anyone hoping that he will escape this season with his life could take very little succor from The Good Listener. A smattering of clues leave hints as to the direction of the final episodes and of the central character’s ultimate fate. The introduction of Eliot Ness suggests that the forces of law and order are prepared to play a harder game with their targets, a fact made all the more plain by the presence of deep-cover agent Mike D’Angelo in Capone’s organisation. Nucky’s post-interview conversation with Joe Kennedy (a man who would prove rather more adept at navigating the path from bootlegger to political power) reminds us that he is still married to Margaret, a woman who we know to be under a little pressure with the law herself, while his conversation with his nephew drops the hint that young Willie may yet have to decide on his ethical choices when making his career as a prosecutor. Would Willie be capable of breaking the law if it meant securing a conviction? Well, as his uncle tells him, he does have a future to think about. Yes. He does.
That cannot be true of everyone. The central motif of this episode is the curious relationship between money and death. Everywhere we see money mentioned, death makes an appearance. The pitch black comedy of Van Alden and Eli’s murderous raid on the bagman is merely the most obvious example. Gillian’s adoption of a desperate barter system to obtain stationery is an appropriately cashless exchange in the deathless limbo of her sterile environment. More quietly persistent are the passing spoken references, such as Nucky’s bitter envy of the Irish millionaire who doesn’t have to ‘wade through blood to make a buck’, or the not unreasonable plan to ‘stay alive long enough to cash out’.
Nucky may not be fully conscious of his mental linking of money and death but it’s been with him a while, as this episode’s flashbacks demonstrate. Through them we see how Nucky’s inability to simply ‘cash out’ is connected to his insatiable desire for money and how this is merely the natural response of a man who watched his father dig his sister’s grave because he lacked the funds to bury her properly. That boy, offered a choice between two father figures, could not help but compare the apparent ease with which the Commodore can throw his money around with the irascible impecunity of his biological dad. For Nucky, the choice may have been obvious, but there’s making enough to keep poverty in permanent abeyance and then there’s making enough. Half a century on, death hangs around Nucky like a bad omen and the Havana assassination attempt is not likely to be the last. He’s canny enough to combine revenge for Billie Kent’s death with a strident message to Luciano, Lansky and Siegel, but it’s hard not to see this as an impotent lashing out while his back’s to the wall. Johnny Torrio’s advice? ‘Take the hint and retire already’. But he doesn’t know how. Perhaps he should have listened to his real father. Particularly when he told him ‘money never did the dead no good’.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Golden Days for Boys and Girls here
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