This Boardwalk Empire review contains spoilers.
Nucky (Steve Buscemi) has come a long way since he was a dark-haired kid (Nolan Lyons) diving for silver dollars in the golden surf right off Atlantic City. Back in those days, around 1882, if he didn’t dive deep enough or swim fast enough, he’d have to whack a wharf rat on his way home or the Thompson family would go hungry. Well, not exactly, Nucky’s old man, a proud fisherman, would box young Nucky’s ears if he knew he was sweeping floors at some fancy political office. The wharf rat story was just something Nucky made up for The League of Women Voters.
Boardwalk Empire ended last season with Nucky on his way to Cuba on his way out of rackets. The show opens its final season with reminiscence. Nucky doesn’t usually seem the type to dawdle over the past. He’s been seen ruminating over his long dead wife and occasionally revisiting old wounds, but for the most part, Thompson uses the past as lesson in strategy. Buscemi plays it like mooning, but as he steps out onto the dance floor with Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), we think,” look at him dancing like he hates it.” It’s all strategy. He had to be on that dance floor when a lazy senator showed up four days late. Otherwise, he might have looked anxious.
Buscemi lets Nucky take a step back before moving forward. It’s been 11 years since the unenforceable Volstead Act law went into effect, rendering America legally dry. The illegal booze has cost the government about $900 million a year in uncollected taxes and Washington is getting ready to move on and wet its beak. The papers say Roosevelt is on his way to the presidency and prohibition is on the chopping block. Nucky is ready to provide distribution, with Bacardi rum as his first exclusive offering, the second the ink dries on the repeal.
My favorite exchange tonight is when the senator says that moving forward with Nucky is going to be problematic because, well, his hands aren’t the cleanest. Nucky testifies. Yeah, he was arrested and convicted. In 1923 he spent a night in jail and paid a $5 fine for buying a pint of Old Granddad in Grand Central. It’s haunted him for years.
Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) hasn’t seen Nucky since Arnold Rothstein’s funeral. Since then Lansky has gotten married. He’s looking to the future. Lansky’s only in Cuba for a vacation, or so he says. He also tells Nucky that he doesn’t see much of his old friend and once and future bachelor, Charlie Luciano.
Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) is finally showing those droopy eyes that he was known for. The Masseria execution looks pretty authentic historically. Boardwalk Empire left out the whole Ace of Spades mythology (Masseria was found with the ace of spades in his hands which is why that card to this day is called the death card ) but the other details were as close as TV might get. Joe Masseria was killed after dinner and cards with Lucky Luciano at Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island. Benny Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Joe Adonis were reputedly the shooters. The papers at the time said that Luciano was washing his hands when the shooting occurred. Though what he was actually doing is anyone’s guess. He could have been brushing off some dried mud from his slacks. Just as easily as he brushed off his former boss of too many bosses, Joe Masseria, in favor of the new Caesar, Salvatore Maranzano (Giampiero Judica).
Ivo Nandi brings a real Sicilian dialect and pronunciation to his Joe Masseria. The sing-songie way he says “a mia nudu mi futi” is flawlessly flawed Italian, like all dialects. The actual Italian phrase is “nessuno si avvale di me” (no one takes advantage of me), but Nandi turns it somehow into “no one fucks with me.”
Boardwalk Empire puts as much care into regional accents as The Sopranos put into mic’ing up the pouring of wine. There is a full-bodied resonance to the mealy mouthed patter. Nandi may have the perfect peasant pronunciations, but Vincent Piazza sounds like he picked up his Italian on the streets of Lower Manhattan, which Charles Lucania probably did. Meyer Lansky sounds like old radio footage and, although he wasn’t on this episode, the Eddie Cantor impression was also pitch perfect with the added touch of emotional weight.
That meeting in the Bronx happened. What they didn’t show is that the meeting is where the Five Families were formed and that Maranzano declared himself capo di tutti capi, the boss of bosses. There is larceny in the droopy eyes of Charles Lucania. Piazza seems to age before our eyes as he shares his blood with his new family.
Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) learns that back in the thirties, giving out spoilers for fillims, as she charmingly pronounces it, can have deadly consequences. Mickey Mouse might be a happy survivor who can ride into the sunset on a raft made of turtles, but Wall Streeters need happy horseshit Disney messages like they need a hole in the head.
It isn’t explained why Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) is clearing trees in prison stripes. Chalky’s no help, all he offers is that he got caught. The last we saw him he was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of his old mentor. He had just lost his daughter Maybelle (Christina Jackson) to a massively fucked up execution attempt by the usually professional Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). He also lost his lover, Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), who traded in the Cotton Club of the boardwalk for deep blues on the chitlin circuit.
White doesn’t say much, with words anyway. But the blues he’s feeling are so deep they’re coming out of his shoes. The only thing that snaps him out of his stupor is the blues-singing stripey he’s spiritually chained to. It’s not the singing that does it, it’s the gun he keeps cocking as he tries to figure out how telephones work. I think we saw the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A lot of action tonight. Besides the Masseria hit, which actually happens off-camera, we got a mass prison break, a suicide and a failed execution attempt on Nucky. His bodyguard may not have a lot to say, but you really should see his severed ear collection. I get the feeling Lansky was behind the machete mayhem. His rent-a-bride is no blushing virgin.
Nucky’s come a long way since sharing sour balls with his dying sister and sweeping up for the Commodore, who is played by a Dabney Coleman look- and sound-alike who’s not listed on IMDb. Sally Wheet might not see the point in looking back, but Nucky looks back at those old wounds and sees opportunities. How else could you build a Boardwalk Empire on the sand.
“Golden Days for Girls and Boys” was directed by Tim Van Patten and written by Howard Korder.