This Boardwalk Empire review contains spoilers.
Boardwalk Empire’s “The Good Listener” opened on a close-up of an ear. An extreme close-up of what looked like a very unhealthy ear. Anyone who watched saw it, unless you were still running into the room because you thought you had one more guitar lick on the opening credits, coming, as it did, out of a montage of sex and fried fish. Anyone who watched last week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire will know what I’m talking about when I say that my first thought, upon seeing that ear, was that it came out of the handkerchief of Nucky’s bodyguard. Admit it. You thought so too. Just for a second.
Maybe the producers envisioned the ear as a very literal opening to an episode called “The Good Listener,” all the better to hear with. All I could think of was the dainty way Nucky’s bodyguard wrapped it up and pocketed the ear in the folds of his creamy suit. Before I get off on the rest of the episode, which I did, let me also say that, in that split second before the big reveal, probably prodded by last week’s allusions to the gangster classic The Godfather, I pondered Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the orange as foreboding foreshadowing. Could Boardwalk Empire exact an eye for an eye and an ear for an orange?
That ear sits at the side of the head of the still-alive, but probably regretting it, Eli Thompson. Eli’s seen happier days. The camera makes sure you know it even before the soundtrack clues you into the fact that he’s also heard better days. Not only does Eli have to drag his hung-over wish-it-were-a-cadaver off the floor he passed out on, he’s got to stumble out the door past federal cops who are just too fucking loud with their orders and their hammers and their bullshit. Waking up to a raid sucks. The scene is only eight to twelve seconds but, like recognition climbs into the consciousness the morning after a bender, it fills you in on Eli’s whole story. Right, Chicago, he was shipped off to gangster school with the ex-federal cop turned sociopathic family man. Eli Thompson sank to new lows. He must have gone to drink. He’s a mess who is working for a boss who’s not in his family.
I bring this up because, in my tenure as Boardwalk Empire reviewer, I think I wrote more about Shea Whigham in his role as a fallen preacher on True Detective. This guy can act. He can transform himself in ways you don’t expect, based on his other roles, and still come up smelling like he could use some rose water. When Mueller, played by Michael Shannon, another master of transformative acting – watch how he softens his entire demeanor with a little facial hair in the film Grand Theft Parsons, tells Eli that he reeks of urine, I felt a little bad for Whigham, the actor, who probably went that extra mile. Whigham’s double takes to Mueller’s most basic conversations are revealing and just short of comedy. I love watching Eli dodge feathers to a bellhop’s energetic whistling of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is all about happier days. Considering where he started, which we get in a series of sad flashbacks ending with Nucky (Nolan Lyons) filling in the hole over his own sister’s grave, any small improvement should have been sufficient. But once you get the taste for better days, your mouth waters for even better ones. It’s like getting that first taste of anisette smuggled from Naples, espresso never quite tastes the same again. Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) has retired. He figured it was better to take an early retirement than get his dead-man-walking papers from the Grim Reaper himself, AKA Al Capone in his particular case. Torrio’s had his fill and wants to enjoy the fruits of his felonies. Nucky, not so much. As the camera lingers on the trinkets of contented forced retirement, Nucky realizes happier days still beckon. If he’s got to dodge a machete or two to snatch a handful of silver dollars from golden sand, well, he doesn’t get enough exercise anyway.
Johnny Torrio was a wise man. In real life he drew up the blueprints that organized crime was built on. When Torrio tells Thompson “believe whatever it is gets you out of this mess,” he honestly thinks there is a chance that Nucky will take an easy way out. But Torrio also knows that one easy out is a hard way in to another problem. Shifting loyalties make the whole business into a canoe on choppy water. Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) are the whitecaps off the beach. Salvatore Maranzano (Giampiero Judica) is taking on water. Instead of Marcus Aurelius, maybe he should be reading Marco Polo.
The scene where Tonino Sandrelli (Chris Caldovino) is dumped on the sidewalk in front of the nightclub was very reminiscent of the scene in The Roaring Twenties when Danny (Frank McHugh) was delivered right to the doorstep of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney). Tonino, who did the job on Gyp Rosetti, was good at playing two sides against the middle, but when Nucky’s counting the cards, that’s a bad hand. Payback’s a bitch. She was a lovely girl, Billie Kent. I believe Nucky sat Tonino at that seat as a message.
Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is a celebrity. Nobody’s misspelling his name now as he rules the headlines. There are movies about him, Little Caesar and Scarface, comedies compared with his real life antics. Variety interviews him in his underwear and he’s not even covering up his knife wounds. Even the Germans think he’s a prince. Boardwalk Empire captures the fun in Al Capone like no depiction of him on film so far, that razor blade tightrope walk he seems to do between ruthless business and happy horseplay. Capone did get kick out of his own celebrity.
Napolitano mobsters were very different from Sicilian gangsters. The difference between a Gotti and a Gambino. Sicilians play things close to the vest. Think Johnny Tightlips from The Simpsons, “I ain’t saying nothing. Tell the doctor to go suck a lemon.” Carlo Gambino died an old man of heart failure, not exactly natural causes in the mob. The sons of Naples enjoy things a little more openly. They sing like Caruso, full-throated and happily filled with peasant red. Gotti died in jail and Capone withered away after doing a dime for tax evasion. But hey, even a guy like Mueller could find it easier to love Capone than despise him.
William Thompson is all grown up. He learned some brilliant bullshit in law school and he’s ready to bend legal ethics to fit his new suit. He tries out his new mouthpiece talk on both his hopeful prosecutorial employer and his prosecutable uncle, I mean brother of his father. I’m betting that Willie is going to prove to be a slick operator, whichever truth he’s peddling. Deception is a hard habit to break on Boardwalk Empire. With all the double-dealing, it’s hard to know who to believe. There really is no one to trust. Ask Tonino.
Nucky meets Joe Kennedy (Matt Letscher), a millionaire Irishman who probably didn’t have to wade through blood to set up his wife and kids, in a breakfast cereal board room. The Boston bootlegger looks happy to break bread with Nucky. He looks very comfortable, like he’s in a familiar territory that he’s grown to miss over the years. Cereal is great in the mornings, but nothing beats the Breakfast of Champions, a little nip to Irish up the coffee at the very least.
Gillian (Gretchen Mol) is doing time in the snake pit making Dr. Cotton happy. It’s sad to see Gillian in such a state and even sadder that we see she’s already found a way to make her stay more humane. Mol is very effective as that fractured former little girl all grown up and looking for an edge. She really looks like she needs protection and all she’s getting is a little kindness from strangers. Something she knows she can never rely on.
Intrigue and murder abound. Nucky is still a gracious enough guest to leave a “Welcome To Atlantic City” postcard. Eli Thompson may sob uncontrollably during radio comedy hours, but he still knows enough to pop a cap behind the ears of any witnesses. It’s always pandemonium with him.
“The Good Listener” was directed by Allen Coulter and written by Terence Winter.
Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars