This review contains spoilers.
4.4 All In
“I do have a sense of humour”. In a series brim-full of lies and liars, this must rank as one of the least convincing statements that we’ve ever been offered. Stone-faced George Mueller hasn’t shown as much as a sliver of jocularity since he was Nelson Van Alden. We can perhaps forgive him this one, given that he was technically not lying. He probably really does think he’s the life and soul.
He’s not the only one so mistaken. So many of the characters are buttoned-down in some way that it’s tempting to believe that there was something in the water in the 1920s. There’s a spectrum of personalities here, with Al Capone at one end and George Mueller at the other. Were it a see-saw, Mueller’s end would be nearest the ground. Eddie, Richard and Rothstein all share it.
Of them all, Rothstein is the only one whose manner seems deliberate. Last week, I described him as a ‘crocodile’. I now regret that particular choice of word as it is utterly inadequate to describe the terrifying grin he wore during this episode’s poker game. Michael Stuhlbarg, who wears his character like an elegant suit, managed to transmit Rothstein’s unease while never fully dropping the veneer of control, even in the face of protracted insult and, worse, having to ask Nucky for credit.
He’s not a man given to pleasure, continuing to sip milk when stronger beverages are freely available, but he is drawn to gambling, playing until dawn when the mood takes him. He remains deaf to Lansky’s sober counsel, insisting that it’s “dinner time in China”, shading the compulsive drinker’s protestation that it’s always five o’clock somewhere. Is it a compulsion? It certainly seemed so this week. Even if he retains control of his habit, gaming, his sole leisure pursuit, is for him indistinguishable from work.
Here, Rothstein exemplifies the entire spirit of the show, as did the episode itself. All In, an expression from poker, is concerned with the nexus of work and pleasure and with showing us just how quickly the good times can go sour. Vice, that rubric term that covers so much of Boardwalk Empire’s dramatic environment from the brothels and nightclubs to the speakeasies and drug connections, was a significant economic driver that not only made the people who controlled it powerful and wealthy but spilled out into other, more commanding spheres. Empire’s complex web of plots has always been concerned with land deals and political intrigue, but always as an adjunct of the central business of bootlegging. The Capone brothers don’t distinguish their criminal activities from their political ‘persuasiveness’ while Nucky’s Tampa land deal is simply a means to control alcohol delivery routes in both directions. Their smuggling operations are so large and lucrative that it’s simpler to buy their own territory than to sneak through someone else’s. If they end up owning half the country as a result, then so be it.
Atlantic City, which despite Agent Knox’s sprawling map remains the centre of the show, was founded specifically as a resort. The pursuit of pleasure was so central to the economy that all serious attempts to regulate, control or ban them were defeated by organised and well-funded opposition. It was the real life Nucky’s particular skill at this that helped preserve his success and made him indispensable to his peers. The corruption runs so deeply that even organisations, such as those controlled by Narcisse, which focused on ‘improvement’, were little more than fronts.
Handing power to the corrupt was not the only unintended consequence of prohibition. Just listen to the language used by Willie and Clayton as they make their stash of whiskey go further. “We’ll cut it”, says young Thompson with undeserved confidence. These days, you’re more likely to hear such expressions made about narcotics but under the sway of the Volstead Act, alcohol was essentially no different.
Unable simply to pop down to the shop to buy more, and with a clientele of drinkers who neither know the difference, nor can really complain at what is being served, they resort to the methods open to all dealers in regulated markets. It’s not the booze itself, it’s not even the nature of the drinkers, it’s the illegality of it that necessitates and permits the cutting. Of course, the special mix intended for bully Henry was made with rather more malice, but the metaphor stands. Banning a substance doesn’t reduce its desirability. It just makes it more likely to be corrupted and to corrupt those that desire it.
The Capone bothers, in two units, managed to heed Mary Poppins’ lesson that to every job there is to be done, there is an element of fun. If we can get past men being thrown through upper storey windows or Tommy-gunned in the back, Al and Frank are rather entertaining guys. A sense of mischief is central to their methods, so much so that they come across more as a comedy double act than the ‘good cop, bad cop’ they intended. There was a real sense of youthful abandonment to the way they went about making their collections, like a boss going back to the shop floor only to be reminded of the happiness he exchanged for success. It’s contagious. Ralph’s friendly insistence on an evening of fun brought out the best in Eddie, and revealed a hitherto unknown side to him. All it took was a little cajoling for Eddie to end up stein aloft in the bierkeller and revealing a life beyond the disciplined service for which he has become known. I’m pleased that it was Eddie who showed us that at the heart of it all, his boss’s business is the selling of fun.
That business, of course, is changing and the long promised generational shift is finally kicking in. Not only has Al been able to drive his naturally gregarious personality into something that at least resembles efficiency, but Meyer Lansky is also beginning to make good on his youthful promise. Anatol Yusef, who was great in the recent British drama Southcliffe, shines here as the natural heir to Rothstein. He’s always been cautious and thoughtful, at least by comparison to his friend and former bully Luciano, but now he’s beginning to outshine even Arnold. It’s Lansky who urges restraint at Arnold’s gambling (albeit not at his abusive fellow player), and who recognises the opportunity that Nucky offers. A lot of this episode’s camera work has been expansive (just look at the sweeping upward shot of the Capones discovering O’Banion’s van) but the best one of all was close, patient and intimate, as the camera swept around Lansky’s face as his whispers to Rothstein. The import is clear. Capone is loud and obvious while Lansky is smooth and quiet. He’s no less ruthless though, as the final beatdown shows. He’ll have to be. This is pleasure and it’s a serious business.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Acres Of Diamonds, here.
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