While watching the opening sequences in this week’s Boardwalk Empire premiere, I couldn’t help but think back to some advice Jimmy Darmody received from a local elder in the middle of season two: “Not every insult requires a response.”
As the first murder in the premiere’s line-up suggests, newcomer Gyp Rosetti (played by Bobby Cannavale) is, like Capone, in the “everything requires a response” camp. Within the first few minutes, he whacks a guy (who was simply trying to offer him roadside assistance) for insulting his lack of 3-In-One knowledge and then steals his dog (more on that in a sec). The second murder of the morning immediately follows, and although exhibiting similar handwringing (like Rosetti, there are several beats of uncertainty on which way Nucky is going to go), it was clearly the smoother operation. Nucky works his captor—a man who robbed his warehouse—just like he once worked his constituents: earning his trust through universal platitudes (in this case, on the importance of breakfast and family) and body language (removing his hat), then inspiring hope (“You were only doing your job”), all before finally making his move (in this case, ordering the hit).
Both murders establish different brands of cruelty, and it’s not long before the show sets these men up as full-on foes. At his New Year’s party that night, Nucky makes an important announcement in the lair: he will only be supplying Rothstein from here on out as a “favor” to his friends in high places. Rosetti does not take to this idea and lunges into his already familiar brand of tantrum. After hurling very targeted epithets at each of the men in the room, he accuses them of not being able to “take a joke,” and then snatches his dog (who he’s rechristened “Scruffy”) as he storms out of the room.
But in the most absurd moment of all, he marches up to Margaret, graciously thanks her for her hospitality, and bestows on her Scruffy (for the children, he tells her). Nucky’s face throughout this latter interaction is priceless. His expression moves from stunned to dark, presumably registering the potential danger of this man. Thanks to his wiles, he managed to keep the peace momentarily, but this is clearly the beginning of something bad. Bad for Nucky, anyway. Good for us. Like many of Boardwalk’s most morally ambiguous characters, there’s something very appealing about Rosetti. The man may be ruthless, but it clearly stems from sensitivity, which can bubble up in pretty funny ways (see his “That’s OK, I wasn’t really interested in finishing my thought,” to Eddie Cantor upon interrupting his conversation with Nucky earlier in the night.). This leads me to reflect, for a moment, on one of the things that’s excellent about this show: it subverts the typical gangster archetype by furnishing these men with real issues and quirks (see Mickey Doyle, always in trouble, yet…still laughing).
The violence can be brutal at points, but at least the show takes measures to connect the dots of psychological damage that lead to the acts of brutality. Often times women on television are portrayed as the “damaged goods” or “emotionally erratic,” (see The Newsroom) but on this show, so are the men.
Boardwalk (to some critics’ dismay) isn’t shy about exploiting emotional subtext (specifically concerning daddy issues or the trauma of war), but by picking up 16 months from the end of last season, the episode delivered more layers of intrigue than usual. The biggest mystery of the evening (in addition to the aftershocks of Jimmy’s death, which clearly are still being worked out) concerned the state of Nucky and Margaret’s relationship, which the episode managed to tease out until the final minutes. It’s not until the last guest leaves that Nucky snaps at Margaret for possibly dragging him into her affairs at the hospital, confirming that the marriage is now just another facet of his public façade. As it turns out, he’s seeing the free-spirited Lillian “Billie” Kent, the Cleopatra impersonator he’d hired for the evening (and who, it’s worth noting, managed to rope him into an interesting rendition of “Walk Like an Egyptian” at one point). When Nucky collapses next to her in bed back at the Ritz, a familiar, softer side comes out. “The only place I can truly rest my head,” he sighs.
The show has clearly hitched itself to the “you can’t be half a gangster” mantra, but it seems that no matter how “gangster” Nucky gets, he’s still a sucker for monogamy—a moment which ties into the larger theme of the episode. From the jazz standard “There’ll Be Some Changes Made“ (two different versions of which closed and opened the show), to utterances like “new year, new rules,” and of course the don of “lady flyers,” the show (as usual) makes no equivocations about theme. This year is clearly about “making changes.” The question now seems to be: how much so? Will Margaret return to her political activism and become a figurehead in the movement for reproductive health awareness? Will Nucky’s men, a group all at odds with one another at some point, stay this eerily well-behaved? Will Van Alden sin again? Will Harrow rescue Tommy or will Gillian psychologically torment another “son”? (I actually sympathize for Gillian, but when she’s juxtaposed this squarely with Harrow, the most beloved anti-hero of the show, it becomes increasingly difficult.) And, looking a little further down the road, will Tommy and Teddy grow up to be like their fathers (which ones, of course being up for discussion)?
From a historical standpoint, things obviously change, and that’s what drives Boardwalk on a plot level. Liquor supply is running short; crime is up. Al Capone still hasn’t reached his height of power. The Harding administration is in for some more shake-ups, while the country inches closer to civil rights, cultural liberation, the market crash, and of course the real humdinger: the end of Prohibition.
But the basic struggles for power, for survival and love (however one chooses to define it) have been constants since time immemorial—so too, the existential questions, like, “What do you do when the world is going to shit?” and “what if you know the world is shit?” The characters’ ongoing struggles with these most innate human desires and questions are what make this show more than just a gorgeous historical set-piece, and from that standpoint, the season is off to a good start as far as I can tell.