The giant clockwork universe that Boardwalk Empire operates in, with its need to get through so much material and set up so many pieces just so, is often the show’s biggest hindrance. Its cast is filled with interesting characters, but few of them interact with one another with any frequency, and those interactions are often terse and unexplored. Most episodes feel like they’re overloaded with material, and because of this it’s so refreshing when the show turns out an episode like “All In,” in which less happens, but for once we get to breathe and watch these characters play off one another and feel like real human beings.
The centerpiece, and what offered the episode its title, was a gambling duel of sorts between Nucky Thompson and Arnold Rothstein. There’s a certain tacit acknowledgment by Boardwalk Empire here that despite four seasons of interaction, the two characters barely know each other, and at this point in the show few characters really do. Before investing $500,000 into Nucky’s land deal in Florida, Rothstein says he needs to know Nucky better; after all the man seems to be changing his mind an awful lot lately. Rothstein heads downstairs to play poker and invites Nucky to the table, the condition of his investment hedging on Nucky’s willingness.
Of course, Rothstein is an expert gambler who hardly ever loses. Nucky knows this, and while the third man at their table doesn’t, he still bears witness to one of the great gamblers of his time blowing an absolute fortune. By the end of the evening, Rothstein has gone through more than $300,000 (the amount being perhaps a reference to how the real Arnold Rothstein died) and is in a sorry state. He’s angry and doesn’t really understand the situation he’s in. We’ve rarely seen the man in any light other than cool and collected, as he’s careful to maintain that public persona—remember the way he checked himself before speaking with Nucky on the phone last season. The revelation here is that Nucky doesn’t want to work with a man who loses so poorly. The Rothstein he thought he knew was cool under fire, but this man is furious and going down in a hole of self-destruction. When he opts out of the deal, it seems like a smart move. The existence of Lucky Luciano on Boardwalk Empire’s cast has taken forever to seem relevant, but suddenly he’s Nucky’s business partner, as his associate signs the deal Rothstein missed out on.
The series of scenes between Nucky and Rothstein were chamber pieces, and while the season needed them to move into its next phase, their emphasis on revealing character felt more important. It was similar in this way to Dunn Purnsley’s trip out to see Dr. Narcisse, who first rebukes Purnsley and then, after spouting more of his semi-philosophical, semi-nonsensical thoughts regarding race and religion, treats him as a valued associate. It’s actually not that dissimilar to how Chalky treated Purnsley when they first began working together, but it’s also revealing as to how Narcisse sees his role as a political force in Harlem and how it relates to his crime ring. The Narcisse who nervously puts his money into his vest pocket is a man who is aware of his own hypocrisy and is also more concerned about the money than he is about the the cause. He may say many things to Purnsley and others, but the money and the brutality were as important to him as they are to Al Capone.
It’s no coincidence that these scenes are intercut with the Capone brothers’ courtship of Nelson Van Alden. While their storyline is about the Capones’ complete lack of care for creating a mob war between the Irish and the Italians in Chicago, it was really about the relationship between Van Alden and the Capones. While Van Alden finds O’Bannon and his boys frightening, Al Capone is both more frightening—as he’s far more psychotic and violently unpredictable than anyone else in the show—and more empathetic than his current boss. The lack of respect Van Alden hates is something that also drives Capone, who’s willing to assault and threaten a newspaper reporter for misspelling his name. The Capones are willing to accept him for the wet blanket that he is, and Van Alden understands that; he’s just not willing to risk his family’s lives until he knows that he’s picked a winner. However, the Capones have a way of forcing people’s hands, and at this point while he’s still working for O’Bannon, he’s essentially a member of Capone’s gang.
The only storyline that didn’t work this week was the latest development of Nucky’s nephew Willie, who poisoned a classmate who’d been bullying him with laxative. When his digestion stayed bad all night, he killed himself, which led me to wondering whether the guy had never had food poisoning before. The whole prank felt contrived, and the end result ridiculous.
Surrounding all of these were the BI’s (essentially the predecessor to the FBI) investigations, which seemed to be another meta-textual commentary on the show. Its characters are also trying to piece together the strange crime network that kept the country’s alcohol flowing, but they’re now focusing on Nucky Thompson. They decide to target his new bag man Eddie Kessler, who goes out for a night on the town with Ralph Capone. The two of them bond in a series of great scenes, but right as Kessler heads home he’s pulled in by the Bureau. It’s an interesting choice for this season to finally give law enforcement some teeth, and with this there’s finally some sense of risk back in its universe.
Boardwalk Empire lurched forward as always, but these stories of male bonding were more self-contained than what we’re usually given. One of the problems for the show has always been focusing on its overarching plotlines while forgetting to make each individual episode interesting, and for once “All In” slipped that trap. Instead, each miniature story was a wonderful vignette, and as a result the coincidences underlying the episode’s turns didn’t feel out of place but rather natural outgrowths of the characters. By finally caring about its cast rather than seeing them as just game pieces to be moved into position, “All In” ended up the best episode of the season so far.