Boardwalk Empire’s premiere episode had so much work to do in catching us up on the past seven years, that it’s little wonder the follow-up is better. For all of what we saw last week, the biggest event—and the only one that seemed like it had much staying power—was the attempt on Nucky’s life. Other stories were put into motion, but they were peripheral, whereas it’s clear that the question of who tried to kill Nucky can easily be answered with a full-on mob war. “The Good Listener” is an episode that, for once, picks up this obvious thread and runs with it (no small feat for this show), as Nucky uses his connection with another member of the old mob scene, Johnny Torrio, to speak with the current New York mafia leader, Maranzano.
It’s a testament to how interesting this story is, that it’s the centerpiece of the episode—most of the time what’s going on with Nucky is the dullest part of Boardwalk Empire. His politics and widespread connections, trips to Florida and Havana and Philadelphia and everywhere else, rarely make for compelling television, neither does the fact that, oftentimes, his meetings are essentially meaningless. For some time, most of the violence on the show has come as a result of large-scale business deals and restructuring, and very rarely from personal relationships. This is one reason it’s always paled in comparison to The Sopranos (and why its third season may have been its best, as it was the one period of time when the antagonist took everything personally). Here, though, Nucky’s war with Lansky and Luciano has become personal, has become more than just something a few meetings with mob bosses can settle. Nucky has already been forced to resort to violence, something he’s always loath to do. And while, unfortunately, we’ll never go anywhere truly unexpected because of the show’s reliance on historical accuracy, by Boardwalk Empire’s standards we’re still in the realm of suspense.
The other thing “The Good Listener” has going for it is the fantastic and hilarious pairing of Eli and Van Alden, even if it can’t quite measure up to the actors’ last time together in Take Shelter. Their bungled robbery and subtle tribute to Al Capone was an excellent introduction to their activities this season—far more interesting than any of what we saw last week, and bodes well for the future. It’s hard to guess what role they’ll be playing in the overall story, but so long as they stay working together, it doesn’t really matter.
Willie Thompson’s brief time on screen was also entertaining, even if it was pretty obvious that he was acting during his interview. How this improves on what we’ve seen of him before is simple: with this role, he may actually have something to do with the larger story being told. That’s always been the difficulty with Boardwalk’s b-stories, and it’s contributed to the feeling that the show simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, despite its clockwork plotting. With so few episodes, though, it looks like even Willie has to have a purpose.
Even with all of this working in its favor, “The Good Listener” still felt like a very long episode, because of the two stories that padded it out. One of these was pretty much a gimme for season five: young Nucky putzing about. His sister dies and he’s traumatized, and watches how both his father and the Commodore react to it. Whatever. Nobody cares. Just as seemingly pointless, though, is Gillian Darmody’s adventures in Boardwalk Empire: Asylum, which seemingly serves to show us a bunch of HBO-mandated nudity, and little else. She’s less connected to the main story than she was last season (if that’s even possible), and while she’ll probably soon be out and scheming against Nucky or something, it still feels like she would’ve been better, written off the show two seasons ago. The fact that she’s only one of three remaining female characters (and Patricia Arquette’s Sally Wheet is pretty peripheral) is simply regrettable.
There was a lot more good than bad this week, and things were far less fragmentary. Most scenes felt like they had an overall purpose, and weren’t just there for shock value or exposition. Essentially, there is a story now, where there really wasn’t last week. I can’t say that it’s my favorite episode of Boardwalk Empire, but it helped the show move past an early speedbump, and made me at least a bit excited for what’s to come.