One of the things Boardwalk Empire has had a strangely difficult time with throughout its five season has been interaction between the main cast. When you fill your show with movie stars, it seems like that should be kind of a no-brainer, but apparently not so much. Boardwalk Empire has often been so diffuse, that the connections between cast members on different parts of the show hasn’t been tenuous, at times it’s essentially non-existent. Because of this, much of the show has been taken up with its leads talking to bit parts that flit in and out, without making much of an impression. For so many encounters on the show, with Nucky or someone else just rattling off to a business partner we’ll never see again it’s just hard to care.
“Cuanto” is a lot of fun to watch (at times) because, as the show begins to wind down, its cast is finally coming together and we’re reminded of how much fun that is to watch. Margaret and Nucky’s story didn’t need to be this long, but it’s such a joy to see Steve Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald playing opposite each other, flirting and feinting and displaying all the humor that’s usually missing from the show, that it didn’t matter. Every time Boardwalk empire focuses on their reunion it was electric.
Back in Chicago, we were treated to another compression of the show’s cast, and one that was just as good, even if it was far more ham-fisted. Al Capone and Lucky Luciano meet up, and Luciano tries to get Capone to ally himself with his crusade to reorganize the mob. Capone would rather watch newsreels about himself, again and again, while his cronies cater to his every need. His lackeys’ chain of command is endlessly entertaining, but things get even better when Luciano recognizes Van Alden as a prohibition officer (ex-officer now, but still). While there was no way Van Alden’s story was going to end like that, nonetheless, there’s some real tension here because of Capone’s unpredictability. These scenes felt a lot like the show Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire promised so many years ago, stylized and poignant and—best of all—actually dramatic.
In both of these stories, the clockwork gears of Boardwalk Empire’s plot machine was easy to see, but because there were multiple characters with real stakes, great acting, and far above-par (for the show) dialogue, Boardwalk Empire came alive. If only that were all the show had. Unfortunately, the flashbacks were even more prevalent in “Cuanto,” and for much of the episode they were popping in every-other-scene. Their story essentially amounted to Nucky and Eli hanging around and confronting the fact that they’re poor. As always, this was dead air, and it felt deader than usual because the present-day stories were so interesting. Boardwalk Empire constantly wants to accelerate and let its final season really be something special, but the flashbacks are a constant speedbump that keeps the show from ever changing gears. ??There was also the death of a minor character, as Patricia Arquette’s Sally Wheet gets killed in Cuba. Most of the show’s Cuban stories have been a miss, and this is no different. It seems like Boardwalk Empire wants to say something political, to comment on the revolutionaries and what was occurring there at the time, but what the message completely escapes me. Instead, it just feels like the clockwork machine telling Boardwalk Empire what to do again, and she died in pretty much the same way she arrived on the show—with little, if any, point. But then, Wheet was a woman, so given the show’s misogynistic narrative tendencies, it was only a matter of time for her.
It’s typical of Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season that some material is spectacular, and some is outright bad. But I have to give the show credit for making the good so very good this time out. While last season was pretty much skippable, Season Five is shaping up pretty well, despite its many demerits. If anyone has been wondering if the show is worth giving one final chance, I’m surprised to say that, for all its many faults, it is. I find myself at the end of “Cuanto,” actually wondering what will happen next, which isn’t a feeling the show’s given me more than a handful of times in its entire run.