Boardwalk Empire Review: "Spaghetti & Coffee" (Episode 3.02"

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<i>Boardwalk Empire</i> Review: "Spaghetti & Coffee" (Episode 3.02"

As I watched the convoy prepare to head back to AC in the final moments of “Spaghetti & Coffee,” I couldn’t help but think that an alternative title could have been “All the Sad Gangsters.” After a pretty action-heavy premiere, things slowed down a bit this week (knife fights and gunslinger stand-offs notwithstanding) when Chalky and Eli returned to furnish some parenting pathos, while Nucky Thompson got a little too serious with a skillet and his young new lady-love. As these men chafed with a new generation—in the form of their progeny, a “vivacious” showgirl on the UWS and a psychopathic gangster from Sicily, we were reminded of something that’s easy to forget amid all their wheeling and dealing: they’re getting old.

“Spaghetti & Coffee,” sees Eli return from jail to find that Mickey Doyle is his boss and that his oldest son, although cordial, clearly doesn’t respect his father or his wishes for him to get a proper education (Eli’s “Hey, I read Shakespeare. Can you beat that?” is so sympathetic that I almost forgot how he murdered George, several times over, in the barn.)

Chalky also experiences the rebuff of his child, when his daughter Maybelle protests marrying the bland, well-spoken doctor Sam because she wants an “interesting” life like her father’s. Chalky is of course appalled at the prospect of his daughter throwing away the life he worked so hard to provide, and he makes his point later when Sam gets slashed in the face at the bar Chalky also happens to be at. “Am I interesting now?” he growls to his daughter.

And then there’s Nucky, who’s become the symbiosis of exhaustion and distraction in the arms of Billie Kent. Over some lengthy pillow talk, Nucky confesses that he’d shack up with her forever if he had things his way, a sentiment clearly tied up in both his lust and exasperation at Gaston Mean and Rothstein’s equivocations. The show has never characterized Nucky in such the archetypical, jealous lover sense—nor this distracted. As his meeting with Rothstein reveals, Nucky has mixed up delivery dates and may not know which day of the week it is. Meanwhile, Rosetti harasses gasoline attendants and comes up with a pretty good plan to derail Nucky’s latest shipment to Rothstein. Spoiler: it works. Poor Nucky, he should have let her pick up the phone. Or maybe not. He should enjoy the sexcation and under-the-dinner-table foreplay while it lasts.

It’s worth noting that Nucky’s sudden infatuation is not entirely unprecedented. Over the course of the series, he’s been single for zero seconds, and it makes sense that he would continually seek out stability in his personal life given the demands of his day job. The ostensible reason Billie poses a threat to Nucky is that she’s not willing to be the partner he wants (unlike a Lucy or Margaret) in spite of their “agreement.” Watching him say he’d stay with her forever, whether it stems from love, control or most likely, a mixture of both, was cringe-inducing because that existence would be Billie’s personal hell. Like all relationships where two people clearly aren’t on the same page, I get the sense this can’t go anywhere good.

Equally difficult to watch is Margaret trying to wield power over an absent Nucky, leading me to wonder how much longer she’ll continue simmering in her sham marriage. Nucky’s personal and professional life, as well as the Jimmy Darmody fallout, are coalescing into a perfect storm—of which it seems unlikely Margaret will play a minor part. My wish of course is for her to get out of there (definitely am not buying the assertion to Owen that she’s plenty “occupied”), but based on all of Margaret’s decisions and motivations in the past (money, stability), it seems unlikely.

At the moment, Boardwalk Empire seems to sit on that bottom rung in the group of “high-brow” cable shows that have captivated a certain TV viewing elite, or what I’ve heard some critics refer to as “the worst of the best” (so while it never was disputed for earning its Outstanding Drama Emmy nomination, I never heard it once considered for the win). And while I understand how Breaking Bad might spoil a person for all other TV, I think it’s unfortunate that Nucky Thompson has been positioned as a Walter White type of anti-hero, sinking further into villainy. The show simply isn’t slow-burning or dark enough with one single character, even its lead. Rather, the larger theme of an episode is held together by a number of small, yet well-drawn stories that give us glimpses into the characters’ inner lives (for instance, this week’s emotionally tense yet pretty funny vignette about Mickey picking up Eli from jail). Meticulous serialization is a wonderful thing. So too, is the fragmented and free-form arc (i.e. never knowing what storyline is coming next), if a show can put it together right, on both an episode and season level. Boardwalk has done an exceptional job with this in the past, and as long as it quickly brings Harrow back in, I think it’ll be OK this year.

Stray observations:

-Stephen Root’s return to HBO reminds us of a much simpler time on True Blood, when Lafayette was just a V-dealing gigolo.

-Nucky and Billie’s conversation about the logistics of having sex with the White Rock Girl was a charming and plausible little bedroom banter bit, I thought.

-Did anyone else immediately cross out “gas station attendant kid” the second he pointed out the location of the Atlantic Ocean on Rosetti’s map?

-Just in case you were wondering, a freeze shot of the Tabor Heights’ diner menu confirms that the episode’s titular Spaghetti went for 35 cents.

-Seeing Rothstein play pool inspired me to go back and re-watch his infamous cue ball story (the one where he watched a guy choke to death for his own amusement). Doesn’t have quite the same impact now.

-Billie: Buzz, buzz Vy.
Vy: What?
Billie: Close your mouth, something might fly in.

-Someone, somewhere must be cataloging all of the “eff-you Mickey Doyle” one-liners for the inevitable in memorium mash-up. From Eli, in chronological order: “He sends you?” “Let me ask you something Mickey: How the fuck are you still alive?” “What the fuck are you babbling about?” “Go fuck yourself.” “What’s your pleasure? Bus.”

- And finally, congrats to Boardwalk for its second Emmy in the “Outstanding Directing” category, for Season 2’s indelible finale “To the Lost.”