BEWARE: SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE AND PREVIOUS EPISODES ARE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW.
“The Good Listener” is the second episode of Boardwalk Empire’s final season. This week focused on Nucky and reintroduced us to Willy Thompson while giving us flashbacks to a painful part of Nucky’s childhood. It also featured Gillian in a sanitarium as well as Van Alden and Eli in Chicago working for Capone. We were also given more information about Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky’s motivations this season.
Ordinarily, the series takes a few episodes to settle into its season and introduce all its major players. With only 8 episodes this season, however, things have been noticeably accelerated. As much as it hurts to know that this isn’t a full season, I’m happy with the big stride the show’s pace is taking. As I did last week, I’ll go through each character’s storyline this episode.
Gillian (Gretchen Mol) seems to have had a really rough go of it in the interim between season 4 and this episode. She’s in a sanitarium, presumably after pleading insanity during her trial for the murder of the kid from Evansville in season 3. In this episode, she struck a deal with the sanitarium’s apparently strict warden. In a scene that had me on edge due to its misdirection that Gillian was going to trade sexual favors for special treatment, Gillian traded an outfit for stationary.
Gillian’s character arc in the series took such a fantastic turn at the end of season 4 that I almost felt as though it would have made sense to not include her in this season at all. Her character reached such a surprisingly heartbreaking end in the penultimate episode of season 4, it would have satisfied me if her arc closed with her being wrestled to the ground by Pinkerton agents.
Gillian is back this season, though, and it makes sense. Her story is intricately tied to Nucky’s history with the Commodore. We’ve seen her revert to the night the Commodore raped her at the end of season 3 when she was high on the heroin Gyp injected into her. We’ve also seen her talk about her lost innocence to Roy Phillips in season 4. Now she’s in an asylum after having lost everything and then some.
I feel like Gillian’s inclusion this season and the flashbacks to Nucky’s early days with the Commodore are deliberate. This episode, Gillian manages to get her hands on writing utensils. I have a feeling she’s going to write to her grandson, who by now is a teenager. I think a fitting ending would be her telling teenage Tommy Darmody everything and leave him to the act of killing Nucky in the finale as we’re flashed back to the moment Nucky hands 13 year old Gillian to the Commodore.
That may be a little more simplistic than the show is known for, though. As far as precedent for it, I referenced in last week’s review that the Nucky flashbacks give this season a distinct The Godfather Part II feel. Given that Terence Winter has said he pays homage to The Godfather any chance he gets, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Nucky’s end will be met in bloodshed from a character channeling his inner Vito Corleone to avenge his father and his grandmother’s innocence.
Following the season 4 finale, the one thing I was looking forward to most of all was Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) teaming up with Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), doing gangster things for Al Capone’s growing empire. With the time jump, we find Capone at the peak of his power and Van Alden/Mueller in charge of a territory with Eli as his subordinate. Their storyline this week felt like the best buddy cop movie ever.
It’s so satisfying to see two well-established characters played by two highly talented actors interacting with one another. We got a glimpse of Van Alden’s personal life at home. He’s still married to his former housekeeper and his children are at the age where they’re inquisitive and in the Girl Scouts, respectively. Eli, on the other hand, has been away from his wife and kids for “about 6 years or so” and it’s taken its toll as he spends a moment alone in the episode showing how broken he is.
The duo of Eli and Van Alden got their hands dirty in this episode. They stole from their boss in order to repay $20,000 lost in a raid at the start of the episode. It was obviously a risky move that ended in “pandemonium” as Van Alden called it. The job to lift the money off of Jake Guzik ended with Eli murdering Capone’s henchmen. By episode’s end, we see the height of Capone’s power as the pair threw the stolen money in a massive pile as Al and his brother Ralphie tease the accountant as he tries adding the money.
This development illustrates how erratic Capone’s empire was. The man is as much of a loose cannon as he has been in seasons past. Now, he reigns over Chicago without a care in the world as he’s interviewed by reporters and receiving fan mail from all over the world. Van Alden and Eli were acting solely out of self-preservation when they took the money, knowing Capone wouldn’t notice.
Being that it’s 1931, the series is poised to document the downfall of Capone. This is evident by the introduction of two integral characters in this episode. Mike D’Angelo (Louis Cancelmi) is shown at the beginning of the episode as a part of Capone’s operation. He delivers the news of the feds busting Mueller/Van Alden’s warehouse. Later, it’s revealed he’s working with the Treasury department as another man asks him if he’s “making progress” while handing him the ledger to “another cathouse.”
Not to be looked over, however, is the introduction of famed lawman Eliot Ness (played here by Jim True-Frost, of The Wire fame). We see Ness giving a press conference, vowing to take down Capone and his organization. I’m really hoping Ness as fleshed out and integral to the plot in this season as J. Edgar Hoover was last season. I’m sure he will be, considering he’s Eliot Ness and the actor portraying him is an HBO alumni. I’m looking forward to True-Frost’s performance this season.
We’re also reintroduced to Eli’s son Willy Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) in this episode. He meets with U.S. District Attorney Hodge for a job as the Assistant U.S. Attorney. The interview doesn’t go well once Hodge asks if Willy is related to Nucky Thompson. Willy assures Hodge that he doesn’t consider Nucky family after giving his most ethical answer to a hypothetical Hodge throws at him. Hodge dismisses him and the scene ends with Willy pleading for a chance.
Later in the episode, we see Willy sharing a meal with Nucky. He’s obviously still working for his uncle, or at the very least is under his wing. I’m not sure what to make of his job search, though. It could be that Nucky is trying to bring him up into a legitimate member of society or he could be grooming him to be an inside man in the justice system. Either way, it leaves us to question if his plea to Hodge was genuine and he truly harbors resentment toward Nucky for destroying his family.
Two days have passed since Nucky’s run-in with the assassin in Havana in the premiere episode. This episode finds him in New York City meeting with Johnny Torrio, who’s retired following the failed hit on him at the end of season 4. The pair wax gangster as they discuss Torrio’s retirement. I’ve always appreciated Greg Antonacci‘s performance in the show and the man fits the “at peace, retired gangster” role perfectly.
In this episode, Torrio shares some sage wisdom to Nucky about retirement and the alternative to retirement before he agrees to broker a sit down with Nucky and Maranzano, the new boss who Nucky thinks Lansky may be taking his orders from. Nucky comes away from the meeting unsure about whether Maranzano’s assurances should be taken at face value or not.
Later, we see a meeting with Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Lansky (Anatol Yusef), Benny Siegel (Michael Zegen) and Tonino (Chris Caldovino), who Nucky saw at the meeting with Maranzano and commented on the man’s always changing allegiance (Tonino was Gyp Rosetti’s right hand man before killing him for Nucky and Eli in “Margate Sands“). The men discuss the meeting Nucky had with Maranzano and it’s revealed that they are responsible for Nucky’s failed hit as well as planning to take down Maranzano when the time is right.
Meanwhile, Nucky has a meeting with members of the Mayflower Grain Corporation in New York City, as the noise from construction of Rockefeller Center infiltrates the boardroom. Nucky offers his partnership to the men once Prohibition is repealed and shows them the deal he struck with Bacardi in Cuba. He confides that he was hit by the crash of 1929 and doesn’t have the money to fund the operation by himself. The men bring up his bootlegging and question his confidence that Prohibition will be repealed. With the senator he met with in the premiere a no-show at the meeting, Nucky leaves empty handed.
On his way out of the building, however, one of the men catches up to him and tells him he has a similar arrangement with Dewars “across the pond.” The two talk about the meeting before the man tells Nucky that he’ll call him the next time he’s in Atlantic City. The man leaves and it’s revealed he’s Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy family. This reveal floored me and inspired me to finally buy the biography of the man from Amazon.
Later in the episode, following his meeting with Maranzano, Nucky confides in his silent Cuban bodyguard. Nucky admits to being jealous of Kennedy’s power. In my review of season 4, I mentioned the show has a bit of a clunky arc for Nucky. I still think that’s the case, but I feel like seeing him admit to being jealous of not only Kennedy’s power, but his legitimacy and family as well, is the writers showing us Nucky at his most sincere. Season 2 saw Nucky transform into a “full-fledged gangster” but I think the writers are telling us that Nucky is a man who was never truly meant for the gangster lifestyle.
Nevertheless, Nucky still chooses to fight back as he sits with Tonino to discuss the meeting with Maranzano and the attempt on Nucky’s life. Tonino folds easily as he tells Nucky all about Lansky and Luciano’s plan for supremacy of the criminal underworld. In a beautiful response, Nucky pays a waiter to remind Tonino about Billie Kent (Nucky’s actress mistress that Gyp blew up in season 3’s “The Pony”). Nucky then has his bodyguard kill Tonino and dump his body at the front door of the brothel where Lansky and Luciano met with Tonino.
Finally, the flashbacks in this week’s episode showed us the Thompson family dealing with the death of Nucky and Eli’s sister. Young Nucky shows up late to work and, upon hearing about the death of Nucky’s sister, the Commodore offers to help pay for a proper burial. The Commodore shows up to the Thompson house and offers money to Nucky’s father. Nucky’s dad grabs a shotgun and tells the Commodore to leave his property. Mr. Thompson pockets the money and continues digging the grave.
As interesting as I found the flashbacks to be last week, I thought they were a little dry in this episode. It effectively showed us Nucky’s choice between father figures and hammered down Nucky’s father’s seeming disdain for his son. It felt like filler to me and by episode’s end, I felt like the time given to the flashbacks could have been better used for more Capone story. Hopefully that’s not an indicator of things to come in the final 6 episodes.