Boardwalk Empire Ep. 3.11 ‘Two Imposters’: Gearing up to a brilliant finale

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Boardwalk Empire Episode 03.11 ‘Two Imposters’

Written by: Howard Korder

Directed by: Allen Coulter

Airs Sunday 9.00pm EST on HBO

This show being the second-to-last of the season, here is the form I expected it to take:

  •  a lengthy recap of previous salient events;
  • lots of talking as said events are recapped;
  • a couple of big set pieces to remind us of Boardwalk Empire’s excellent production values;
  • and in between the slow and careful positioning of characters ready for the long awaited show down between Nucky and Gyp Rosetti.

Nothing special, in other words. Convention dictates that, like chefs serving a gourmet meal, the writers don’t allow the appetizers to overshadow the entrees. The action is saved for the end and the show prior to the finale contains the ground work for the action.

To hell with convention. Far from being an exercise in preparation, this episode hit the ground running. Five minutes in and dead bodies littered the plush carpeting. Nary a set piece troubled the horizon. And as for the dialogue, this was kept to a minimum, the one occasion for speeches being the confrontation between Rosetti and Chalky White, a moment where you could find yourself wishing the scene would never stop at the same time as weeping with pain because the tension was making you dig your fingernails far enough into your palms to draw blood.

Finally the reasoning behind Nucky’s mid-season, mid-life crisis became clear. Desperation suited Nucky. His reaction to his predicament (hunted by Rosetti, deserted by his partners, his main henchmen dead or missing), were highlighted by his precarious mental state in previous shows. Having him spend most of the season snivelling and acting irrational in front of small children, made the moment when Nucky discovered his inner gangster all the more satisfying. Steve Buscemi excels at such transformations, flipping with the merest tightening of his jowls between weakness and strength. He had plenty of opportunity to exercise that talent within the episode as well as within the series as a whole, as events conspired to leave him racing around Atlantic City, his manservant Kessler (Anthony Laciura finally getting to do more than be a faithful retainer) bleeding to death by his side. If season two saw Nucky cross a personal Rubicon from a man who orders killings to a man who commits them, season three had him begin to appreciate his own shallowness, as he understood that he doesn’t even know if the steadfast Eddie had relations and found himself begging protection from Chalky White, a man he had subtly and not-so-subtly treated as a second class citizen.

Lucky for Nucky that Gyp Rosetti’s racism was so much closer to the surface. Michael Kenneth Williams, whose performance as White – all jaw locked gruffness – lacked nuance, suddenly found his feet in the stand off scene, leading me to conclude that Williams is an actor who responds to the quality of his lines more than he should. The writing here was superb and the scene is worth a rewatch, to relive the way the tension ratcheted up, notch by painful notch.

But the finale is still ahead, so the action had to point in a direction, rather than come to a full stop. The arrival of Capone, complete with cavalry, left little doubt that guns, shooting and lots more blood will be much in evidence next episode, leaving only questions about whether Rosetti and Eli will be amongst the survivors (my guess is neither of them will) and if Van Alden will find himself both in the firing line and in the deeply ironic position of defending the man he spent seasons one and two attempting to put in jail (my guess is he will). More up in the air are the plans of Richard Harrow, last seen fired by Gillian Darmody for the sin of having a girlfriend (I told you Gillian would try and put a stop to that relationship) and laying out his personal armoury with a fanatical gleam in his false eye. Just who Harrow was hoping to shoot wasn’t quite clear. Gillian’s whorehouse was stuffed with Rosetti’s men, most crotch deep in the merchandise, but if Harrow’s reaction to his treatment by Gillian is to run amok blazing bullets at Nucky’s enemies, his motivation seems thin enough to scream ‘plot device!’ at volume eleven. Gillian’s departure from rationality has been carefully chronicled, so her dismissal of Harrow makes some kind of sense, but Harrow’s attachment to Jimmy’s son (despite his love for Jimmy’s dead wife Angela) doesn’t make the jump from supressed violence to all-out massacre appear realistic.

If the massacre happens of course. The art of the series is to always keep us guessing about what might be coming next. In the finale, all will be revealed.

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