Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 5.04: “Cuanto” is Margaret’s finest hour

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Boardwalk Empire, Season 5, Episode 4: “Cuanto”
Written by Howard Korder & Cristine Chambers & Terence Winter
Directed by Jake Paltrow
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO

With “Cuanto” we mark the halfway point of the final season, and its first major death. As fans of Boardwalk will attest, though, the only real surprise was that it took as long as it did. If you were running the numbers in Vegas, or Atlantic City for that matter, the odds would come up quick that there will likely be a lot more to come. If only Arnold Rothstein was still around to roll the dice on that one.

Speaking of Rothstein, his former business partner arrived as the game-changer in last weeks episode, leaving this week to make good. Luckily she does at that. In fact, Margaret emerges as the star of the show in “Cuanto”, and it’s not hard to see why.

Having her and Nucky get drunk together for their first major scene in almost 2 years is a masterstroke of writing. While Nucky is obviously an old hand when it comes to boozing, he has a certain level of vulnerability when it comes to Margaret. This is readily apparent in his switching of tones throughout their scenes together, from calculatingly analytical, to casually opportunistic, to puppy dog sweet.

Margaret is even more fun to watch. With each glass of wine peeling away a layer of her usually proper demeanor, eventually we are left with the truest, and most fun, version of her character that we’ve ever seen. When she’s not busting Nucky’s balls and calling him a bastard, she’s stumbling into a passionate kiss with him. In the end, he gives her the sell like you might expect but not in the way you might expect–instead of trying to pull her strings, he speaks to her like an equal, and when it comes time to take advantage of the situation, he instead sets her up with her own quarters. The chemistry and candor in these scenes give us the most passion we’ve seen from these characters in years, and mark probably the best moments of this season thus far.

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But what’s the trade-off for such a loaded barrel of fun? Unfortunately, the answer comes in the form of Sally, and her ill-fated business dealings in Cuba. As the region grows increasingly more unstable, a curfew is put into effect by the military and when Sally runs afoul of it she makes the poor choice of first trying to charm her way out, and then trying to bribe her way out. As the scene escalates, the sense of dread becomes palpable, and when the renegade bullet of a trigger happy soldier cuts her down, it is only the echo of a foregone conclusion. For now, Nucky is safe from this troubling information but when it comes to his attention, this house of cards is going to start looking mighty unstable

In some other ways, it’s already coming down. When Luciano takes a stroll through Chicago to meet up with Capone, he recognizes “George Mueller” as the prohibition agent that interrogated him and Jimmy Darmody a decade ago. This revelation leads to the closest shave that Van Alden has somehow scraped out of yet. The intensity of the sequence when Al Capone has him kneel down to receive a gun in the mouth is as disturbing as it is uncomfortably humorous. Between Van Alden mumbling around the gun in his mouth and Capone’s mad-capping antics belied by moments of gruesome violence, a lot of this episode plays out like a 1930s version of Goodfellas.

The flashback sequences reach their best plot line yet as Nucky and Eli offer developments in spades through their younger selves. Eli challenges Nucky one minute and looks up to him the next, while Nucky trades between bitter resentment for the family he was born to and the growing acceptance of the corruption that the rich and powerful breed, and how he might come to exploit them.

While “Cuanto” is a marked improvement from last week, one can’t help but worry for the overstuffed narrative at this point. With so many plates in the air, and the amount of time and effort it has taken to re-establish the characters after a seven year time jump, it’s difficult not to wonder why so much time is being seemingly wasted. From Chalky’s storyline last week, to the uneventful Nucky and Kennedy plot, to the questionable merit of the flashback scenes, this season seems to be stopping to smell the flowers even as it bleeds out from its wounds.

There’s a lot to be resolved in the next four weeks, and with overwhelming levels of suspicion and desperation developing between these many disparate characters, the only thing that can really be assessed for the final four is the shadow of the looming guillotine and the unquestionable fact that heads are about to roll.

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