TV Review: Boardwalk Empire (5×04) – “Cuanto”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on September 30, 2014
Al Capone has always been one of the key figures in the evolving saga of Boardwalk Empire, but he was never always the Al Capone of legend. He started out as a small fish in a big pond, maneuvered his way up to the top, and now he’s the big man in town. Capone doesn’t even need to do the dirty work himself anymore as he resides in his nice apartment while the underlings come and go for jobs. He’s no longer just another gangster; he’s a full-blown celebrity with an ego that needs stroking.
Stephen Graham’s portrayal of the famous “Scarface” has, admittedly, been problematic for me in the past. While the rest of the show resembles more naturalistic gangster stories such as The Sopranos and The Godfather, Graham’s performance has often been more akin to pulpy yarns like early James Cagney and The Untouchables, where Robert De Niro’s scenery chewing as Capone fit more comfortably into the comic book tone. Now that we’ve reached this point in Capone’s life on Boardwalk Empire, Graham’s over-the-top posturing clicks with the material in a smoother fashion than before. He’s now gone full De Niro, only this time he’s swinging something sharper than a baseball bat.
Even though the majority of “Cuanto” (the season halfway point) feels confined to the sizable Capone hotel room, there’s a multitude of threads weaving in and out that connect to the bigger picture. Lucky Luciano, clearly unimpressed by the media attention Capone pulls in, wants him in on the operation with Meyer Lansky to take down Nucky Thompson. This plan eventually backfires, with Capone instead warning Thompson about the plan, but the real meat of this comes when Lucky outs George Mueller as former Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden.
Once upon a time in season one, two men named Lucky and Jimmy Darmody (remember Jimmy? I miss Jimmy) were busted by Van Alden, and now it’s time for the past to get drudged up. I always love it when television shows brings back the past, especially the deep past, to inform current situations. Most viewers probably didn’t remember that Nelson and Lucky once crossed paths, but I’m certainly glad that this show’s writers did, because it leads into this episode’s standout scene. Michael Shannon’s tightly coiled performance as Van Alden is put to excellent use as he weasels his way out of a fatal bullet, and even has room for the driest of dry humor.
Speaking of Boardwalk Empire’s early days, the scenes between Nucky and Margaret this week brought back the spark they once had that then faded amidst their repetitive squabbling later on. The scene with them together in the café gave them the most genuine interaction they’ve had in a while, and seeing Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald banter over wine was a pleasant delight, even if it’s clear that there’s still a little tension left between the couple.
Unfortunately, Nucky’s other romance isn’t meant to be either. Sally’s not-so-engaging business dealings take a turn for the worse when she runs afoul of the Cuban authorities and doesn’t get to walk away with her life like Van Alden did. Sally’s death is unexpected and almost blasé. A death caused by faulty decision-making on both sides that could have easily been avoided, and surely won’t be the last as Nucky’s story draws to a close.
Contrastingly, Nucky’s beginnings as a young boy tread on, but not much more than that. Thematic parallels aside, little Nucky’s adventures by the shore don’t hold much dramatic weight in this truncated season beyond visualizing some of Nucky’s life anecdotes. The time spent on the Thompson brothers’ childhood could have been better utilized exploring Eli’s vastly more compelling current situation, especially since that means Shea Whigham has really been short-shrifted so far this season. I’m imagining an alternative version of the last four episodes where we just follow disheveled Shea Whigham’s boozy antics in Chicago with Mueller, even if it only exists in my dream-scape.