By Dave Gilmore
8:01 AM EDT, September 24, 2012
"Ordinary men avoid trouble, extraordinary men turn it to their advantage." - Gaston Means
Nucky Thompson has ever been the disciplined emperor with an attention to detail, but this week we found him forgetting what day it was, blowing off the Pope, pontificating on semi-retirement and indisposed when his latest liquor shipment hit a monumental snag.
All this happened while he was crafting his hobo-inspired recipes in a crappy apartment with a heating problem. And people say this show doesn't have enough action.
The aforementioned snag, of course, is Gyp Rosetti. The terrifying New York gangster is enjoying bed and breakfast life in Tabor Heights, trying to figure out a way to to make trouble along the Garden State's liquor route.
He's learning all kinds of new things, like basic cartography and the ingredients that comprise spaghetti and "meatbolls." As we saw last week, Rosetti is as loose a cannon as they come, to the point that you fear for any unnamed character's life who has the misfortune of having a conversation with him.
Perhaps Nucky's ultimate wish, for "everything to run all by itself" so he can shack up with Billie Kent is based the lingering effects of icing Jimmy. Maybe he's just burned out and needed a week of "me time."
Maybe, as his brewing jealousy shows, his relationship with Billie Kent is so drastically different than that of he and Lucy and/or Margaret that he's really ready to settle down (oh, who are we kidding?).
More likely, the business just isn't what it used to be. The liquor boom of 1920 and Nucky's brazen, flashy lifestyle and political influence have given way to dropping cash in a fishbowl talking to an eccentric man behind a peephole.
Gaston Means, in a role that perfectly suits Stephen Root, enters the "Boardwalk" universe as a buffer between Nucky and his elected buddies, but there's no way somebody that strange isn't working a long con of some kind (if you are interested in the historical Gaston Means, you can read up on him for clues and potential spoilers).
A bewildered George Remus being the next man through the door of Means' makeshift deposit box was great, though any scene where Remus doesn't speak in the third person is a missed opportunity.
Of course the whole reason Nucky isn't behind bars at the moment is that his brother Eli took the fall for Nucky and went from Atlantic City's sheriff to a federal prisoner. Upon release, he's greeted by Mickey Doyle, who might be the last person you'd want to road trip with after doing time.
One could also make an argument that 1923 was maybe "too soon" for a Little Bighorn joke, which makes Doyle one of the edgier bootleggers/funnymen of his time.
As a gaunt, withered Eli re-assimilates to family life, it seems as though his children have not only grown but somehow multiplied while he was in the clink. I haven't checked IMDb, but assigning names to Eli's kids would be like giving names retroactively to all the Jawas in "Star Wars."
Unable to comprehend the fact that his oldest son Will has become the man of the house, Eli does what all unstable people do and builds a model airplane.
In a heart-wrenching moment, Eli boasts to his son that he read Shakespeare while he was inside. It seems an innocuous enough reference, but if one recalls the finale of last season, Nucky quotes "Julius Cesar" to his brother and Eli doesn't quite get the allusion. ("Is there a character in the play named Eli?") His plight becomes even sadder when he has to reenter the workforce as one of Mickey Doyle's lackeys.
Chalky White re-enters the mix, and the focus on his family life gives Michael K. Williams the opportunity to further flesh out the character beyond "Omar in a bowtie." His daughter Maybelle is still miraculously being courted by her med student suitor Samuel, who didn't take a hint when Chalky unceremoniously dismissed him from his dinner table last year.
Credit where credit's due -- Samuel understands the whole "marry the girl, marry the family" principle and gets Chalky's blessing, putting him firmly at the top of the list of "scariest father in-laws of all time."
But of course, with a dad like Chalky White, you're going to develop some daddy issues and not be completely satisfied when the noble future doctor wants to put a ring on it.
If Chalky is the world's scariest father-in-law, then Dunn Purnsley is the world's scariest chaperone. Maybe seeing someone beaten to a pulp will convince Maybelle that life as a doctor's wife wouldn't be so bad.
Margaret, as she has been prone to do, slows the show down when she is off on her own private crusades. It's not her fault (because she's a fictional character), but when an episode isn't centrally built around her (as in "Peg of Old") her story-lines bring things to a lumbering halt.
If it's not yet clear to her, it's certainly evident to us that Doctor Mason is basically Owen Sleater with a stethoscope instead of a pistol and that it's only a matter of time before some serious bodice-ripping occurs. Seeing the Thompson home allowed us to see that Rosetti's dog "Scruffy" has found a good home.
"Spaghetti and Coffee" is an awkward chapter of "Boardwalk Empire." After all, it's an episode that involves a showgirl servicing a radiator in the nude. Few characters -- Eli, Nucky, Chalky's daughter -- aren't quite where they belong. Some will adapt, some will refuse, and some will probably die by season's end. Let's hope that Mickey, Eli and Owen being turned away by Rosetti with the liquor shipment will snap Nucky back into action.
Any episode of a visual novel building out stories for secondary characters like Eli is going to leave other interesting people (Van Alden, Capone and Richard Harrow, for instance) on the sidelines for an hour at a time.
A small letdown after last week's fantastic season-opener was somewhat expected, but "Spaghetti and Coffee" kept the ball rolling, which is sometimes all you can ask of a show with such gradual and methodical payoffs.
Just like a good "old hobo trick" recipe cooking in a single pot, it's a slow burn.