“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Four: “All In”

* A much stronger episode, thank goodness. Honestly the smiles of Erik LaRay Harvey and Michael Stuhlbarg alone would likely ensure I enjoyed myself, but the strength of the ep is owed in large part to a comparatively rare use of parallel-storyline structure: a criminal’s night out. Nucky hangs out with Rothstein and Lansky; Purnsley hangs out with Narcisse; Van Alden hangs out with the Capones; Eddie hangs out with the other Capone; College Boy hangs out with the other college kids.

* Solid opening on the big collection guy going up the stairs. A lot of attention to the sound of his breathing, the sound of the stairs, his weariness. I’ve said this before, but this is the kind of thing this show can do to tell a story that a lot of others can’t.

* Waxy Gordon, King Solomon, John Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, Joe Masseria — a nationwide criminal conspiracy indeed. Wow, the hayseed’s a real fucking G-man! There are three points of interest here. The first is that Knox has cottoned to an idea that even “organized crime” hadn’t really figured out yet, at least on a formal basis; that would be the eventual innovation of Luciano and Lansky, which is why, I’d imagine, Lansky as up-and-comer factored so heavily into the back half of the episode.

* The second is that J. Edgar Hoover, despite his domineering presence even at this early stage in his career, remained a skeptic of “the mafia” and the organizational system developed by Luciano and Lansky for ages. So my “oh shit, they’ve figured it out already” reaction was immediately tempered by my real-world knowledge that it would be a long, long time — not until Appalachin made it impossible to ignore — before Hoover really sussed out what was going on.

* The third is that Knox is someone we’re rooting against. For one thing, that’s funny, given how the G-men were the heroes of old Hollywood. For another, it’s because he was introduced to us as a Todd-style cornfed sociopath; now, it seems, it was simple intolerance for law-enforcement corruption that drove him to set up his partner for death, but that’s hardly more appealing in the context of this show.

* That Eddie must be the weakest link for which Knox was searching was apparent from the moment they cut directly from Knox to Eddie. Sad — I was so happy to watch the guy have such a great time! I like when grown men are rewarded for competence and cooperation, and I like when they get along, the way Eddie and the Capone brother did. Natural friends! Who knew! Really weirdly crushing to watch dignified Eddie get carted off in the end.

* “I shall protect it with my life.” “Don’t be so dramatic. It’s only money.” That’s Nucky’s attitude in a nutshell, as expressed again in his trouncing of Rothstein at the poker table. In one of the best pieces on the show I’ve ever read, Tim O’Neil really nails this aspect of Nucky’s character, particularly in relation to the vicious, unreconstituted gangsters against whom he squares off.

* You could probably contrast both Nucky’s “it’s okay to lose sometimes” attitude and Rothstein’s usually fruitful zeal for winning with Lansky’s approach, a kind of third way where a sound appraisal of business prospects is backed up with absolutely merciless violence. Lansky used the latter as a tool to support the former; they were both vital, but he knew the cart from the horse.

* “Happy? You’re there to get an education. You think I’M happy?” That line of Eli’s was by far the best thing about the still-regrettable College Boy storyline, which was thuddingly predictable, if admirably disgusting.

* The Capone brothers are doing a collection? Sold. Marvelous casting once again — they could not look or seem more different, yet their fraternal chemistry and camaraderie is indelible. Even the corny bit where the lady who answered the door at the collection spot instantly warmed up to the handsome Capone got over on pure charm. (That said, I still have no idea what the brothers’ names are, other than “Bottles.”)

* “Don’t we know each other, Arnold?” “One would have thought so.” Rothstein thought he was serving Nucky there, but wound up serving himself.

* Dr. Narcisse is pretty obnoxious. How did Marcus Garvey put up with him? He’s vain and pretentious, as well as being an enormous hypocrite, though that’s nothing new.

* Rothstein busting Nucky’s chops at the poker table was delightful, especially in contrast to Nucky’s inflappability. I loved his ghostly pallor, and that reptilian smile that curdled on his face when he lost. And I loved his gentle chiding of the increasingly infuriated Lansky over the anti-semite player: “Meyer, it’s all an aspect of the contest.”

* “There is a time for levity.” Man, remember when Van Alden was more than just the comic relief? I’m not even complaining, that’s a great use to put a person who looks and sounds like Michael Shannon to, though I do wonder how much longer he’ll last on the show as his Hollywood utility grows. But there was a time when he was the Richard figure, mysterious and terrifying and emotionally crippled. Now he’s someone the jocularly homicidal Capone brothers take into their bosom.

* Lansky’s smile as he gets a taste of the big time was a crucial tell. He’s the true steel, as they’d say in A Song of Ice and Fire, but up until this point not a macher. It’s new, and he allowed himself to enjoy it.

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