(JA: Goes without saying, but this post contains spoilers. You've been warned.)
I'm going to cut to the chase- last night's episode of Boardwalk Empire was, in my estimation, the greatest of the entire series so far. Not so much because the acting was superb (even thought these were incredible performances by the trio of Buscemi, Cox and one-off character Robinson), but rather because the entire episode crystalized a long developing character arc of anti-hero Nucky Thompson. This is because, despite the name, Boardwalk Empire isn't about building an empire at all. Prohibition isn't the driver of action; it actually is little more than period framing for the timeless drama contained within. It's about the transition of one man from the first circle of hell to its innermost layers. There is no doubt at the end of this episode that Nucky has made a place for himself in the lake of fire, his own internal guilt no longer a sufficient check for his slow metamorphosis into the gangster he has now become.
To understand this transformation, you have to recall the feeling and drive of the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire. Consider the opening of the first season; Nucky, addressing the Women's Temperance League of Atlantic City, spins a masterful yarn of his own childhood marred by the consummation of rat flesh because his oft-soaked father could not provide. The ladies gasp, but are fully immersed in his apocryphal tale. When questioned by James Darmody though the comment, "In the trenches, once we ate dogmeat- but rats?" Nucky responds cooly while opening a hidden flask, "First rule of politics, kiddo: never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Hiding and shuffling the truth is the mainstay of Nucky's current occupation of running Atlantic City. He's the county treasurer, yet this is nothing more than a convenient cover for his more duplicitous means of gainful employment. His control of the Republican machine in Atlantic City thrives on this political juxtaposition between the truth and a good story, as graft and corruption are the watchwords of the day in an era built, supposedly, on the moral certitudes of prohibition. "In less than two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of those distinguished gentlemen of our nation's congress. To those ignorant, beautiful bastards!' Nucky proclaims with a toast in his meeting of the city's gathered political puppets just prior to the introduction of the Volstead Act. Yet the line has a double ring of truth to it. Members of Congress might just be ignorant of what forces they have unleashed with their 'prohibition', but one cannot help but feel that Nucky and Co. are also ignorant in their assumption that the event can only turn to their favor. These are the words of a confident, and supremely competent, graft politician. They most certainly aren't the words of a gangster who, although sure of the rising tide of black market liquor becoming an even higher tide of incoming cash, nonetheless also knows that greater opportunity means greater risk. The fact that Nucky is presiding over a party and not a war-room only underscores his ignorance in the face of these turbulent new waves.
The era of the graft politician is waning, even as it receives its pyrrhic victory, shown later in the second season, with the election of Warren Harding to the presidency. The era of the gangster is in the ascendant, and it's all-corrupting influence and reach in the soul of Nucky Thompson is the main focus of Boardwalk Empire. For although the show makes little of the moral choices this path necessitates, it imbues Nucky with a sort of Dolstevesky-esque aura of psychological transformation. This is the main story arc now told over two complete seasons and the first quarter of the third. With last night's episode, the transformation is complete. Nucky has now become the full embodiment of this new gangster ideal, the methods and means of his former graft-politician ways discarded like so many Roland Smiths left dead on the floor.
Of course, the murder of Roland Smith isn't Nucky's first. He did, in fact, shoot James Darmody in the face at the conclusion of the second season, putting an end to the ongoing attempt by the Commodore and his wealthy coterie to remove Nucky from the hallowed halls of power in Atlantic City. But this was not the act of a gangster incarnate, and the second season still largely had to deal with the presence of a reluctant Nucky who sees in his tried and true methods of graft rule a way to control the situation and neuter his opponents without the use of overwhelming violent force. The death of the Commodore, at the hands of his own son, signals the end of this graft era and the rise of the new. Trotsky once wrote to Lenin, during the brutal Russian Civil War, that, "discipline cannot possibly be maintained without revolvers." Nucky, having tried to utilize his graft connections and running of the political machine of Atlantic City to solve his problems, comes to realize the full extent of Trotsky's words as he takes aim at James with his own revolver and says, "You don't know me James. You never did. I am not seeking forgiveness." The shot rings out, its target true. And still Nucky is not a changed man- not yet. The unsteady look to Eli for affirmation belies the intent of the act just committed. Did Nucky do the right thing? Yes, nods Eli, as a now rain-soaked Nucky walks away, still unsure.
The first few episodes of the third season show a man lost at sea, with Nucky having disturbing dreams related to his murder of Darmody and uncharacteristic weakness in seeking the attention of the young and vivacious Lillian Kent. He is restless, literally and figuratively, spending the entire third episode of the current season desperately trying to reach Kent on the phone in her New York apartment, ultimately heading to her abode and falling asleep on her couch awaiting her return. When he awakes, and she is there, his real need for comfort hides the real changes underneath his cooing demeanor. This is because, just before his maddening flight to New York, Nucky had his true fate revealed by the 'blind' prophet Tiresias, represented in this case by the masked Richard Harrow. When asked if Richard ever sees the faces of those he's killed, the response is as chilling as it is resolute in its prophetic augury- "You already know the answer to that, don't you?" The truth is set, the path declared- Nucky's transformation is almost complete, akin to the moments just before Oedipus puts out his eyes at the consequential revelation of his own terrible hubris. Nucky knows he is a true killer. But it will take a descent into hell to burn away any remaining doubt.
This is why the most recent episode delivers on so many levels. There is a crisis in the liquor empire Nucky has painstakingly built, prompted by the arrival of Gyp Rossetti who, after taking offense to Nucky's consolidation of business in New York under Arnold Rothstein, decides to set-up shop in the quiet halfway point between Atlantic City and the Big Apple- Tabor Heights- with the purpose of intercepting Nucky's liquor shipments. Others, too, have been taking slices from Nucky's pie. A certain and unknown Roland Smith has also stolen from Nucky, and it is this issue upon which the majority of the new episode hangs. Everything takes on even more pressing terms when Mickey Doyle presumes to ask Owen Slater, Nucky's right-hand man, "Are you sure this is a good idea?" just after Nucky announces that future liquor shipments are to use the back roads to New York and avoid Tabor Heights altogether. The slight becomes a flashpoint on the questions of authority and loyalty. Nucky is quick to reprimand Doyle, then turns to Owen and inquires about what is being done to rectify the Roland Smith problem. Nucky wants the problem solved, quickly, and it is this issue that will resolve the uncertainty of both authority and loyalty in the Boardwalk Empire.
Owen does indeed find the mysterious Roland Smith, who turns out to be a glib-tonged youth with a house full of stolen liquor just outside of Philadelphia. Nucky is summoned to the dilapidated structure, and during the interrogation of Smith a gang of Prohis (Prohibition Officers) arrives. After killing the two men who traveled with Nucky outside, the Prohis storm into Smith's house to begin their search of the premises. At this point the camera cuts to the cellar, panning up to reveal Nucky, Slater and Smith in a flooded basement, looking above with bated breath as beams of light, streaming from floorboards pounded by the numerous agent's shoes, falls upon them intermittently. Soon the Prohis are in the cellar itself, and here is revealed one of the most powerful metaphoric images produced in the episode; having made the descent into a hellish cellar, Nucky is made to hide behind the old boiler to escape being caught. He has figuratively placed himself in the lake of fire and next to its hottest source, with a gun jammed into the chin of Smith- the outcome of this thief all but assured with the cameras framing shot. Thus begins the waiting game, with Nucky, Slater, and Smith holed up in the cellar, awaiting departure of the murderous Prohis above.
Daylight breaks, and the trio is still hiding in the basement with the few remaining Prohis taking guard outside. Slater recalls how he would endure the waiting involved in his IRA missions back in Ulster, mentally walking the streets of Corrine in his head. When prompted by Nucky if that's what he did last night, Slater responds that he hasn't thought of the place in months. "Sounds like you're feeling at home," replies Nucky, and once again the issue of loyalty comes up. "What have I done to earn your loyalty?" asks Nucky, to which Slater ultimately responds, "You pay me." It's not exactly the answer one wants to hear, and it is here that Nucky decides what must be done. He intently gazes at Smith, now sleeping on a pile of ropes in the corner, the allusion of a soul in purgatory easily summoned. It's here that Nucky makes his decision on what he has to do, the fate of Smith cast before the pair of Slater and Nucky as they sit on the bench next to the wall opposite.
After brief interludes in which the other characters of Boardwalk Empire advance their plot lines (also noteworthy, but outside the scope of this review), we return to the cellar and the long-awaited departure of the Prohis stationed outside. After climbing out of hell, Smith makes his case for joining Nucky as an employee in his illegal dealings. But he makes fatal errors, first in addressing Slater with his (boastful) skill set that could be made available were he to join up, then in revealing that he actually smokes, despite his claims otherwise when Nucky first arrived to the Philadelphia hideout. Here is the defining moment, the time when Nucky could turn away from his gangster transition and return to his grafting politician ways. How easy would it be to cut Smith in on the action? Exceedingly easy, especially considering the position in which Smith finds himself. But would he be loyal? As Smith turns his back, hearing the approach of an automobile, Nucky calmly walks back, pulls out his gun, and shoots Smith in the head.
Slater is visibly stunned, looking at the body of Smith lying next to the still smoking cigarette. "I thought you were letting him go," Slater stammers. "Why would you think that?" Nucky retorts, to which Smith can only answer, "I misunderstood." "As long as you understand now," Nucky replies. The message is very clear- betray Nucky and the consequences will be severe. His transformation is complete. Having descended into hell, Nucky finds himself assured and confident in his new skin. There is no turning back now. The politician is dead. Long live the gangster.
Thus ends the greatest episode, so far, of Boardwalk Empire.