It’s Dec. 31, 1922, and Nucky Thompson and his wife, Margaret, are throwing a New Year’s Eve party that will give a new dimension to the word “decadence.” It’s the beginning of a new year, a new bootlegging plan and a new illicit love. Look out, 1923.
Ah, but before we delight in the revels of a no-expense spared, Egyptian-themed ball, we are introduced to a deliciously psychopathically violent bootlegger from New York, who has had the misfortune of experiencing a flat tire enroute to the soiree in Atlantic City.
Gyp Rosetti (played by the wonderful Bobby Cannavale) is not happy. He hails from New York, and spending New Year’s Eve in southern New Jersey is not his idea of a celebration. Add to that a flat tire on a remote road, and Gyp is getting more wound up by the minute. Cannavale is such a great actor, he barely says anything, but you know he is wound tighter than an eight-day clock.
When a good Samaritan passes by, offering oil to help change the rusty bolts on the tire, Gyp is at first polite and grateful. That is until a switch in his unstable brain apparently clicks, and he beats the good Samaritan to death with a tire iron. But not before taking the man’s dog, of course.
Cannavale is playing a roll not a far cry from the one he plays on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” as the megalomaniac chief Dr. Mike Cruz. In “Boardwalk,” he will prove to be a chronic headache not only for Nucky’s business but a perpetual migraine for the New York bootlegging gang. Watching Cannavale slither from gentlemanly and slick to venomous and violent is a thing of beauty.
In many ways the new year 1923 will prove to be one of real change. The biggest change in the land of bootlegging is when Nucky announces that from now on he will be buying rum only from New York’s Arnold Rothstein. Gyps can barely contain his rage at this news. He weaves a tapestry of ethnic vulgarities toward each of his bootlegging “colleagues.” Nucky, of course, is unflappable. “New Year, new rules,” Nucky announces cavalierly.” Sounds like the first volley in a to-the-death war.
Earlier in the day, Margaret has a chance to tour the new hospital wing constructed with the money she donated from Nicky’s coffers. She’s delighted to see religious statues adorn the wings, but in midtour, a woman appears in the hallway asking for help; blood drips down her legs and she faints. Margaret is shaken and doesn’t forget the image. Later when she sees the doctor alone, she confronts him. He sternly tells her that the woman had a miscarriage – no shock since the hospital provides no prenatal care or other needs for poor pregnant women. The doctor goads Margaret further by asking in disbelief, “And you’re on the board of this hospital?” Margaret is crushed. Her conscience will come back to haunt both her and Nucky.
Other characters do not venture very well either. Remember Manny Horvitz? Well, it seems he’s of no further use to Nucky. That’s not a good position in which to be. In a tender moment, we see his wife give him a new hat as a New Year’s gift. He no sooner puts it on, kisses her goodbye and opens the front door, when he is shot between the eyes, by no other than Richard Harrow, the late Jimmy Darmody’s war-scarred confidant.
And then there’s the former federal agent Nelson Van Alden, who’s on the run from his past indiscretions. The once pompous, holier-than-thou fanatic has been reduced to being a door-to-door salesman – and not a very good one at that. He is trying his best to provide income for his wife and baby (and we all know the crazy situation there). When he partakes of a holiday contest as to who can sell the most, he wins – at least he should have won. His boss has serendipitously changed the rules of the game while Van Alden was gone, and has given the spoils to another salesman. Something tells me this is just the beginning of a blood bath. In Van Alden’s world, you keep your word, or there are dire consequences to be endured. Actor Michael Shannon plays the character so brilliantly you never know if he is going to kiss or kill whomever is in front of him. He took the slight by the shop manager with little arguing – but I’m not quite sure that’s the end of it. Besides – and speaking of serendipity – earlier in the night, Van Alden just happened to be at the right place at the right time to help out a certain florist/bootlegger when a “gentleman” by the name of Al Capone arrives at the florist shop with his cronies. I can’t wait to see if Van Alden actually clips his wings and takes the full plunge into a life of crime.
I love when tough guy gangsters fall in love. It always gives them an extra character level, which I find so appealing and believable. Nucky fell hard for the Irish Catholic lass Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald) and married her in a fit of passion and, I believe, good will. I can’t help but believe that in marrying Margaret, Nucky had a glimpse of “what-might-have-been,” the life he might have had, had his first wife and son lived. Alas, life with Margaret was not exactly what he had in mind. Her strict (but flexible) Catholic morality soon cools the passion they had initially felt for each other.
That passion soon morphed into anger and deceit, when Nucky discovered his wife donated his ill-gotten booty to the Catholic Church. Their marriage is like a grand palace on the inside with no furnishings whatsoever indoors. It’s so empty it echoes.
So I was so glad to see the writers decided to give Nucky another crack at the love bug. Welcome Billie Bent played by new actress Meg Chambers Steedle. She embodies the free lovin,’ free spirit, Devil-may-care attitude that saturated the bootleg years. If Margaret was a much-needed balm for Nucky’s moral compass, Billie throws open the door for Nucky to a world filled with pleasure for the senses. Billie’s not just a fresh of breath air – she’s a tornado of delight and embodies the credo that there is never too much of anything. Nucky is ensnared in her aura of carefree delights. If there’s a bill to be paid here later, Nucky doesn’t see it. He’s enjoyed the public façade of family man while satisfying his personal needs with this young woman who finds any dilemma of right or wrong to be boring.
In truth, whether Billie is a boost or another misstep in the l’amour department has yet to be seen. After all we all saw what happened when Nucky tried to step the straight-and-narrow with Margaret. It didn’t just backfire – it imploded his world. Nucky is going to need a soft place to fall as he starts to deal with the ramifications of his actions. Last season left everyone aghast as Nelson killed Jimmy, whom Nucky thought of as his son. That’s somewhere between a Shakespearean tragedy and an Oedipus wreck.