"He went to the cellar, to draw a little beer; And quickly did return, to say there was none there." -- "Blue Bell Boy," traditional nursery rhyme
"Blue Bell Boy" is a stripped-down, brilliant episode of "Boardwalk Empire." Outside of Nucky's immediate world, things move along incrementally, but ultimately the meat of the episode is a spectacular one-act play featuring three great performances.
It's a big episode for Owen Sleater, who is experiencing that familiar headache of being in the boss' doghouse. If this were a Thursday night family sitcom, it would end with Nucky explaining that he's riding Owen hard because he knows how much potential he has, and then they'd hug.
But this is Sundays on HBO, so Owen's penis gets a nickname ("Mr. Poofles") and Nucky executes a kid. Wait, what?
Before we get to the heavy stuff, let's just establish that no matter what decade it is, it's unnecessary to answer your phone during intercourse. We open the episode with Katie and Owen breaking this faux pas during uh, "Mr. Poofles" time. Nucky's on the other end, and he's not a happy bootlegger.
In addition to Nucky and Mr. Poofles, our third player in the main tableau is 19-year-old Roland Smith, who was the wheelman in the heist that took place just before the season started.
Nucky executed his partner in the opening scene of the first episode, and now Owen explains that tying up the loose end (Roland) was Manny Horowitz's job. Classic underperforming employee move, Owen: blame it on the guy who's dead.
The drama unfolds in Roland's hideout, which is filled to the rafters with Nucky and Waxey Gordon's pilfered alcohol. Half-gangster Nucky might have taken in and made use of the mischievous youth, who claims to be 15 at first. Full-gangster Nucky knows he's going to kill him the moment he offers him one of his smokes, 20 minutes into the episode.
Roland gets a stay of execution as prohibition agents raid the place and take all night to clear it out. In an "Inglorious Basterds" moment, Nucky, Owen and Roland are trapped like rats (literally, amongst rat excrement) under the floorboards. Over the next 40 minutes of screen time, we take a journey with Owen, who kind of hates the punk and is willing to take him out at first sight.
There's brilliant tension between Nucky and Owen, the kind that can only be created by having to be cooped up in a basement all night with your cranky boss. It's just them and their demons, and on some level, they now understand one another. At least partially.
After a night of soul searching and sleep deprivation, Owen's ready to make the kid part of his crew. "You'll do,' he says as only someone from the emerald isle can. Once the probies clear out, Nucky is right back to business and offering the charismatic thief a cigarette.
The execution is coming a mile away, but it doesn't make it any less jarring. Owen (and the viewer) can now confirm that Nucky's policies are unilateral. People who steal from him get popped, and he's not afraid to pull the trigger himself.
Out in Chicago, we get glimpse at the softer side of future titan Al Capone. His son, Sonny, who is deaf, is getting beaten up at school. His tax collector, Jake, who probably suffers from a glandular condition of some kind, gets tuned up in part because of his wicked body odor by one of Dean O'Banion's cronies.
Whoever the bully at the deaf school was that slugged Al Capone's kid, be thankful that he had one of O'Banion's men to take out his anger out on. There's a lot going on in the news these days about anti-bullying campaigns, but I think Al Capone beating a man to death in a bar for "picking on people who can't defend themselves" could be another angle for a public service announcement.
Margaret's story is, as the nun from St. Theresa's would put it "problematical." She's got her prenatal education program up and running, but it can't include words like "vagina" and "pregnant."
There's not a lot of movement, or frankly traction here, but it does afford an opportunity to glimpse the eponymous boardwalk during daytime, something that was a staple of earlier episodes.
We also learn via margaret that Carrie Duncan's plane crashed before she could cross the continent. See, because Margaret thought women could do anything but now they can't because the lady flyer crashed her plane. Okay, maybe I'm being harsh on Old Peg, but come on "Boardwalk," give her something more to work with.
Up in New York, Meyer and Lucky are dealing with the fallout of Benny's run-in with Joe Masseria. In a show with so many characters, and many of them historical, I'm guessing the Lansky/Luciano storyline is where people most often get lost.
Meyer does offer Luciano some sage wisdom before his meeting with Masseria: "Try not to sit near the window." Lanksy and Luciano are both compelling characters, so let's hope they find a reason to get to Atlantic City soon.
To call back to a former HBO drama, Elii is riding the boat like McNulty in season two of "The Wire." As Nucky firmly explains to his brother, "allowing you to simply go to jail is the last gift I'll ever give you."
Eli's surrounded by incompetence and overqualified to be loading liquor trucks. He sees more than Mickey Doyle and his flunkies ever could, but because of his flawed ambition, he's now in a position to do nothing about it.
After a stern call from Arnold Rothstein, who is even funnier when he's mad ("Why am I calling you? Why is this happening?") Mickey sends the booze caravan headlong into the wolf's den of Tabor Heights. Eli scouts ahead to investigate his fear that the local law enforcement is going to have their own personal Alamo against Gyp Rosetti's men.
When he gets there, he sees that it's even worse: Rosetti has managed to buy off (and somehow not irrationally murder) the cops and is setting up an ambush for the shipment. All Eli can do is watch from a distance as his fellow peons get mowed down over 800 cases of booze. Like McNulty, he's gotta get off the boat and back into the game somehow.
Appropriately (and because it's a law of cable drama), we end with a wistful song. Al Capone beautifully sings to his deaf son "my buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you."
We end with the brothers Thompson in their natural habitat, on a rainy windswept Atlantic City boardwalk, begrudgingly aware of the fact that they may need one another after all.