"He's not so good in a crowd, but when you get him alone, you'd be surprised" -- Irving Berlin, "You'd Be Surprised"
Nucky Thompson's new de facto mantra, "you can't be half a gangster," seems to be applying more and more to "Boardwalk Empire" as a show. By my count, "You'd Be Surprised" had at least five murders and three asphyxiations (two of which were of the erotic variety).
We're coming up on the halfway point in season three of "Boardwalk," and it seems as though this was the week for everything that had been simmering for the first four episodes to finally boil over.
It's easy to focus on what a wild card character Gyp Rosetti is, but if there was ever a time to point out how great Bobby Cannavale is in playing the lunatic gangster, it's this week.
"Courageous" isn't really an appropriate word to assign to actors, but any time you're signing up for some sexual strangulation and a naked gunfight, you're definitely suffering for your craft.
So, as it's wont to do, "Boardwalk Empire" opens up with some full-frontal fornticating. We get it, it's HBO and you can do that kind of thing. Sadly, the love scenes are often shoved to the first couple frames to jarr the viewer and remind everyone that it's time to put the kids to bed.
This week, however, getting a window into Rosetti's penchant for erotic asphyxiation bookends and violent and nerve-wracking hour of television.
Gyp's siege of Tabor Heights continues on, but this week Arnold Rothstein's crew gets a crack at taking down Rosetti. For being world-renowned as a logical, calculating gangster known as "The Brain," Rothstein makes the curious decision of sending Meyer and Lucky's sidekick Benny to do the job.
Maybe he wants to minimize risking someone worthwhile on behalf of Nucky. Maybe he doesn't actually want the job done. I'm sure we'll find out eventually, but true to form Benny executes basically everyone left in Tabor Heights except for Rosetti.
It leaves us with a very naked, very bloody, crazed Gyp Rosetti with a belt around his neck. Strange they didn't use that in any of the promos!
In the periphery of the (second, third, fourth?) massacre in Tabor Heights, Nucky has strong-armed Eddie Cantor into saving his mistress Billie Kent's show, a move I would classify as very "half gangster."
Watching Chalky and Dunn sit there stone-faced while Eddie tried to sing-and-dance his way out of a jam was gold. It makes a strong case for making people like Chalky, Richard and Eli not disappear completely when they don't figure into the main plotline.
"You'd Be Surpised" also affords us the biggest episode yet of season three for Nelson Van Alden/George Meuller. After a brief hiatus, he's back at killing fellow prohibition agents, this time with the help of his strangely complicit wife Ingrid, who would be adorable save for all the bludgeoning people.
It will be a relief to get Van Alden back in the game, which undoubtedly will happen once he goes to Al Capone's biggest rival for a favor.
Juxtaposed from the bloodbaths taking place left and right, Nucky and Margaret are finally have to face the realities of their broken relationship. Their separation has been really unsatisfying because while Margaret signing over Nucky's land was the straw that broke the camel's back, there was no big reason why they drifted apart.
In fact, Eddie Cantor even points out to Billy that Nucky is just following his usual playbook.
"Ever heard of Lucy Danzinger?," he asks. "The next one won't know a god-damned thing about you either."
Margaret, whose women's health classes aren't taking off as she'd hoped (maybe she should put some kittens on the flyer), was the proverbial "next one" at one moment herself.
After seeing Nucky rebooting his cycle at the dress shop on the boardwalk, she finally points out to him the pattern that we as an audience have seen no less than three times: Find a girl who needs saving, and drop her once she stands on her own two feet.
As Nucky points out though, there are "practical questions" that need answering, because as independent as Margaret has made herself, it's not as though Nucky isn't still her provider. That I am thankful for, because even when they are fighting, those two are fun to watch on screen together.
At the end of "You'd Be Surprised," we're left with a few practical questions of our own that Nucky is going to have to answer, like what if the Department of Justice actually starts putting people in jail for bootlegging? And, more urgently, what if a homicidal and nude Gyp Rosetti shows up at your door looking for vengeance?
Three random facts from "You'd Be Surprised"
1 - Rosetti may be slow on the uptake, but he's a soothsayer in terms of the newspaper industry's challenges in the digital age. "All this stuff happened yesterday," he laments after paying for the day's evening edition.
2 - Andrew W. Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury we see testifying before the congressional committee, created financial policies in the 1920s labeled as "Mellonomics," which would be some of Ronald Reagan's chief inspiration for "Reaganomics."
3 - If you thought the banter between Nucky and Margaret was especially good this week, it may be because "You'd Be Surprised" was written by husband-and-wife team Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider.