“Cinematic” is a term that often gets thrown around in the television conversation. We praise how some shows are “so cinematic” because they remind us more of film than standard television fare. It’s true that television, even with the major storytelling evolution it has experienced in the last couple of decades, still has plenty of ground to cover when it comes to matching the visual dexterity of film. Most television shows still retain a flat point-and-shoot visual style, but there are also plenty of shows that have been able to get around the hectic production scheduling of television and allow directors freedom to play with form. Boardwalk Empire remains, and has always been, that kind of show.
We begin the episode by catching up with Eli Thompson, and the camera’s spiral-out clues us in to the general turmoil his life has descended into since his drastic measures at the end of season four. Following his divorce, Eli became a disheveled mess and now works alongside George Mueller (I still call him Nelson Van Alden, but whatever) in Chicago for Al Capone, who has now completed his transition to major power figure in the criminal underworld. Watching last week’s premiere and now “The Good Listener” further proves what most Boardwalk Empire fans have long understood: protagonist Nucky Thompson is not nearly as interesting as everyone else surrounding him.
Nucky still gets sizable screen time, continuing his Godfather Part II-esque dual storyline, but breaking that time up with other characters provides a significantly more engaging hour than last week’s. Because Prohibition agent and general Capone nemesis Elliot Ness (played by Jim True-Frost, another The Wire alumni along with Domenick Lombardozzi) raided Eli and George’s booze warehouse, the two need to pay back the money that was lost. The Chicago storyline, even with its tragic and violent overtones, also provides unexpected doses of humor in a show not known for showing its lighter side.
But while the other Thompson brother is now fully in the thug business, his son Willie is trying to make things better for himself by becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately, his family connection to known criminals presents an obstacle for his efforts. Willie and Nucky’s relationship has developed to the point where Nucky is the true father figure to the young man, or at least Nucky provides more of a mentor role in his life. And with his true father wallowing away as a drunk in Chicago, it’s understandable for Willie to feel greater kinship toward his uncle at this point.
Meanwhile, Gillian is dealing with her own problems now that she’s living in an asylum for the criminally insane. After a clever fake out where it looks like she’s enjoying a spa bathhouse, we see the real conditions she’s living in (one of which includes Gretchen Mol and the other actresses fulfilling the usual HBO nudity quota). Her storyline is so separated, subject matter wise, from everything else going on that it’s hard to understand how this will connect back to the Nucky/Lansky conflict or the Chicago thread. However, this show has a tendency to wait until much later in the game to reveal how everything ties together, and with this being the final season I’m willing to play along for now.
In a similar vein, the concluding moments of “The Good Listener” serve as a nice bookend to its visual devices and an indicator of things to come. In classic mobster fashion, Nucky has his bodyguard leave a message for Lansky and Luciano in the form of a fatal knife-pinned postcard (“Greetings from Havana”) on one of their men. Now with both sides making their first moves, the stage is set for their final showdown. If the downward spiral camerawork that ends the episode is any indication, everything’s about to fall apart real soon.
Episode Rating: 8/10