At the end of last week’s stellar season premiere, Nucky’s new bodyguard slices the ear off of a would-be assassin. Episode Two, “The Good Listener,” continues this auricular theme in both its visuals and its message. The opening shot is of Eli’s ear (both the outer and the inner) as Eli lies passed-out, drunk on the floor. He awakes to a new Federal Treasury Agent—one not on the Capone payroll—raiding his warehouse. We find out later that this new Fed is Elliot Ness, played by Jim True-Frost (Pryzbylewski from The Wire). True-Frost, in a nice hat tip to his former show, tells his agents to “Put the cash on the table,” a refrain similar to that of the Baltimore PD, who wanted “Drugs on the table” for their press conferences.
The rest of the Chicago characters, absent last week, are also featured in “The Good Listener.” Capone, now the boss of bosses and a worldwide celebrity, isn’t listening to anybody (not that he was ever interested in other people’s opinions). Instead, he’s giving interviews to Variety Magazine while clownishly shouting and joking to a room full of yes men. His inattention is costing him, and not just the twenty grand that Ness seized. He’s allowed a mole to penetrate his organization at the highest levels, an oversight that will eventually lead to his downfall.
Capone demands that Eli and Van Alden replace the missing twenty grand taken by Ness. Pairing Van Alden and Eli is a stroke of genius, bringing levity to a show that often revels in its heavy atmosphere. The two work like a twisted version of The Odd Couple; Eli, a urine-soaked Oscar, and Van Alden a psychopathic Felix. This being Boardwalk Empire, any humor is still of the dark variety. The funniest line of the episode, and maybe of the entire series, comes after Eli brutally slays two Capone couriers. As they flee the scene, Van Alden (as usual, played to perfection by Michael Shannon) screams, “Why must it always be pandemonium?”
There is no humor in Gillian’s storyline, which also makes its first appearance of the season. Like others in the episode, Gillian wants to do some careful listening, only for her, now a resident of the “booby hatch,” the voices she must listen to are the ones inside her head. We aren’t sure if Gillian was sentenced to the asylum immediately after Season 4 or if she was transferred there for other reasons. Apparently, neither does Gillian, who is forced to trade one of her old glamorous dresses to a guard for a pen and paper in order to organize her thoughts as to how she came to be in her current predicament. Writer Terrence Winter sets up this trade as if it were going to be a more lurid, prison-style transaction between Gillian and the guard. I suppose this was to add tension to this story line, but it felt unnecessary and ultimately a bit gimmicky. It’s not like Boardwalk needs to add more pathologies to the show.
This week’s flashbacks focus on the death of Nucky’s sister and the conflict between Nucky’s father and the Commodore. Ethan has been portrayed as a drunk, and a child abuser, but he isn’t a complete dolt, as it’s he who realizes that Nucky has crossed over to the Commodore’s side (that it’s Ethan’s decision to drink the money given to him by the Commodore for a proper burial that causes Nucky to choose the Commodore is apparently beside the point). So far, the Commodore seen in these flashbacks is no more sinister than any other political boss constantly on the lookout for votes, which is why there is more than a touch of foreboding in his response to the death of Nucky’s sister, “Is there anything worse under God’s blue heaven than the loss of an innocent child?” It’s unclear whether the Commodore has started taking the innocence from children yet in another way, or whether that behavior starts later, but we do know that Gillian will find out that horror all too well.
Mob intrigue was at the forefront of the episode and helped to ramp up the tension throughout. As suspected, Meyer and Luciano are not estranged from one another. They, along with Benny Siegel, have big plans that don’t include leaving Nucky or Luciano’s new boss, Salvatore Maranzano, breathing. Nucky learns of this plan from one of Gyp Rosetti’s former men, Tonino Sandrelli. Tonino tells Nucky that it was Lansky and Luciano who ordered the hit on him in Havana. Nucky sends a message back to Lansky by dropping a dead Tonino off at his doorstep, with a Havana postcard stuck to his body with a knife. Tonino, though, wasn’t killed by Nucky only to send a message to Lansky; he’s also murdered for his role in the Billie Kent killing. In one of Boardwalk’s greatest reveals, Nucky leaves Tonino alone in the restaurant to finish his drink. A waiter, on Nucky’s behest, then points out to Tonino a caricature of Billie Kent hanging above their table. Tonino, a worried expression on his face, looks to Nucky’s coffee-sipping, ear-slicing bodyguard, whose menacing demeanor confirms Tonino’s fate. Finally, to close the circle on the episode, the last shot is of Tonino’s corpse. His head, of course, is missing an ear.
While Winter and director Allen Coulter have fun with the ear visuals, “The Good Listener” is about Nucky’s ability to listen. Nucky’s strength has always been his skill at discerning the reality of a complex situation. Now, though, it takes Johnny Torrio to explain to Nucky his new reality. After learning of the hit attempt, Torrio tells him, “How many times you need to hear it? Take the hint and retire already.”
But Nucky, at least for now, doesn’t want to hear it. He hints that one reason for his stubbornness might be financial. In his meeting with the Mayflower Grain Board (which includes Joe Kennedy, a businessmen with a shady background like Nucky, who did manage to attain if not respectability, then legitimacy), Nucky explains that he can’t bankroll the Bacardi rollout by himself because the Crash hit him as hard as anyone else.
The real reason Nucky won’t let go, I think, is more psychological than monetary.
After learning of the death of Nucky’s sister, the Commodore tells Nucky to go and “find solace in your work” sweeping the porch. Throughout the series, this advice seems to have stuck with Nucky. Work has always been where Nucky has found solace, despite whatever upheaval was occurring in his personal life. Nucky may not be good at relationships, but he is, as he tells the Mayflower board, one of the most successful bootleggers in the country. The difference now is that Nucky is facing a new era, the end of Prohibition, with no friends in the legitimate world, and enemies in the illegitimate one that are smarter and more dangerous than any he has yet to face. Better listen good, Nuck.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.