“Cuanto,” the fourth episode of the season, starts with a revealing flashback. Summer is over and the Commodore dismisses Nucky (but not before Nucky sees both the Commodore’s vision for Atlantic City as well as his pornographic photo collection of young girls). Nucky, lost without a job and furious over his family’s moral and economic squalor, breaks into the hotel to show Eli the wonder of running water. Nucky foolishly indulges in a bath and is caught by Sherriff Lindsay, the Commodore’s right hand man. Nucky expects the worst, but instead the Sheriff treats Nucky and Eli like family, providing them a home-cooked meal and a night of domestic happiness. Sheriff Lindsay’s kindness overwhelms Nucky, who cries at the dinner table.
Sheriff Lindsay is the first decent man Nucky has known, and his influence on Nucky can’t be overstated. He is the direct inspiration for Nucky eventually becoming the sheriff himself, as well as the conscience that will nag at Nucky for the rest of his life, telling young Nucky, “Don’t be foolish. There’s enough trouble in the world. Don’t go where you don’t belong. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t pass your burdens onto others.”
Two men without consciences, Luciano and Capone, have a tension filled meet-up in Chicago. Luciano is there to feel out Capone about forming a nationwide Italian-only mafia. Capone, an international superstar, isn’t interested. He’d rather watch film clips of himself. For Capone, it seems like a money grab by Luciano. All give and no take. Luciano, on the other hand, views Capone as a buffoon who is too interested in fame to see the big picture. They are literally and figuratively the past and future of organized crime.
Capone, portrayed by Stephen Graham as a psychotic coke addict, seems ready to explode at any moment. So when Luciano recognizes Van Alden as one of the Feds that popped him in Atlantic City, it feels like we’ve seen the last of our favorite iron salesman. Van Alden, though, even with a gun in his mouth, convinces Capone to spare his life by appealing to Capone’s pride and his resentment toward Luciano. While Capone pardons Van Alden, he takes his frustrations out later on an underling in a brutal, bloody scene. Still simmering, he then calls Nucky to warn him about Luciano’s plans to “tidy up” Atlantic City.
Nucky is only at home to take Capone’s call because his flight to Cuba to finalize the Bacardi deal was cancelled due to a heavy storm. Once the trip is called off, he sends Sally to deliver the money and to suss out the severity of the most recent civil unrest. Though she senses the upheaval is a bigger deal than past flare-ups, she makes the payment anyways. On her way home to Havana, she’s stopped by the military and accused of being out after curfew. When her offer of a bribe is rebuffed (her question, “Cuanto?,” giving the episode its title), she realizes how perilous her situation really is. Sally tries to fight back by stealing a guard’s gun, but it’s of no use. She is killed for the crime of being an American.
The storm not only saves Nucky’s life (without it, he would have been lying dead in a Cuban jungle instead of Sally), but it also allows him to reconcile with Margaret. After watching Kennedy successfully flirt with Margaret, Nucky expresses his jealousy by “being nice” to her. They share a bottle of wine at lunch, where they give each another pointed digs about their marital failures. Time has softened their feelings, though, and none of their elbows draw any blood. In fact, the day goes well enough that Margaret is disappointed when Nucky does not invite her back to his house for the night.
Margaret isn’t just confused by Nucky’s romantic intentions. She’s also in the dark about his cryptic plan to fix the Carolyn Rothstein situation. All Nucky tells her is that she will be an instrumental player in it, that Carolyn will be appeased, that Margaret’s firm will be saved and, one can assume, that Nucky will profit from it. The details aren’t divulged, but they seem to be inspired by Nucky’s meeting with Kennedy last episode. What seemed at the time like clunky dialogue meant to highlight Joe Kennedy’s shady stock market past was actually clunky dialogue meant to eventually turn on a light bulb for Nucky to save himself.
Nucky does tell Margaret that he is ready to get out of the criminal life. But, as the episode’s title translates from Spanish, how much does Nucky really want out? How much money will his new plan yield? How much does Luciano want an Italian running things in Atlantic City? No se. The good news is we only have four episodes left to find out.
At the midpoint of Boardwalk Empire’s final season, Nucky appears to be in dire straits. He’s almost broke. What little money he did have is now lost in Cuba. Joe Kennedy won’t partner with him on the Bacardi deal; Sally, his one true ally, is dead; and Lucky Luciano is closing in on him for the crime of not being Italian.
It’s a familiar predicament for Nucky. As Margaret tells him, “Nothing changes does it? Men to guard you. Plans within plans. Things you say and things you don’t.” An apt summary of the entire series, it also explains why Nucky, despite his foreboding circumstances, remains serene and reflective. As always, Nucky has a plan.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.