Power is a performance. It’s a matter of knowing your audience, picking up on whether you should be funny or scary, when to play to the cheap seats or act with awards-caliber subtlety. Isn’t this the obstacle faced by Steve Buscemi in the minds of many viewers? His quiet, hangdog intensity as Nucky Thompson is an outlier in an era of volcanic, Byronic TV antiheroes. But that’s the point: For all his successes before and after Prohibition, Thompson’s decision to become more than “half a gangster” has forced him into a role he can’t quite master. As Boardwalk Empire hits the halfway mark of its final season in tonight’s episode — “Cuanto” — it examines the nature of that performance, and those of other characters who’ve found themselves shoved onto stage.
As a boy, the future chairman of the boardwalk is brought before the Commodore, who offers the young Nucky a glimpse of his grand plans for the Jersey shore (and an unwitting peek at his collection of photos of sexualized young girls), grinning when the kid notes that this is Atlantic City “as you wish it to be.” That wish includes everything from a stronger transportation infrastructure to segregated housing. But Nucky’s ability to follow along does nothing to placate his boss. “You think you’re a smart boy.” “If I say yes, you’ll think I’m boasting. If I say no you’ll think I’m lying.” “Don’t try to parse me.” The boy is trying his best, but this command performance is unscripted, in front of the toughest crowd in town.
So he’s naturally flabbergasted when he and his brother Eli are rewarded for going off-book. After catching them breaking into the Commodore’s hotel for a taste of the good life (read: indoor plumbing), Sheriff Lindsay takes the Thompson boys to his own house for a home-cooked meal with his kind, politically minded wife and smart, friendly family. They eat good food, they tell corny jokes, they negotiate a role for the patriarch in Mrs. Lindsay's temperance crusade, over which the Sheriff conspiratorially shares a nod and a wink with Nucky. It's too much for the kid, who breaks down crying at his first glimpse of a life that's emotionally rewarding — a life where he can simply be himself. Cut to an hour later, when he's asking the Sheriff to assassinate his own father. The terms with which Lindsay demurs are revealing: “Don't go where you don't belong. Don't take what isn't yours. Don't pass your burdens on to others. Don't make me do my job — because I will.” Know your role, Deputy Sheriff Thompson.
The rest of my review of tonight’s Boardwalk Empire for Rolling Stone continues along these lines.