Last Sunday’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire” proved once again that even with an hour devoted almost exclusively to exposition, the quality of what’s available on cable consistently exceeds that of network shows by an incredibly wide margin. The care in character development, the detail presented and most importantly, the manner of storytelling, not only better the broadcast product—they’re easily more absorbing than what you can see at your local multiplex.
In “Spaghetti and Coffee” we catch up with two characters missing from BE’s season premiere: Eli Thompson and Chalky White. Emerging from 16 months in prison for killing Hans Schroeder (Margaret’s first husband) Eli is so diminished that quite honestly I did not recognize him in the promos. Things go from bad to worse when he’s greeted by a welcoming committee of two—Mickey Doyle and his giggle—and he learns what the lost time has done to his family. As equally desirous as Eli to secure a decent future for his children, Chalky finds to his dismay that his eldest daughter romanticizes his rather shady life as far more “interesting” than that promised by the young medical student who’s courting her. Both plots were wonderfully set in motion—Chalky’s sit-down with Maybelle was as intricate as his negotiations with Nucky, and Eli’s redemption when Owen Sleator, Nucky’s new right hand, turned to him, not Mickey, for advice, was a quietly satisfying pay-off (as was Shea Whigham’s marvelous inflection on “What’s your pleasure….Boss?”).
Having suffered from Bobby Cannavale fatigue after this past season of “Nurse Jackie,” I was not looking forward to watching him week after week in “Boardwalk Empire.” However, he brought a welcome tongue-in-cheek presence to this episode. The diner scene was an instant classic—Gyp sitting primly at the counter with his hands folded, asking the waitress to describe spaghetti and meatballs, wincing oh-so-slightly when she offered the dish with butter in place of red sauce, and exchanging pained looks with his henchman over this WASP take on pasta. When Gyp and his pal finally dug into their blue plate specials and he opined “Better than Momma’s, huh?,” I fell off the sofa laughing. Calling himself “D.L. Collingsworth” and doing the “I got a gun, he got a gun” routine was just icing on the cake.
Sunday can’t come fast enough.