Boardwalk Empire may still have a lot of elaborately bloody maneuvering over control of the liquor trade, but it’s become about larger themes of guilt, innocence, and responsibility. And tonight, those pressures culminated in two confessions, one voluntary and complete if unclear, one coerced and honest, but incomplete. The state of Margaret and Nelson’s souls, and the pressures put on the United States Attorney General, make Nucky’s problems out as the minor distractions that they are.
Nelson’s confession to Rose is prompted by two events. First, there’s the unnerving sense that he’s settled into something like domestic tranquility with Lucy. When she whines that she can’t get comfortable, saying “I’m sorry, Daddy. It’s just…I want to be done with this,” Nelson may chide her first, reminding her of his colleague who remains horribly burned in hospital, but he says he’ll get her the lemons that are feeding her craving anyway. Then, when he visits said colleague (telling another agent that he’s alive because “He loves the lord, sir,” only to have that man remark that “It seems a pretty one-sided relationship.”) Van Alden said he thinks the man is accusing him from his hospital bed and calls Rose in a panic, saying he’s not worthy of her or his badge.
The confession doesn’t produce the cleansing that he wants, of course. Lucy, after begging for help from a neighbor boy only to have the curtains closed on her, after not getting her lemons after Nelson lingers at prayer and at the hospital, puts up her hair, lays down a towel, and gives birth to the baby herself. “I did it all myself,” she tells Nelson, seemingly having found herself back to a place of pride and strength, “It’s a girl.” And just as she seems to have found her way back from helplessness, from not needing Nelson anymore, Rose shows up. Nelson’s excuses are pathetic, telling her that he intended to give her the baby. And there’s something delightful and ferocious about seeing her f!ght back against him, sinking her teeth into his arm, running out on what has to be a soul-crippling marriage.
Margaret, by contrast, stays with Nucky even though she’s beginning to have doubts about the extent to which he’s attracted to her and the foundation of their relationship. She’s punishing Katie for having the temerity to pursue what Margaret wants but won’t go after, complaining, “Don’t be coy, Katie. It doesn’t suit you…There are children in this house, as you’re well aware.” And then when Nucky expresses concerns that she’ll go too far in confession, asking, “How Catholic are you? You’re not seriously planning on divulging anything sensitive, are you?” she slaps back at him, saying, “If you’re feeling guilty, I suggest you take that up with a priest yourself.” But ultimately she confesses her attraction to the young man who’s been about her house to the priest, leaving the larger questions of her involvement with Nucky unanswered.
And while the show’s spending a lot of time on Nucky and Jimmy’s plotting, it’s starting to feel dull and irrelevant. As the Attorney General tells Nucky tonight, what happens to him is small potatoes next to a senatorial investigation that could derail the Harding administration’s looting of the federal government. The liquor trade is big. But government corruption and heroin are each, in their own way, vastly bigger.