At a glance, “bone for tuna” is just a mispronunciation — a botched attempt at an Italian pleasantry (buona fortuna, meaning good luck) and nothing more.
But for Gyp Rossetti, “bone for tuna” is a condescending jab at the end of Nucky Thompson’s long list of deceptions and for the characters on Boardwalk Empire, it should be obvious by now that every lie will have its consequences.
Throughout season three’s third episode, we encounter several characters dealing with the fallout of this season’s events their lies, whether good or bad.
It’s still early in the season and the show is juggling several disparate plot lines, which means many characters don’t appear on the episode at all (Chalky White and Al Capone are absent, and Eli Thompson and Owen Sleater might have two lines between them). Delving into so many stories slows the pace of the episode considerably, but it does leave room for the kind of deep character exploration one should expect from Boardwalk Empire.
Nucky returns to forefront on this episode and for the first time this season we get an unfettered look at his internal struggle. Despite his many surface-level problems, Nucky’s biggest hang-up these days is his intense guilt over murdering Jimmy Darmody, the boy he raised. It’s a bit of a stretch to assume that it’s taken Nucky over a year and a half to start feeling this kind of guilt, but it’s clear from this episode that the murder has been eating away at Nucky, previously the nicest half-gangster in town.
Split between his philanthropy-by-day cover and his bootlegging empire, Nucky’s life is even more divided than in previous years, when he was the treasurer of Atlantic City (everyone expects a politician to be at least a little bit dirty).
In reality, Nucky’s charitable donations are a front put up by Margret — who is using her situation to perform actual charity work — and their marriage is itself façade. Behind Nucky’s socialite image lurks his gangster persona, one that he still hasn’t entirely come to terms with in spite of the many choices he’s made.
Throughout the episode, Nucky is haunted by images of a childhood Jimmy, albeit with a fresh bullet wound in his face. As Nucky sits in church, awaiting a Knight Commander of St. Gregory award for his philanthropy, he stares on in horror at the boy’s choir, where he sees the phantom Jimmy singing along.
As is made abundantly clear by the episodes’ often overly blunt imagery — including one of Boardwalk Empire’s oddest and most commonly used idiosyncrasies, the Sopranos-style “got you, it was just a dream sequence” trick — Nucky’s status as a criminal overlord has less to do with his personality and everything to do with the actions he’s been forced to take.
As the Bishop praises philanthropist-Nucky for all his wonderful work, we know how much of a lie it really is and how much that lie is costing Nucky his stability. When he suddenly grabs Margaret’s hand after seeing the Jimmy apparition, we know this isn’t the ironclad Nucky Thompson we are used to.
Unluckily for Nucky, the imbalance is spilling over into his bootlegging operation, leading him to more buildup towards his inevitable gang war with Gyp. Offering the Sicilian a month’s supply of booze as a tactic to quell their dispute, Nucky and Gyp go for a night on the town, Nucky very obviously pretending to enjoy Gyp’s company in order to placate the hot head.
After promising and failing to see Gyp off the next morning, Nucky’s nice-guy veneer crumbles under the weight of Owen Sleater’s mispronunciation of “buona fortuna,” which was a note Nucky had left for Owen to read to Gyp.
Gyp’s rage is palpable, especially when he unceremoniously burns the Tabor Heights police sheriff alive after the man wishes Gyp good luck.
Nucky’s ill-planned deceptions have only inflated Gyp’s rage. Gyp’s actions are comically outrageous, which at times can make him seem like more of a caricature than a fully realized character, but his unrepentant violence plays very well against Nucky, who still can’t get over the one man he’s murdered with his own hands.
Whereas Gyp is the clear external consequence of his lies, Nucky’s personal turmoil makes up the internal aspect. The pain continues when he searches for solace — and perhaps even a solution to his woes — in a dangerous encounter with everyone’s favorite half-faced assassin, Richard Harrow.
Aside from the most basic lie of his half-plaster face, Harrow’s social and physical deformities don’t keep him from being one of the more self-actualized characters on the show.
Harrow’s acceptance of his status as a killer makes him the perfect person for Nucky to ask about his problems. In what is arguably the best scene in the episode, Harrow enters Nucky’s office as the living paragon of consequence.
When they enter, Harrow has Mickey Doyle on his knees in front of him, being held at gunpoint. Apparently, Mickey had been telling people that he killed Manny Horvits, a lie which now puts him at the end of Harrow’s (the real killer) gun.
After Mickey begs for his life and runs away, Nucky questions Harrow about the number of men he’s killed, to which Harrow awesomely and terrifyingly responds “63.” Nucky asks Harrow if he ever thinks about the men he’s killed and Harrow gives a serious (yet sarcastic) yes.
The response gives Nucky pause to think — if this is how every murder will feel, can Nucky handle the pain? Or perhaps Nucky is reading it differently — if even the most emotionless killer feels this sort of remorse, then surely Nucky truly is the gangster he is trying to be and not simply the lying philanthropist. The viewers can’t know yet, of course, but we can see the consequence in his confusion.
Nucky’s lonely choice of “who will I become” is a painful decision all its own and one that plays out in the dichotomy between his dreams of murdering young Jimmy and his inability to reach his new lady friend, Billie Kent, throughout the episode.
What’s great about Nucky’s scene with Harrow — and Boardwalk Empire in general — is that you can’t quite know what the characters are really feeling. The pieces are all there, the implications are beautifully crafted and easy to understand, but the characters on Boardwalk Empire are people, and people’s emotions don’t always follow a single path.
This idea is translated similarly to Nelson Van Alden, who is experiencing a crisis of personality all his own over in Chicago. Living under the assumed named George Mueller, crazy-eyes Nelson — once a pious cop — is still trying to impose his black and white worldview on a fugitive lifestyle that is much more complicated than that.
In the comfort of his own home, we see Nelson enjoying a sexual moment with his wife, our first indication that he is changing. Back at the office where he works, Nelson finally agrees to go with his colleagues to a speakeasy, much in opposition to the moral man he once was. Nelson is clearly uncomfortable, and when prohibition officers raid the bar he is put in the terrifying position of being captured by the police he used to work for.
Once again, every lie has its consequence — only this time, the consequence is Nelson breaking his first law. On episode one, we witness Nelson saving Irish gangster Dean O’Banion from Al Capone’s wrath, which was a nice set-up for Nelson’s probable descent into crime.
In this scene, Nelson’s lies have led him to paying off a prohibition agent to let him escape without a charge on his record. It’s just one further step away from the kind of person Nelson thinks he wants to be, and soon, we won’t be able to recognize him at all.
Once again, Boardwalk Empire has given us a slow-paced episode, one that contemplates character’s actions more than giving us new actions for those characters to have to deal with. Boardwalk Empire, however, has always at its core been about studying its characters study.
When something as simple as the mispronunciation of “buona fortuna” can mean so much to so many characters, you know the show’s creators have done their job building an intense character backdrop. Whether or not any of the characters will actually have good luck remains to be seen — but knowing Boardwalk Empire, “bone for tuna” is just as big of a lie as it sounds.
-This episode gave us a short update on Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, who together have started a heroin operation and gotten embroiled in a drug feud with another New York City gangster. For whatever reason, this narrative thread seems like more of a distraction than anything of substance, but we’ll have to see how it plays out.
-Gyp’s creepy affection for Gillian Darmody could turn into an alliance against Nucky — again, we’ll just have to wait.
-This season’s body count, so far: 7