Gyp Rosetti Sharpens Boardwalk Empire's Edge

"Nobody here can take a joke."

"What's that? A gun? I got a gun. He got a gun. He got a gun... Everybody got guns!"

"Nothing's personal? What the fck is life, if it's not personal?!" 

"You smug kike midget, creeping around like a fcking dentist with the aether."

-- Gyp Rosetti, Boardwalk Empire's villainous saviour.

Gyp Rosetti: You talkin' to me?
Boardwalk Empire had been getting pretty boring.

Fortunately, the show creators realized this and adjusted course accordingly, killing off a major character at the end of season two and introducing a new one in the current season.

This effectively administered a jolt of much-needed vitality into the HBO series, based (loosely, very loosely) on a true crime  story about fortune, power and greed inside 1920s Atlantic City (and Chicago, New York, and various locals in and around).

Somewhere in the second season, it seemed increasingly apparent that behind all the great character actors, slickly written dialogue, lush wardrobes and well-crafted scenery, something big was missing: an interesting enough story to set the whole thing in motion.

But then, as if in recognition of this, the creators ended the second season with a bang -- literally -- the sound of Nucky firing a bullet into his "son" Jimmy Darmody; it was unbelievable that the show would kill off such a key character who had carried so much screen time for two seasons. How could the show continue without one of its key characters?

But the writers knew what they were doing, and as a result I don't think anyone has even thought of the Darmody character since Gyp Rosetti joined the film in season three, currently running on HBO on Sunday nights. Gyp is a gangster from New York who was puttering southward to purchase booze from Nucky when he had an epiphany, a way to move in on both Nucky's and Rothstein's action. It was almost a foreshadowing of what happened with Bugsy Siegel later on when he was puttering around in the Nevada desert.

This new character brought a larger degree of badly needed mystery and danger to  the show.
Gyp enjoying the afterglow of a gentle bout of lovemaking.

At the same time, some of the subplots and members of the ensemble cast have been quite well done. What really piques my interest are the Capone-Torrio Chicago storyline, and the Rothstein-Luciano-Lansky New York storyline, the latter in particular is really gaining steam as a war is about to break out between Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano.

One actor deserves to be singled out for special praise here. Stephen Graham does an excellent job at playing a young and ruthless Al Capone. Would you believe Graham is a Brit, so when not acting, he speaks the Queen's English! I know a lot about Capone -- but I didn't know he had had a deaf son, and it is here that Graham finds something he can really dig his thespian teeth into: Al Capone's soft side, the side of the murderous mobster who weeps bitterly at his child's bedside, dying inside because he knows his young boy will never hear the spirit-soaring beauty of music (Al was a great opera enthusiast).

Buscemi holds his own, but would Jimmy
Gandolfini have done a better job?
Then there is the story of the seemingly psychotic former federal agent Nelson Van Alden who went from hunting Nucky to being placed on Nucky's pad. Somehow, he ends up slowly murdering his own partner in a most torturous manner -- by drowning him in a river in what looks like a bizarre mimic of a Christian baptism.

Actor Michael Shannon, who is playing the Ice Man in the pending biopic of the supposed Mafia hit man, brings an incredible level of creepiness to his portrayal of Van Alden, now living in Chicago under an alias, eking out a living by peddling irons door to door. He is also living with a Nordic lady who ends up proving she is in fact extremely devoted to this repressed, deeply troubled man for whom we can't help but have some pity; he must have had a nightmare of a childhood judging by the way he must visibly contort the muscles of his face in order to coax it into a smile. This woman living with him and taking care of (their? his?) son literally bashes another federal agent's brains in when she thinks he is about to arrest her beloved mann. It turns out the agent was merely an unhappy customer who had dropped by to return the piece of crap iron he had purchased from Van Alden; he had not tracked down a fugitive former federal agent. The wife's murderous efforts are immediately stopped by Van Alden, but it is too late; a tragic attempt to save her husband turns into a near-comical murder scene. The man, his head busted open, is convulsing, and dying -- but not slowly or quietly enough.

"I vill 'old 'is legs," the wife says. Van Alden replies "please avert your eyes"  as he lays on top of the man to finish the job. What a couple! He later goes to Capone enemy Dean O'Banion, whom Van Alden met earlier in another comic relief moment in which the fugitive lawman inadvertently saved the Irish gangster's life. At the end of the last episode, Van Alden visits O'Banion's flower shop for help getting rid of the body; it looks like this fugitive fed's shooting skills will be coming in handy once again any episode now -- and his life will take on a greater meaning than that of a door-to-door salesman.

Van Alden was known for his lady killer smile.
So this rich tapestry of subplots peopled by a colorful cast of characters makes the show worth watching whatever its shortfalls.

The fictional Jimmy Darmody, whom Nucky killed, had been a major character whose storyline and development created a lot of the fuel driving what little A-plot there was for the first two seasons. Positioned as a major character with enough inner demons to get tons of dramatic mileage out of, Darmody was Nucky's prodigal son. His death at the end of season two was so major, one could almost begin watching the first episode of season three without missing many beats, as many of the early key plot lines were wiped out when Nucky fired those bullets into his erstwhile "adopted" son.

And I join the debate about whether the Darmody killing had been planned "dramatically" all along or was just dropped into the soup to help thicken it up late in the production. It seems like the producers knew that while they had an interesting show with great writers and directors, excellent production values that enabled them to re-create the 1920s, maybe -- just maybe -- they were still missing a strong, intriguing enough "big overarching story."

Killing Darmody was like hitting reset.

"Missing the forest for the trees? You callin' me a monkey?"
Darmody was such a major part of the show, the one character who seemed from the get-go to be the hungry go-getter eager to do whatever he had to do to one day slip into his mentor Nucky's shoes. Only he tried a little too soon, and was part of the plot to whack Nucky, which was birthed when jealous brother Eli blurted out: "Let's just kill him!" Or something like that.

Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) is the son of one-time Atlantic City boss Commodore Louis Kaestner and showgirl Gillian Darmody. What the hell is a commodore? Darmody, it seems, was the one betrayer Nucky could not forgive; he gave Eli another chance, perhaps owing to their relationship as siblings.

(I am also wondering why we were "treated" to the scene in Darmody's college dorm room in which he beds his own mother. I believe this occurred in the previous-to-last episode of season two. Why do the writers concoct such bizarre situations? Who wants to watch a son and his mother going at it? There had always been an uncomfortable whiff of incest around the whole mother-son dynamic of these two... Maybe Nucky was right to put the young hoodlum out of his misery.)

I guess it is time to shine the spotlight on Steve Buscemi -- yes, I did wait quite a long time to introduce the star. Buscemi clearly has proven his chops as a great actor and is certainly at the top of his game here. But I can't help but feel that this plump pearl of a role should have gone to another actor, one who more closely resembles the man upon whom the character is based. (I really hate it when actors look nothing like the people they are playing -- and with the reality TV explosion, this has grown exponentially annoying for me.)

And what is really irritating is that we have an actor who closely resembles Nucky Thompson, the fictional version of real-life Atlantic City political boss Enoch L. Johnson, and this actor would've been great. The only problem is his name is James Gandolfini, and the "Boardwalk" producers seem to have put commercial concerns before artistic; or maybe it's the other way around, I just don't know. I could imagine the reasons not to use Gandolfini: He just played Tony Soprano, he's already done the gangster thing, he will expect too much money, etc. and so forth. For whatever reason, I think it's a shame because Gandolfini has not done a thing as an actor that is worth remembering since Tony Soprano faded to black in that jam-packed New Jersey eatery.

I am not the only one who thinks this about the casting. Reading around I found an article in which "Boardwalk" creator Terence Winter is quoted as having said: "If we were going to cast accurately what the real Nucky looked like, we'd have cast Jim Gandolfini."

The article also noted: "Winter wanted to stray from the real life Johnson as much as possible."

Why? Why did he want to do that? So he'd have an excuse for not casting Gandolfini?

Then we have this bit of trivia courtesy of The real life figure of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson served as the inspiration for the "Nucky" Thompson. Johnson was a physically commanding man, both tall and heavyset, with a receding hairline. He was quite unlike actor Steve Buscemi and resembled the character of Tony Soprano from The Sopranos. "Boardwalk Empire" creator Terence Winter also wrote for The Sopranos and created the character "Nucky" Thompson with Buscemi in mind, partially to make a central figure differing largely from Tony Soprano.

There you have it: differing largely from Tony Soprano.

The problem with Buscemi is that he does not have a powerful presence, and with this character Buscemi is definitely "playing against type," as they call it. Virtually any member of the cast, including the women, look like they could beat the crap out of Nucky even on a bad day.

Buscemi does turn in a masterful performance; Gandolfini would've created magic.

But Nucky's biggest problem -- and this is where his lack of personal weight really is highlighted -- is that since he was kicked out of the treasurer's office, he seems to have no real power base -- no soldiers, no gunmen behind him to protect him and carry out his every order. He has some protection -- the old German who is quick with his pistol and who has already saved Nucky's life once; and the Irish guy who seems bright and daring enough to one day betray Nucky, but also too smart and ethical to actually do it. Besides, he has already betrayed Nucky in another sense by screwing Nucky's repressed Catholic wife, who these days has nothing better to do than create an educational program to teach women about the birds and the bees. How does that subplot strike you? I wonder sometimes if Winter and Martin Scorsese, a creator and producer of the show as well, are playing a joke on us here, but I don't spend a lot of time wondering about it.

So I was really hesitant to get involved in season three this year, and almost made up my mind to drop it from my schedule of "TV shows that I religiously watch each week." But I did watch it. And I was in for a treat. I am talking about, of course, the Joe "The Boss" Masseria-affiliated Gyp Rosetti.

Played by the sleek, superb Bobby Cannavale, Gyp is an ultra-violent Sicilian gangster from New York City, whose mood can turn from happy to psychotic on a dime. He finds insult in the most inane, conventional remark or cliched phrase. "Good luck" really pisses him off. Gyp, to me, represents the kind of old-world "mustache Petes" that Lucky and Meyer would eventually have to deal with, as they would and did deal with Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. This is where well-known Mafia history comes into play; we know what happened to Joe and Sal -- but since Gyp, apparently, is a fictional character, we do not know his fate.

But we do know that he doesn't kill Nucky, Rothstein, Luciano or Lansky.

Winter, ever the studious scribe, has even created a profile for Gyp, fleshing out this character: "Gyp Rosetti was born and raised in Sicily. His family was extremely poor and lived in a cave carved on the side of a mountain, not a house.

"Personality-wise, Rosetti has a strong inferiority complex and a very short temper, reacting violently to comments that he perceives as disrespectful, and in particular to those that make reference to his own ignorance. Many times this isn't actually the intended meaning of those comments. By his own admission, Rosetti often doesn't even consider the possibility of a message being innocuous until after he has reacted already to it, his temper having clearly the upper hand over his rationality."

Put it like this -- remember Pesci in Goodfellas? Rosetti makes him look like a naughty school kid who likes to put a rotten apple on the teacher's desk when her back as turned.

Pissed off at Nucky for not treating him with the appropriate respect and what-have-you, Gyp concocts a racket right their on the coast between Atlantic City and New York City.

He takes over the town of Tabor Heights, New Jersey, which he found himself stuck in one evening after his car blew one of its tires. A passing motorist makes the ill-fated decision to stop and help, and ends up being beaten to death by Gyp, whom the good samaritan had chided for not knowing that "3 in 1" refers to a brand of oil. Oh, and Gyp later on also sets the town's sheriff on fire and watches him burn to death one night after filling his tank. The sheriff had the audacity to actually wish Gyp "good luck."

It quickly becomes crystal clear that Rosetti is a huge danger to all the criminals in the world of "Boardwalk Empire." He parks his ass in Tabor Heights, buys the police force and hijacks every truck convoy sent north from AC and meant for a waiting anxious Arnold Rothstein in New York.(Every member of the convoy is summarily and unnecessarily shot to death as well.) When the booze doesn't make it far enough north one time too many, we witness the first meeting between Nucky and Rothstein where the two reveal their rage and disgust with each other; Gyp just seems to bring the worst out of people.

We don't hear the end of the meeting, but it's clear Nucky told The Brain: "Meet this guy for yourself. You decide."

Rothstein and Luciano head south and have what could be a late-night dinner with Gyp in Tabor Heights. The men talk a little business, with Rothstein like a geiger counter, picking up every radioactive twinkle emitted by Gyp's sociopathic personality. Rothstein learns where Gyp lives and that he enjoys his evening newspaper.

At the meeting's end, there are handshakes, goodbyes voiced. Gyp invites the two to come to his hotel room -- he gives them his address -- the next evening for a taste of the booze he says he will have on offer for them. This was a clever set-up by Rothstein, who insisted that they'd do business with Gyp only if he was selling the real thing and not that bathtub crap that blinded many an alky in them olden days.

But the next evening Bugsy Siegel, about 16 years old and dressed like a paperboy, shows up. Fleet of foot, he sweeps through the house like a miniature whirlwind, one that fires bullets from its vortex.

Gyp, who we learn also enjoys a little sexual asphyxiation now and again -- you know, when you strangle someone you are having some form of sex with until they almost die? -- and despite a personality that drives him to dominate every person and situation that crosses his path, Gyp prefers to be the one who gets choked. And handcuffed to the bedpost. And spanked on the ass. If not for those handcuffs, Rosetti, who hears the volleys of shots from Bugsy's pistol growing steadily closer, likely would've had the first shot, putting one right between Bugsy's eyes when he kicked the bedroom door open. Who would've invented Las Vegas then?

Gyp doesn't make it to his handgun in time. He improvises -- pulling his reluctant sexual partner in front of him in true gentlemanly fashion, to protect his body by using hers as a shield, her sweet nude frame jerking as the bullets Siegel fires slams through her flesh, maybe some passing through and crashing into the tall, butt-naked gangster cowering behind her, blood reddening the sheets and their bodies.

Gyp, shot or not, still manages to chase a maniacally giggling Siegel out of his duplex, firing shots at the little boy who seems to magically evade the path of each slug. As he runs out of the bedroom and down the stairs Gyp also sees all the bodies of his men supine on the floor, growing puddles of blood under their heads or chests.

The last episode of "Boardwalk Empire" ends with Nucky learning that Siegel killed a lot of Gyp's people, but that the man himself still lives.


  1. Bobby Cannavale stole the whole season.He portrayl of Gyp Rosetti is one of the best and most realistic portrayls of psychopathic gangster in tv and cinematic history,it's up there with Kingsley's Don Logan and Pesci's Tommy DeVito.It's a shame he didn't get nominated fot the Golden Globe.

    1. It sure as hell is a shame! He played a clown on "Modern Family" and was hilarious. The man sure has range.

    2. I saw that episode of MF -- he was great with Stonestreet and certainly does have range. I had a feeling his character would die at the end of the season and it's a shame. The new heroin dealer "Libyan" man is interesting but only to an extent; I miss Gyp -- he was a wonderful villain!!


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