A review of tonight's "Boardwalk Empire" coming up just as soon as I run naked through the pages of the United States criminal code...

"I'm a businessman — a small businessman..." -Nucky

"The Pony" was co-written by  Terence Winter and Howard Korder, who seems to rank #2 on the writing staff organizational flowchart. It was directed by Tim Van Patten. Short of Martin Scorsese calling Winter up to say he'd like to pop over to do another episode, this is the "Boardwalk Empire" equivalent of breaking out the big guns, and the creative talent is appropriately applied to an episode all about men being surprised to realize the kind of great power they are contending with. 

Nucky approaches Andrew Mellon at his university club, and never — not even in the presence of the Attorney General of these United States — has our hero seemed quite so small-time. Even after bracing himself for the encounter, Nucky still isn't prepared for the possibility that Mellon has no idea who he is, nor that this wealthy, powerful, proper gentleman would be so quick to dismiss him from the club — though it turns out Mellon just needed time to properly vet him before agreeing to the Remus scheme.

Johnny Torrio returns from an extended trip to Naples, and for the first time seems a bit like a fossil — or like one of the frozen citizens of Pompeii he keeps going on about, long past the point where his audience cares. He may yet assert himself in the war between Capone and O'Banion, but what Al seems at first to interpret as patient calculation later appears to be a man who's already checking out of things.

The other salesman at the iron company keep having their fun pranking George Muller, little realizing that they're dealing with a strong, borderline psychotic who's been driven crazier and crazier by all the lines of his strict moral code he's had to cross. And after Van Alden comes home from scalding a co-worker (who, I assume, will be calling the cops on him, no?), he in turn is surprised once again by the fortitude and street smarts of Sigrid, who pulls him deeper into a criminal life (and possibly puts him at odds with O'Banion) by selling the excess from their still to the local Norwegian community.

Van Alden just wants respect, as does Nucky. He doesn't get it from Billie's actor friend Gil, who pokes the bear just as foolishly as the other salesman does to Van Alden, and also suffers a brutal assault as a result.(*) As I've said, I don't feel like the show has done a great job of making us interested in Billie herself, but it's made clear over and over that Nucky Thompson wants to be master of all he surveys.

(*) Who's worse off, career-wise: a handsome young actor whose nose is broken, or a door-to-door iron salesman with a hideous iron-shaped burn scar on his cheek? The latter, I'd say.

Nucky also fails to get respect from Gillian, and at the same time underestimates the threat she poses. Jimmy's dead, as is the Commodore, but Gillian still has the backing of old man Whitlock, and she has a ruthlessness that of course leads her to point Gyp Rosetti towards Nucky's meeting with Rothstein and Lucky at Babbette's, leading to the episode's explosive finish. As with the assassination attempt last season, Nucky proves a hard man to kill, but Billie's almost certainly in pieces, and how will Arnold Rothstein — who has already made clear how much he despises New Jersey — react to nearly being blown up in the state?

"The Pony" refers both to the horse Owen helps Margaret buy for her daughter — prompting Mrs. Thompson to say, "It doesn't make sense: a pony, when there's no telling what the future holds" — and Billie Kent herself, since she explains that "the pony" is also a term for the funny showgirl in the chorus. Billie had just started to transcend that status when her association with Nucky appears to bring her future to an end. We'll see what the future holds for Nucky and those who oppose him, but after this episode's events, I imagine it'll be bloody.

Some other thoughts:

* Loved the overhead shot panning over the wreckage on the boardwalk. Nice work from The Artist Formerly Known As Salami and his crew.

* Is Babbette herself dead? If so, I'll miss Tracy Middendorf and her Marlene Dietrich-wear.

* Not much of Richard this week, but I loved the moment where he said, "Jimmy deserved better than this," referring to the actual Jimmy (his body disposed of in less classy circumstances) and not the poor sap Gillian murdered in his place. 

* I quite liked Nucky and Gillian's encounter at the Commodore's house, each of them talking around the various lies they've told about how Jimmy dies, playing the roles because they're expected to, until she finally loses her patience and tosses a drink in his face.

* Mrs. Shearer's interest in birth control plays into Margaret's own needs, since it wouldn't do for her to get pregnant during a period when she is clearly not having sex with Nucky.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com