BEWARE: SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE AND PREVIOUS EPISODES ARE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW.
“What Jesus Said” is the 3rd episode of Boardwalk Empire’s shortened final season. The episode took a break from Nucky’s violent feud with Luciano and Lansky to show a more sympathetic side of him as he attempted to conduct business with Joseph Kennedy (Matt Letscher). The episode also featured Chalky and his prison escapee friend in a tense situation, while Margaret received some troubling legal news and Luciano and Bugsy Siegel offered a business deal to Narcisse. Flashbacks showed a young Nucky meeting his future first wife Mable and learning about the nastier side of love.
This week Chalky and his chain gang escapee friend Milton broke into a house, drank some milk and held a woman and her daughter hostage. They had chosen that specific house because Milton once delivered ice to the family and remembering seeing a safe. Throughout the episode, Milton teetered on the brink of instability while Chalky the provided the voice of reason. The pair’s dynamic (particularly, Milton’s general demeanor) served to illustrate how far Chalky has fallen.
I was really disappointed with how unaffected I was by Chalky’s story this week. We didn’t get any new information about him or why he was in prison. I’m not saying I need to know that (especially since “Farewell Daddy Blues” gives us a good idea), but in lieu of developing Chalky’s arc for the season, “What Jesus Said” used his screen time to further develop the bleakness of the Depression era setting and reinforce to the audience how well off Chalky was in seasons past.
The majority of the episode hints that Chalky has become an irredeemably tragic character before leaving us with the hope that he isn’t too far gone. Chalky killing Milton to protect the women shows he’s still got a little bit of compassion. But I think the writers are setting him up to go down in a blaze of vengeance-fuelled glory. I don’t necessarily think it should have taken an entire episode to reach this conclusion, though.
Unlike Chalky, Margaret’s storyline came more into focus this week. As it turns out, Mr. Bennett (who you’ll remember committed suicide in the premiere) was embezzling money from Abe Redstone/Arnold Rothstein after A.R. was murdered. Margaret’s signature is on the paperwork and now Rothstein’s widow is threatening litigation.
This was an important episode for Margaret. It was also the first time I felt like Rothstein still mattered to the show. The references to his death in the first two episodes felt more like the writers were apologizing for skipping over the event. Here, he feels important again.
Luciano and Benny Siegel had a couple small scenes with big implications. They met with Narcisse to discuss continuing the deal he had with Masseria with new boss Maranzano. When Narcisse rebuffs them, Siegel and Luciano leave. Siegel and another man go to one of Narcisse’s brothels later and they execute everyone there.
With Chalky likely seeking vengeance against Narcisse this season, I’m curious to see what the Luciano/Lansky angle is going to do to Narcisse before Chalky reaches him. Luciano and Lansky (along with young Bugsy Siegel) have become somewhat like “angels of death” in these last few episodes in that they’re cleaning out everyone that stands in their way in the mob world. I think it will make Chalky and Narcisse’s eventual meet up more compelling if Narcisse has lost everything before Chalky can seek his vengeance.
Nucky had a highly introspective episode. It’s so strange to watch him schmoozing Kennedy in the hopes of getting into a legitimate business deal. Kennedy is depicted as a man obsessed with his legacy and being the patriarch of a dynasty. He’s very particular and aware of his public persona. Seeing Nucky emulate Kennedy in an attempt to charm him is slightly depressing.
I said in my season 4 review that one of the issues the show has is that the character arc of Nucky is somewhat unclear and lacks an overall focus. “What Jesus Said” reveals more of his character for me, particularly by showing that he, himself, is unclear about what kind of person he wants to be.
Nucky’s answer to Kennedy’s question of why he’s doing this carries a certain weight behind it. Nucky says he wants to “leave something behind.” What I took from this line was that Nucky doesn’t think he has what it takes to survive what Luciano and Lansky are up to. He’s always been a survivor but he knows his number may be up soon and the sad fact is he doesn’t have much to live for right now.
I love that a historical character like Kennedy is what brings this melancholy out of Nucky. Kennedy is a very calculated businessman and from the jump he knows the kind of man Nucky is. I think the man Nucky wants to become intrigues Kennedy but he ultimately knows Nucky is chasing a phantom reality. Kennedy is a reflection of the kind of man Nucky wants to be and I feel like maybe the flashbacks are designed to show us what ultimately prevented him from becoming that ideal of a man.
As for the flashbacks in “What Jesus Said”, they were okay. We’re nearly halfway through the season and we’re still seeing this child version of Nucky who doesn’t understand what is going on in the world around him. This episode showed us his first real indicator of the corruption and horror that his future would hold. By design, it’s coupled with the first time he meets the woman who would eventually become his first wife, Mable.
I realized in this episode what my true issue with the flashbacks might be. It’s that there’s a lack of transition to them. The flashbacks, at least in this episode, are presented as a standalone storyline. I wish the Young Nucky storyline had more of a sense of self-reflection for Nucky. It seems the show is telling us Nucky’s backstory instead of letting the events of the show remind Nucky of his childhood. It’s a minor complaint overall, and it’s made somewhat obsolete with the final flashback cutting to Nucky waking from his drunken sleep and mistaking Margaret for Mable. But I wish there was uniformity to the contrast between Nucky and the flashbacks.
There’s a particular important scene toward the end of the episode. Mickey Doyle looks for some workers on the street. One plucky kid jumps at the opportunity to work for Nucky Thompson. He asks Mickey for the job. When Mickey calls him out for lying about his age, the kid levels with him and says he’s going to be 16.
It’s pretty obvious to me that this kid is Tommy Darmody all grown up. He jumps up once Mickey says the job is for Nucky. Last week, I predicted that he would be returning to the show (assuming he’d be seeking revenge for the death of his father). I don’t know how I feel about this. It seems pretty early to introduce this character. I would have rather had him already involved in the business and then reveal his true identity later in the season. By introducing him in such an obvious manner, the show is telegraphing quite a bit of plot to come. How the storyline plays out remains to be seen, though. So I’ll withhold judgment until more happens.
The first two episodes of the season had such a faster pace than what I’ve come to expect from this show. So when “What Jesus Said” slowed things back down, it didn’t really do that much for me. There is plenty of quality in this episode but it felt like it was written more to serve the characters’ development and reinforcing the atmosphere of the Depression-era setting. With only 8 episodes this season and a wealth of storylines left to resolve, I just wish the show had continued its pace from the first two episodes.