BEWARE: SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE AND PREVIOUS EPISODES ARE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW.
This week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire revolved around poor decisions and self-preservation. Eli and Van Alden made me wish the show gave them more than just a season together. Nucky survived yet another attempted hit and uncovered a new enemy. Gillian’s ordeal in the sanitarium got a little more dire. Chalky found a familiar face when searching for Narcisse. And, in flashbacks to 1897, Nucky Thompson settles into his role as Deputy.
Big things happened in Chicago in this episode. After a brief scene depicting Al Capone’s bathroom problems (which I wonder if they are related to his health issues) and paranoia, we’re thrown to Eli waking from another drunken stupor. His wife, now pregnant again, comes to visit him and the two talk about the new baby. Eli talks about his dreams of providing for his family and not depending on his brother to give his wife money anymore. It’s a sweet moment, despite Eli’s disheveled look, but I also felt a tinge of danger behind it. It feels like the Eli scenes are building toward a tragic end.
They go to Van Alden’s house for dinner and then the shit hits the fan. Sigrid (Christiane Seidel), Van Alden’s dissatisfied, disgruntled, angry wife revels in telling everyone in the house that she got Eli drunk and had sex with him. This scene actually utilized the show’s shortened season very well. Sigrid is the only character in the scene that knows what happened and that includes the audience as well. While the group eats dinner, Sigrid seems to be propositioning Eli openly in a scene that teeters between comedic and peculiar. It isn’t until Eli sees the King of Norway photo and remembers what happened that we’re shown it.
Previous to the King of Norway reveal, Eli and Van Alden quietly discuss Van Alden’s predicament. This scene was absolutely glorious as it showed just how perfect Eli and Van Alden are as partners. Their chemistry really makes me wish the characters joined forces in Chicago at least two seasons ago. This scene also includes what may very well be my favorite Michael Shannon moment of the series.
Van Alden: “I, for one, refuse to be ruled by fear!”
Van Alden: “Coming dear.”
Another benefit to the shortened season is the well-timed appearance of the feds at Van Alden’s house. I have to admit, I assumed the feds would try to flip Van Alden. I didn’t expect them to also work Eli into the deal. It made their moment with the flask really entertaining. When the feds revealed their plan to go after Capone for tax evasion, Eli’s laughter was perfect. Historically speaking, it’s insane that Capone was busted for taxes. Giving that insanity a mirror in the form of Eli’s response was beautiful.
Eli and Van Alden had a nice, comedic episode this week. Given the historical context of the series, however, I have a bad feeling about them going into the lion’s den to get a ledger for the feds. They aren’t historical characters so, as Van Alden put it, they’re expendable.
I’m a little disappointed we haven’t seen anymore of Eliot Ness. Hopefully he’ll pop up in the last three episodes. Otherwise, Jim True-Frost‘s appearance will just go down as a strange cameo.
The writers wrote a very strong episode for Nucky this week with one little blemish. He met the kid Mickey picked up in episode 3. We now see that the kid is pretty much functioning as Mickey’s protégé. We also learn that his name is Joel Harper when he introduces himself to Nucky. Maybe I’m too hung up on the theory that he’s Tommy Darmody, but if that is the case, the show is laying it on us pretty thick. There’s a certain glee or shift in Joel’s expression when he introduces himself that makes the encounter seem too forced.
Aside from chance encounters with the possible son of the man he killed, Nucky had a lot going on this week. Following his phone call from Capone last week, Nucky met with Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) in New York. I really loved this scene and the one between them in episode 2. The two of them waxing nostalgia and discussing the virtues of being an aging gangster in a young gangster’s world is such a joy to watch.
Unfortunately, there’s slim chance we’ll get to see more scenes like that between the two after this episode’s big reveal. After another attempt on his life, Nucky realizes that Torrio has aligned himself with Luciano and Lansky. There may be an historical bias on my part here but, in fairness, it really seems like the wisest choice Torrio could make; especially after seeing that Luciano reached out to Capone about the syndicate.
This leaves Nucky with his back against the wall. I’m left to wonder if he’s going to appeal to Capone to back him up, since Capone wants nothing to do with the syndicate. It would be really interesting if Eli helps take down Capone just as Nucky needs his backing. Eli indirectly causing Nucky’s death would be better for me at this point than if Joel/Tommy takes him out.
Gillian’s scenes this week really bummed me out. She’s stuck in the sanitarium and this episode introduced us to Dr. Cotton. The scene where Gillian pleads her case for being discharged made me uncomfortable. Gillian is a surprisingly sympathetic character, from my perspective and I feel like her arc this season is meant to intertwine with Nucky’s flashbacks. Nucky handing Gillian off to the Commodore when she was 13 is Nucky’s original sin. Gillian in the sanitarium is the result of that action.
Chalky popped up in Nucky’s office at the club in this episode. Whereas Eli’s drunken mistake made good use of the series’ shortened season, there was a certain disconnect with Chalky’s sudden dapper appearance. He comes to Nucky looking for Narcisse. Nucky tells him it wouldn’t do him any good to find him and then tells Chalky that his family is living in St. Louis under Chalky’s wife’s maiden name. Chalky takes some money that Nucky offers and agrees to stay hidden at the club.
Chalky eventually goes after Narcisse, however. We see him enter the brothel that Siegel and another gangster shot up a couple episodes ago only to find Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) with a little girl who could potentially be Chalky’s daughter. I really didn’t see that coming.
The flashbacks showed us Nucky (played now by Marc Pickering) in 1897 as Sheriff Lindsay’s deputy. It’s one of the best casting decisions the show has ever made. Pickering has Buscemi’s look and mannerisms down perfectly. Boris McGiver‘s Lindsay is still sheriff and this week made me curious what is going to happen to cause Nucky to rise to Lindsay’s position. For the time being, the two of them have very strong onscreen chemistry.
In this episode, Young Nucky has a conversation with his future wife’s father about his intentions. Mable’s father tells him, among other things, “I don’t think you know what you are.” This line jumped out at me because my cynical side immediately wondered if that is the main thesis of the series or if it’s simply indicative that the writers don’t know what to do with the character. Nevertheless, this conversation causes Nucky to ask Lindsay to include him in the Commodore’s inner circle. Sheriff Lindsay, being possibly the only person who truly cares for Nucky’s well being, tells him no.
There are only three episodes left in the series. I’m expecting the shit to truly hit the fan starting with next episode, “Devil You Know.”