'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: House of Cards

While Nucky is off playing poker with Arnold Rothstein, his tight-knit circle begins to splinter

Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire
Macall B. Polay
Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden on 'Boardwalk Empire'
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On this episode of "Nucky Bides his Time Until Something Interesting Happens," the Atlantic City gangster spends an interminable evening playing poker with sore loser Arnold Rothstein. It sounds banal, and given the developments to come, it was, but it was still an important turning point since, as I've mentioned in earlier recaps, it signified the ongoing changing of the guard.

Nucky had hoped to entice the professional gambler to partner up with him in his Tampa land deal, only to have Rothstein's own words bite him in the ass ("I find you don't really know a man until you play cards with him"), and allow his protégé, Meyer Lansky, to step in. What Nucky learns during their nocturnal sojourn at the Onyx Club is that Rothstein would be an unreliable investor: The more Rothstein lost at the tables, the more he would bet (hence the episode's title, "All In"), eventually indebting himself to the house for several hundred thousand dollars – not to mention his childish behavior when he's consistently dealt a bad hand. Around dawn, Nucky – who walked away from the table hours earlier – announces to Lansky his decision to withdraw his land-deal offer from Rothstein: "I can't rely on a man so blinded by his obsession with winning." Um, hello pot, meet kettle . . . eh, whatever. And that's when Lansky takes a huge step in bringing younger mobsters like himself closer to the forefront. He presents his case to Nucky extremely well, telling him a story about how as a child he was bullied by a gang, but because he didn't run away and had a mouth on him, eventually he was asked to join the gang by its leader, Charlie Luciano. Then he goes in for the kill: "Last year [Charlie and I] made more money than the president of the United States." Nucky demands half a million dollars in 48 hours, and Lansky doesn't even flinch. They shake hands and a new partnership is born.

Relive the Worst Acts of Betrayal on 'Boardwalk Empire'

For Nucky's sake, he's lucky his business affairs are in order by the end of the episode, because he's going to have a few personal messes to clean up come next week. Still smarting over being humiliated by his romantic rival, Henry, in the Temple University library last episode, Willie Thompson has sworn vengeance on the guy who pointed out his erection to an entire roomful of coeds. And so – because even when you're not watching the series finale of Breaking Bad the, show manages to weasel itself into the most obscure of locations, like a 1920s college chemistry lab – Willie and his roommate, Clayton, concoct a little potion that was just supposed to give Henry a case of explosive diarrhea. Except since Willie and Clayton aren't science geniuses like Walter White and identify closer to the Jesse Pinkman end of the spectrum, Henry ends up dead in a pool of his own blood, presumably from intense dehydration. Better Call Nucky! (Or this could be the setup for the Better Call Saul prequel, which finds Bob Odenkirk playing Saul Goodman's great-grandfather, Johnny "Plea Bargain" McGill – a gangster lawyer who even does his own radio spots!)

Nucky's oblivious attitude toward his faithful and put-upon manservant will also come to a head now that Eddie's promotion has placed the German national in a danger more grave than last year's gunshot wounds. For most of the episode, Eddie is having a grand old time with his new duties – they're less physically taxing, and he gets to spend a good portion of his screen time forming a bromance with Ralph Capone, who was Eddie's point man for a cash transaction. They share a hearty dinner at the Knife and Fork, with Ralph eliciting more information about the Kessler family in the space of two minutes than Nucky did in 11 years. We learn Eddie's wife is dead and he came to America to start a new life once his sons were grown and had their own careers. Before long, the two men are carousing with a few of Eddie's fellow German immigrants, getting drunk while singing a lively Bavarian tune – one of the shamefully rare moments we get to hear Anthony Laciura's golden operatic tenor on this show. But the good times can't last forever, and in Eddie's case, they're over at dawn, as Nucky's right-hand is arrested by Agent Knox, who's already deduced that Eddie is the "weakest link" in Nucky's empire.

Tidbits

–While their brother is learning how to sing in German, Al and Frank Capone are in Chicago, luring a reluctant Van Alden to join their crew. And they've got a pretty sweet deal to offer him, way better than anything Dean O'Banion's put on the table: If Van Alden "keeps busting heads" for the Capones until the election, they'll distribute Sigrid's homemade aquavit. Sounds tempting enough, but it's not until one of O'Banion's employees catches Van Alden hanging with the enemy that the decision is made for him. Creeping ever closer to the role of gangster, Van Alden takes out the innocent bystander in order to save his own skin.

Dunn pays Valentin Narcisse a visit in Harlem, having scored the time off by telling Chalky he was heading down to Baltimore to visit his sick mother. His allegiance has obviously shifted, but that doesn't mean Narcisse is going to make it easy. First he chastises Dunn for tarnishing the offices of the Universal Negro Improvement Society by bringing the heroin money there – interesting double standard Narcisse sets here, considering he originated his role as a heroin dealer in that very office. But Dunn is persistent in convincing Narcisse of his loyalty, as he proves he is not intimidated when Narcisse unceremoniously kicks him out of the UNIS office. Dunn waits for Narcisse outside, and the two take a leisurely stroll along the Harlem street, as Narcisse explains his disdain for the origins of Chalky's power: he likens Atlantic City to a plantation system, where Chalky receives everything he has from a white man. He sees Chalky as nothing more than a vampire that sucks the life out of his people, which will continue "unless there are Libyans prepared to instruct him in the uplift of the race." Narcisse says this with his voice almost at a whisper, enhancing the gravitas of the situation, and proving that Jeffrey Wright could persuade me to dance a jig while singing "Blurred Lines" if he simply lowers his voice and asks. Dunn, not having too many folks of his race to look up to with admiration and respect, proceeds to beat the shit out of a raggedy-looking dude sitting outside a brownstone to pledge fealty to his new employer and mentor.

Previously: Swampy Sales

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