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'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: Still Sitting

Dr. Narcisse sharpens his knives while Van Alden goes full-on Walter White

Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden in "Boardwalk Empire."
Craig Blankenhorn
November 3, 2013 10:05 PM ET

Wimmen. Dames. No matter what you, Pee-Wee Herman or Kap'n Karl (RIP, Phil Hartman) might call them, the ladies of Boardwalk Empire are nothing but trouble. Whether it's Sigrid nagging Van Alden to fix the water pipes ("to make the Cream of Wheat!"), Julia coercing Richard into the sweetest marriage of convenience ever, or Daughter Maitland using her feminine wiles to cause Chalky to completely throw his business management (and family) out the window, these women brought the drama this week.

As expected, Chalky was itching to put a hit on Dr. Narcisse after narrowly escaping Dunn Purnsley's murder attempt. Considering Nucky had been indebted to him since last year, Chalky assumed his longtime friend would have his back, no questions asked. Except in Nucky's eyes, the two men have been square ever since the Onyx Club opened its doors, and that means Chalky is on his own. For all of Nucky's statements of friendship last year, his subtle racism rears its ugly head when he talks about sticking his neck out for Chalky by helping him get a business "on the Boardwalk."  Nucky also shoves his foot in his mouth when he chastises Chalky for not "minding his business" and allowing himself to be distracted by Miss Daughter, because now Narcisse has sunken his claws into the Northside. Hmm. . . where have I heard that story line before? Oh, right, last season, when Nucky ensconced himself between Billie Kent's thighs and Gyp Rosetti staged a hostile takeover of Atlantic City. If you'll pardon the expression: Hello, Pot. Meet Kettle. Then again, it's not like any of the men on this show can follow their own advice and just keep it in their pants. Back in the season premiere, Chalky reamed out Dunn for creeping on Cora Pastor – because all that resulted in was murder, degradation and the arrival of Dr. Narcisse. And here he is, eight episodes later, following in his dead ex-comrade's footsteps.

Relive the Worst Acts of Betrayal on 'Boardwalk Empire'

Without Nucky's support, or even that of his family – in between creating seating charts for the wedding reception, Lenore spends the episode icing out her husband – Chalky is driven closer to Maitland, especially after she sends him a Mayday signal in the middle of a get-together with Maybelle's future in-laws. Earlier in the day, Narcisse, suspicious over Dunn's "disappearance" and Chalky's still-alive status, interrogates the blues chanteuse in her room. She plays the innocent, claiming Dunn never showed up and that Chalky had to go home to his wife. But even though he can see through the lies, there is no anger with Narcisse, just tears and hurt feelings. The depth of Maitland's damage, however, is more clearly visible here, the way she reminisces with her father figure about the bizarre vow they made to each other years ago. In what sounds like a creepy purity ball (I know, redundant) pledge, Narcisse gave Maitland the freedom to "lie down with any man," as long as her heart remained his. She broke that promise by saving Chalky's life. Just as it was with Cora Pastor's lynching, the violence at Narcisse's hands ends up all the more chilling because it happens offscreen and we only see the end result. Slow, calculated words, one rough head shake and a single slap cannot prepare us for the ravaged, swollen mess that is Maitland's face when Chalky arrives at her room. It's suggested that this isn't the first time Maitland has suffered at the hands of her benefactor, but she still exhibits a fealty to Narcisse that is so upsetting to watch. In addition to begging Chalky not to kill him in retaliation, she speaks of the Doctor as being on a higher spiritual plane ("[He] sees things we don’t. Divination").

Shortly after reacquainting Maitland with his fists, Narcisse strolls into the Onyx Club, where he defies the "white-only" patronage rules by sitting at Nucky's table, taking in the minstrel-esque performer onstage. It's a fabulous moment for Boardwalk Empire: Here is a man who has just beaten a young woman to a pulp, yet there's a sliver of admiration for him because he's kicking America's segregation laws and attitudes straight up the ass by refusing to be treated as an "n-word." Narcisse informs a visibly uncomfortable Nucky (who repeatedly requests he "stand up") that Chalky's "days are numbered." Before Nucky can entertain any sort of peaceful negotiations with the Harlem mobster, Chalky bursts onto the floor and, in his anger (and probable jealousy) at seeing Narcisse sitting in his club – something Chalky would never be allowed to do – destroys any hope he might have had of Nucky helping him. Ignoring Nucky's warning to avoid starting a war, "one that you will fight alone," Chalky flips their table over and storms out. All three actors played the scene brilliantly, but it was Jeffrey Wright FTW as Narcisse, gloating in his victory, over both Chalky and the white man's treatment of the "Libyans," remains seated for several seconds following his rival's exit. Narcisse's grin will only get bigger once he gets wind that Maybelle came to visit Chalky that night, only to confirm her fears that Daddy's got a different kind of Daughter in his life.

Tidbits

–Things are looking rather bleak for Julia immediately after the latest custody hearing. The judge guilt-tripped her for being an unmarried woman (Gillian got away with it by perjuring herself, saying she "married young"), as well as giving the age-old speech of children being better off with their blood relatives. Julia is also quite aware of her father's failing health, despite Richard's refusal to tell her that Paul is dying of cirrhosis ("He'll tell you when he's ready"). But with the judge set to make his decision about Tommy's future in a month, the clock is ticking – and it's time for this makeshift family to come together once and for all. Poor Richard, still so clueless in matters of the heart and thinking so little of himself, is taken by surprise when Julia suggests he "might do in a pinch" as her husband. The moment is bereft of romance, but the way Richard absorbs what she's saying – and then answers "yes" – realizing that those pictures of happy families he used to paste in a scrapbook are no longer just dreams, well, that trumps any flash mob marriage proposal. Later, as they sit outside the city clerk's office (which offers both "Marriage and Hunting" licenses, giving name to the episode), their shared nervousness permeates the scene, and we don't know if they actually went through with it until later, when Richard approaches Nucky at the Albatross and announces he got married and that he needs a job. Gillian remains a worthy adversary to the newly pronounced Mr. and Mrs. Harrow, though: She opened up to Roy Phillips about her sordid past (she discloses the underage rape and motherhood at 13, but omits committing incest with Jimmy) and offered a convincing case to the judge. But a surreptitious phone call on Roy's part reveals that he's the one still keeping secrets.

–After a three-episode absence, Michael Shannon makes a triumphant return to Boardwalk, easily earning the MVP award for his performance. Van Alden's trajectory in "Marriage and Hunting" mirrors that of Walter White, as he fully embraces his dark, gangster side and becomes the man he was always meant to be. Emasculated by Sigrid's badgering, Al and Ralph Capone's bullying as well as Dean O'Banion's lack of respect, Van Alden grows a pair this episode, shedding his cowardly act. First he demands $1,000 from the Capones to kill O'Banion (as a way to prove to his wife that he can bring home the bacon). Then, after being tracked down by three of his former office colleagues, including Phil, whose incessant torments last season resulted in a permanent iron-shaped scar on his face, Van Alden unapologetically shoots them in cold blood. No longer intimidated by his mobster employer, Van Alden rattles off his murderous history to O'Banion, capping it off with the release of the final shackle of his old life: "I used to believe in God. But now I don't believe in anything at all." But just when he finally seems ready to take out O'Banion, the job is done for him by three men (ostensibly working for the Capones) at the front of the flower shop. (Historical note: Dean O'Banion was killed in November 1924, but the writers took some liberties here, as we're only in late spring/early summer.) Van Alden may not get his $1,000 from the Capones, but there was nothing stopping him from cleaning out the cash box now that his boss lay dead on the ground. In a scene that hearkens back to both the Breaking Bad pilot and Heisenberg's famous question, he returns home to stand his ground as the man of the house, throwing the cash on Sigrid's bed, saying his full name for the first time in almost two seasons and ordering his wife to take off her nightgown. But unlike Skyler, Sigrid isn't confused by this man making rough, passionate love to her. She likes it. A lot.

Sally Wheet only got one scene this episode, but I challenge anyone who can erase the image of Patricia Arquette fondling a shotgun in bed to the dulcet tones of Elvis Costello singing "It Had to Be You."

Previously: Wrecking Brawl

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