Two episodes of Terence Winter’s epic gangster series remain. Two deaths dominate "The Devil You Know," tonight's episode of Boardwalk Empire. But it's two random women — who drink Nucky Thompson under the table, trick him out of his pants, and mug him out in the alleyway — who are the key to it all. No, Nucky's disastrous would-be three-way with a pair of blowsy, boozy con artists can't compete with the deaths of there-from-the-start characters Chalky White and Nelson Van Alden, nor the departure of the two titanic acting talents who played them. But on a show as smart as late-season Boardwalk, a digression is never just a digression. The truth can be found anywhere if you know how to look.
Nucky finds said truth as he tries to sell himself as the salt of the earth to his prospective ménage a trois mates. Right up until the moment they knock him out and steal his wallet, the sequence was Boardwalk at its sexiest – not the quote-unquote sexy of half-stripped showgirls and topless prostitutes but the real stuff, all wet eyes, wolfish grins, and desire. "You start at the bottom. You don't have a choice. Get yourself ahead. What else can you do?" Just as he's picking up steam, he derails. "For what though, huh? For what? No one talks about that!" Once again, Boardwalk uses Nucky to give voice to complaints viewers have about Nucky. Why is our "hero" the way he is? Why does he do what he does? Turns out he has no more idea than anyone else. The will to power drives him, but it gives him no sustenance or satisfaction – imagine if every time you felt hungry, your body responded by making you stand on your head.
But it's not as though knowing what it's all for will save you either. Just ask the late, great Chalky White, who discovers something to live for and immediately dies for it. In every excruciating minute of that episode-long rendezvous in Dr. Narcisse's brothel, you can see Chalky's conflicting desires tearing him apart. But in an echo of that strange home-invasion storyline from earlier in the season, he chooses Daughter Maitland's career as a singer over his own as a gangster, and preserving the innocence of Althea, the daughter he's just met, over avenging the death of Maybelle, the daughter he lost. So he signs up for a life in Narcisse's service, likely knowing full well he can count the minutes of that life on one hand with fingers to spare.
Actor Michael K. Williams has always been a master at boiling Chalky alive in his own emotions. Unlike his cast mates Steve Buscemi, Shea Wigham, Stephen Graham, Michael Shannon, or even Gretchen Mol, he never boils over; he simply burns hotter and hotter. In facing his imminent death, Chalky finally allows himself the luxury of turning off the heat. His only act of defiance is to tell the departing Narcisse "Ain't nobody ever been free" – the man can't rob him of something he never had to begin with. (Little does he know that Narcisse, turned into a snitch by J. Edgar Hoover at the end of last season, is even less free than he might seem.) And his final smile while thinking of Daughter's voice is pure bliss. After a life spent seizing whatever scraps society allowed him to touch with an iron grip, it's the look of a man finally letting go.
What a difference from the assassination of Nelson Van Alden by the coward Mike D'Angelo. Chalky was seemingly more attached to the family of strangers whose house he broke into than Van Alden was to the family he headed and whose house he built. While Chalky's botched raid on his nemesis' stronghold plays out like a Greek tragedy, Van Alden and Eli's attempt to steal Al Capone's ledgers is more like the Three Stooges. And where Chalky surrenders, Van Alden attacks. When confronted with his own imminent execution, he casts aside the family-man mask of Mueller and becomes the agent of Prohibition – and angel of retribution — he started as back in Season One. "I AM NELSON CASPER VAN ALDEN! I AM A SWORN AGENT OF THE UNITED STATES TREASURY! AND I SWEAR BY JESUS OUR LORD THAT JUSTICE WILL RAIN DOWN UPON YOU IF IT IS MY LAST—"
Then D'Angelo blows his brains out, leaving him an eyeless husk. It's hard not to see that gory image as a grotesque parody of the quiet death of Richard Harrow, who found peace in the family he'd never quite get a chance to have. It's also hard not to note the contrast with Eli, whose sole thought after witnessing Van Alden's murder is to frantically, repeatedly apologize to his wife June. It's only his own quick thinking in blaming the burglary on Elliot Ness instead of D'Angelo – and the ease with which Ness' legend can be inflated with any hot air that's handy – that keeps his own death off his list of things to be sorry for.
Where does this leave his brother Nucky? Nowhere good. With Capone seemingly back in cahoots with Lucky Luciano, the sole figure in Nucky's corner for the fight against the Syndicate is, god help him, Mickey Doyle. For one reason or another, everyone else he ever counted on in the clutch — from Arnold Rothstein to Sally Wheet — is now gone. And when he wakes up after his mugging, he's haunted by memories of his first encounter Gillian Darmody, a petty thief he'd soon hand over to the Commodore to be sexually abused and emotionally destroyed. "For what?" For a wife and a baby we know he'll lose in childbirth, and an empire he'll keep building anyway, never quite knowing why. If only he'd been on better terms with that sad evangelist Van Alden, who no doubt knew another way to phrase Nucky's big question: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
Previously: Land Ho!