As someone who has been mad for Steve Buscemi going on 20 years now, it pains me to watch him go from consistent scene-stealer to a mere observer in his starring vehicle. This is a guy who managed to make Armageddon tolerable, for chrissakes. At least we have this hilarious Late Night With Jimmy Fallon gem to keep us satiated until Nucky emerges from his doldrums. Blame the story lines, blame the writers for painting Nucky into a corner – I sure as hell don’t blame Buscemi. If anything, he’s gracefully stepped aside in order to allow the mesmerizing Jeffrey Wright to take center stage as the one person bringing intrigue back to Boardwalk Empire – even if it winds up being for only one season (see: Bobby Cannavale).
Once Wright’s Dr. Valentin Narcisse makes his first appearance, the continued absence of Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, the tiresome subplots involving the New York-based gangsters (who are mercifully absent this episode) and the overall lugubrious mood of the series begins to dissipate. Narcisse – his insistence on being addressed as “Doctor” brings to mind Walter Peck’s query in Ghostbusters (“Exactly what are you a doctor of, Mr. Venkman?) – injects a much-needed jolt into this season’s so-far sleepy narrative, speaking in elegant, clipped tones and presenting himself as a polar opposite to Chalky. Unlike his Atlantic City counterpart, this Harlem gangster is urbane and literate (illustrated most prominently when Chalky is unable to read a note from Narcisse addressed to him), but his intellect may be more smoke and mirrors than higher education. Again, exactly what are you a doctor of, Mr. Narcisse? And most tellingly, Narcisse’s malapropism of the word “Libyan” to describe African-Americans suggests that Chalky’s confusion (“I’m from Texas!”) may not be due to his lack of schooling, but simple common sense. The Trinidadian Narcisse’s power is undeniable though, as he can bring the hot jazz of the Onyx Club band and all other performers to a screeching halt with a snap of his fingers: He “owns a piece of everybody,” explains one half of a Nicholas Brothers-esque tap duo.
Narcisse is in Atlantic City to inquire as to the whereabouts of his “employee,” Dickey Pastor, the booking agent who, along with his his wife, Cora, enjoyed playing bigoted sex games with Dunn Purnsley. Chalky is living large and riding high at the start of the episode, having buried Dickey not only in a ditch (well, Dunn did the dirty work), but in his mind as well. He’s full of pride as he shows off the sumptuous Onyx Club to his wife, Lenore, daughter Maybelle (now wearing a honking diamond ring on her left hand), medical student Samuel Crawford and Mr. and Mrs. Crawford. Maybelle’s future father-in-law doesn’t mask his disdain that his son “developed a taste for the finer things,” but Chalky assures them the ceremony will be done proper, in a church. Still, Chalky’s going to show off what he’s accomplished, the Crawfords’ judgmental attitude be damned: The reception will be at the Onyx Club – “That’s my gift to them,” Chalky asserts. But Chalky’s kingdom is in danger of crumbling now that word has gotten out about Dickey’s “disappearance,” and Narcisse’s arrival swiftly knocks Chalky off of his pedestal.
From the private room overlooking the Onyx (the only place Narcisse is allowed a meeting given the, ahem, club restrictions), the debonair mobster witnesses a white patron rub Chalky’s head for luck, prompting Narcisse to deliver the ultimate burn by referring to Chalky as “a servant pretending to be a king.” Not helping matters is the presence of a newly recovered Cora, who is still pleading her “Dunn raped me” story. Eventually Nucky is wheeled in to smooth the rift between country mouse Chalky and city mouse Narcisse. Narcisse’s thick, rich baritone and intoxicating smile can’t mask his ongoing insults toward the short-fused Chalky, preferring to do business with Nucky because “only kings understand each other.” Pomposity aside, Narcisse has a point, as he and Nucky are able to come to an arrangement befitting all parties in a calm and gentlemanly manner. Nucky knows how to play the game, unlike Chalky, who still needs a few lessons in diplomacy. Chalky will pay Narcisse 10 percent of the club in exchange for leaving Dickey’s sudden disappearance a mystery, and for the return of the Onyx Club performers. Chalky and Dunn (and the rest of us!) are understandably infuriated that such a repellent person like Cora gets to waltz out of Atlantic City with nary a slap on the wrist, but that’s just because they are unaware of how dangerous a gangster Narcisse is. Their little mishap with the Pastors was merely a taste of what they’re up against now that they’re doing business with the Pastors’ boss.
As they drive back to New York on a dark and rainswept New Jersey road, Cora pleads her case with Narcisse, insisting that she is the innocent victim. Baiting her, Narcisse suggests punishing Dunn with “a tree, some rope, perhaps?” Cora’s all, “Sounds good to me!” And that’s the signal for the car to stop, with Narcisse’s driver and bodyguard exiting the vehicle so their employer can exact his own discipline on Cora for her racist leanings. Except Narcisse turns out to be more like the Pastors than any sort of nascent civil rights leaders as he preaches “a thing mixed is a thing weakened” to a trembling Cora. The best way I can describe Narcisse’s philosophy is that he’s a black supremacist. The man is fed up with Cora’s proclivity for sleeping with African-American men and crying rape, as it’s “a tale I’ve heard one time too many,” but he’s no more in favor of race mixing than the Commodore‘s Season Two muscle, the Ku Klux Klan. It’s incredibly satisfying to see Cora dragged out of the car by Narcisse’s henchmen and to have her body discovered the next morning by a horde of workmen, reporters and Mayor Bader (the incident occurred at Bader’s latest construction site; there was a subplot about Nucky wanting a cut of Bader’s profits, but it was such a snoozer that I forgot about it until this final scene), but once we get a glimpse of her mangled dead body (noose around her neck, arm suspiciously missing) in the mud, our satisfaction quickly turns to dread. If Valentin Narcisse is capable of lynching a white woman without fear of repercussion, I fear the grisly havoc that awaits Atlantic City now that he’s made the acquaintance of some of its most prominent residents. Even Liza Minnelli, channeling her Sally Bowles character from 40 years ago with her upbeat rendition of “You’ve Got to See Mama Ev’ry Night” during this scene, can’t sing away such a grotesque image.
Over on Boardwalk Empire: Midwestern Edition, Richard has been welcomed home by his sister, Emma, but it’s hardly a joyful family reunion. In the past year, as a big-bellied Emma remarks in a single pithy sentence, she was “orphaned in April [when their father died], married in May, pregnant in August, widowed in November.” She should stitch that on a pillow somewhere. Adding to her bitterness is her unspoken awareness of how her brother makes his living. When he announces that he has to go to Milwaukee to visit “the veterans’ bureau,” Emma sternly warns him, “If you don’t come back this time, don’t come back at all. Couldn’t bear it.” Them’s fighting words, so much so that when Richard arrives at the office of his latest target, he can’t go through with the job. His crisis of conscience continues when he’s unable to shoot the old, dying family dog to put it out of its misery. Just when it seems Richard is taking steps toward leaving his murderous lifestyle behind for good, he receives an ominous phone call: When he let the Milwaukee man go, he accidentally left behind Emma’s past due bill of three years’ back taxes on the farm, which was inevitably discovered by the man who hired Richard in the first place (and who had to take care of business in Richard’s absence, as depicted by the dead body in the office from where the call originated). Just as Nucky warned Margaret last season, there is no walking away from this type of life. And now Richard has dragged the one person who means the most to him into the worst kind of danger imaginable.
A couple of hundred miles south in Chicago, Nelson Van Alden, still living under the alias of George Mueller, is now working as a flower delivery boy for Dean O’Banion, when he’s not pulling double duty as a heavy shaking down those who might owe the O’Banions money. Van Alden’s big plot development this season is how he continues to ingratiate himself into the Capones’ gang, under the cover of spying for the O’Banions. Michael Shannon delivers another comically genius scene this episode that rivals his meltdown in the iron-sales office last year when he joins the lead-pipe-armed Al Capone and his brothers, Frank and Ralph, at a political rally to “ensure” attendees vote for the “right” candidate. The way Shannon turns his character into Frankenstein’s monster, complete with growls and hisses, during the brawl that inevitably breaks out, may just be the healthiest thing Van Alden needs following all those years of pent-up anger, aggression and repression. But Van Alden’s best scenes continue to be with his Norwegian wife, Sigrid. The Muellers have moved from their cramped apartment into a brand-new home, and now that they’re doing better financially (thanks to Cicero’s steady stream of gangsters offering work), Sigrid is dressing less like a fresh-off-the-boat Scandinavian immigrant and more like a modern 1920s American wife these days – and she wants a nice furnished house to go with her new look. So what does she do? Like so many housewives before her and after, she buys a bunch of furniture on credit. Van Alden is annoyed, but certainly not the way he would have been two or three years ago. It’s no different than watching Tony and Carmela Soprano – the Muellers have typical marital issues (what couple out there didn’t relate to that moment when Sigrid pursed her lips at her husband and he retorts, “Don’t make that face!”), and their money has blood all over it. Another bombshell is that for the first time, Sigrid calls Van Alden “Nelson,” confirming that she is now the series’ Megan Draper.
–Nucky is off to Florida at the end of the episode to investigate a potential land deal, having promoted Eddie under the threat of his resignation (hence the episode’s title, “Resignation”).
–We get a bit of a history update via newspaper headlines and two Washington-based scenes: The late Warren Harding’s corrupt administration is officially kaput with the announcement of Attorney General Harry Daugherty‘s resignation (so long Christopher McDonald) and President Coolidge’s intentions to “take action.” A backroom meeting introduces the new, young acting director of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, whose undercover agent Warren Knox (which is apparently a pseudonym – Hoover calls him “Jim”) is busying himself with taking down Nucky’s regime. Whoever this “Jim” person is, he’s got a cover made of steel – even the crafty Gaston Means couldn’t penetrate Knox’s “hayseed” profile.
Previously: The Devil Went Down to Jersey