Now that we’re officially in the second half of the season, the slow burn that has been so characteristic of Boardwalk Empire since its inception has finally begun to give way to juicier plot points. The unfortunate trade-off? Something I like to call True Blood syndrome: Too many separate story lines crammed into one episode that most likely won’t have any connection to one another until the season finale.
I’m sure that Terence Winter has a grand plan to have the audience care that Joe Masseria is sending Charlie Luciano back to Tampa to do business with Vincenzo Petrucelli, Nucky‘s newest partner in his land deal. There’s also no doubt that Gillian enduring the ravages of heroin detox and forging a loving relationship with Roy Phillips is setting the stage for a dramatic custody battle for Tommy. (Side note: Is anyone else scratching their heads as to why Ron Livingston was added to the principal cast when he’s been given a fraction of the screen time as several of the end-credit actors?) And, yes, a quick peek at the goings-on in Chicago was an organic choice given it’s the setting for the notorious Leopold and Loeb case that monopolized headlines in the spring of 1924. (The child killers’ arrest was on the front page of the newspaper a cop was reading right before Al Capone put a bullet in his head.) In short, a botched brewery deal between Johnny Torrio and Dean O’Banion puts both gangsters in jail, leading Torrio to order Al to “kill that Irish fuck” (no doubt a harbinger of O’Banion’s – spoiler alert! – real-life death in November of that year). Oh, and as if this episode wasn’t bloated enough, it also included cameos from the Washington, D.C. all-star contingent: Esther Randolph! Andrew Mellon! J. Edgar Hoover! Gaston Means (who, not surprisingly, has been feeding Nucky false information about Warren Knox – real name, James Tolliver)! But at this stage of the narrative, all we can do is file these brief subplots away in our collective subconscious until they return to the forefront of the story (if they do at all) – because I could fill this entire recap just with my take on what happened between Chalky, Daughter Maitland, Narcisse and Dunn this week.
As we saw at the close of last week’s episode, Chalky took a hit of the drug that is Daughter Maitland, and he’s now a full-blown addict, willing to do anything to keep her in Atlantic City. And that’s exactly what Narcisse was hoping for: He gladly extends Maitland’s run at the Onyx Club in exchange for permission to open a chapter of the United Negro Improvement Association on the Northside. Thus begins the next step in Narcisse’s systematic takeover of Chalky’s turf. Interesting how what’s been happening to Chalky is almost identical to Nucky’s story line last season (and the one before), where his control of the city was slowly and cunningly ripped out from under him. Considering Chalky helped Nucky in his time of need last season, let’s hope that his friend returns the favor when the shit ultimately hits the fan in a few weeks.
While Dunn attempts to keep the peace during a local church meeting (failing miserably), it becomes quite clear that Narcisse’s underhanded maneuvers (i.e. introducing heroin to the Northside) have worked their magic on the unsuspecting African-American community. Complaints are abound: Heroin-related deaths have begun to pop up, and the churchgoers are resentful that Chalky is too busy mixing it up with white folks at a club none of them can patronize instead of tending to their needs. The timing is just right for Narcisse to give an impassioned speech about the “apathy” of their leaders (*cough* Chalky *cough,* who ditched the gathering in favor of getting better acquainted with Daughter Maitland’s talents – in the bedroom), and promising that he, along with Deacon Cuffy, will “restore this community to its full and glorious potential.” The crowd eats it up, but the chaos is only beginning. Later that night, Cuffy, no stranger to whistle-blowing (back in Season Two, he was the one who notified the authorities that Van Alden murdered his partner, Agent Sebso), is en route to inform Chalky that he knows who’s behind the heroin scourge when he’s accosted in the empty church by a seemingly repentant Dunn. And when Cuffy doesn’t buy Dunn’s bullshit claims that he wants to turn his life around, Dunn, having learned nothing from his little sexcapade with Cora and Dickey Pastor, silences him forever with multiple stabs to the chest. This also raises the question of whether or not Van Alden can return to Atlantic City now that the key witness in his murder case is deceased.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Chalky when the truth comes out about Maitland and Narcisse’s rather disturbing relationship this episode. True, he’s the one being unfaithful, but given how deeply he’s fallen for the Harlem chanteuse, the revelation that she and Narcisse have been playing jazz with his heartstrings would drive anyone to sing the blues. Over pillow talk, Maitland tells her lover the story of how she came to know Dr. Narcisse: Mom was a prostitute, and one night, when a client got too rough, she poured a jar full of lye on his chest, only to have the john choke her to death in retaliation. Chalky asks if the man was caught, and Maitland cagily responds, “Dr. Narcisse found me. Put his wings around me ever since.” The scars on Narcisse’s torso only confirm the easily planted suspicions that the good doctor was the john who killed Maitland’s mother. Maitland, having nowhere else to go, lives in a perpetual state of Stockholm syndrome, reporting Chalky’s vulnerabilities back to Narcisse while allowing him to rationalize her mother’s murder: “Your mother, she fought the spirit . . . these hands set her free and set you on your path.” The vision of Maitland dabbing Narcisse’s scarred chest with a damp cloth and kissing his hands in devotion before she goes onstage to sing “Somebody Loves Me” makes me wish deprogrammers existed in the 1920s.
–We got a little more info as to how Margaret makes a living without Nucky’s wealth, but like several of the plot lines mentioned earlier, it’s tough to know how her story fits into the larger narrative at this point. She’s working as a secretary at a brokerage firm on Wall Street, making extra cash under the table by manipulating unsuspecting clients with a sob story about how her “husband” lost out on big bucks by not buying into the stock her boss is pushing. Her ruse as “Mrs. Rohan” is going along swimmingly until Arnold Rothstein (under the name “Abe Redstone”) and his Marcel Marceau face appear as her boss’ latest prospective client. A $100 bill and a brief phone call from the professional gambler (addressing her as “Mrs. Thompson”) ensure silence on the ends of both parties: Margaret won’t disclose the new client’s real identity to her boss, and Rothstein won’t tell Nucky where she’s working.
–As Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano and even Nucky Thompson have proved, it is not hard to create a likable antihero – or even just a bad guy you root for. Sure, characters like Jimmy Darmody and Gyp Rosetti were dangerous – and in the case of Gyp, an absolute psychopath – but somehow, we still enjoyed watching their stories play out. Why? Because they had charisma. Willie Thompson has the personality of a wet mop, and it’s dragging the show down because he’s dominating so much of Nucky’s story line this season. Seriously, how loathsome is this kid? First he quits college because Doris is boring him in bed and a lecture on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson,” the tale of a man murdering his rival (also the episode’s title), hits a little too close to home. Then he provokes Eli into beating the shit out of him by hurling insults. But even though Jimmy was a much more worthy candidate of Nucky’s affection, frustrating as it is for us to watch, blood will always be thicker than water. And that’s why Uncle Nucky offers Willie sanctuary, this time in the form of a room at the Albatross Hotel.
Previously: Necessary Roughness