For most of this season, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in these recaps bemoaning how Nucky Thompson has turned into a wallflower in his own story. True, this served the greater purpose of building up the riveting Chalky-Dr. Narcisse-Daughter Maitland plot line, but at least in “White Horse Pike,” Steve Buscemi resumed his role as Boardwalk Empire’s driving force. In the span of one episode, Nucky went from sleepy elder statesman to Olivia Pope, swooping in from his Sally Wheet-soaked reverie to verbally castrate Narcisse, get Chalky to safety and come out the other side all the wealthier as a one-third partner in a lucrative heroin deal. But even someone like Nucky needs his Gladiators, and after almost four seasons of friction between the Thompson men, the final silent shot of the camera panning away from Nucky, Eli and Willie, going all in on rescuing Chalky gave me an unexpected sense of peace. That, and having the credits roll while Margot Bingham sang (whispered, really) a stark, haunting a cappella rendition of the gospel song “River of Jordan” ensconced me in a giddy chill over what’s to come next week. (Side note: Bingham revealed to me in an interview that “River of Jordan” was recorded live on set as opposed to in the studio, which gave the performance a gravitas guaranteed to make your heart ache.)
Sally has turned out to be as good a business partner as she is a sexual one, with her tipping off her Atlantic City boy toy to a whole boatload of shenanigans going down in Tampa. Turns out Meyer Lansky, Charlie Luciano and their associate Vincent Petrucelli are smuggling heroin up north via Nucky’s trucks and liquor crates. Eli and Agent Knox are dispatched to investigate the convoy, but these two aren’t making much of a team anymore. In order to avoid ratting out his brother and sending Willie to jail, Eli attempted to pose as an informant and feed Knox false information. Unfortunately, Knox is fastidious enough to do his research, so once he realized he was being duped, he showed up at Eli’s home posing as an insurance salesman. In a display of pure evil genius, and in his perfect Midwestern cadence, he twists the knife in Eli’s back by encouraging Willie to “thank your father, because he knows that in an instant, tragedy could strike.” But Knox won’t be resting on his laurels anytime soon: J. Edgar Hoover no longer has any interest in his new “weak link” to Nucky Thompson, because he’s got a new target on the horizon – Marcus Garvey. Given that, and regardless of Knox’s threats toward Willie, it remains unclear at the end of the episode if Eli will ultimately double-cross his brother.
Over on the Northside, war is officially declared between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse. Chalky and a bunch of men unleash a hailstorm of bullets on the United Negro Improvement Association offices. Naturally, because there are still two episodes left in the season, Chalky and Narcisse miraculously survive the bloodbath while the majority of their cronies fall to the ground. Chalky is shot in the shoulder and manages to escape to the local American Legion Hall, where Richard (the Onyx Club’s newest dishwasher – looks like Nucky got him a job after all) tends to his wounds. This latest attack released the fury that had been boiling underneath Narcisse’s composed demeanor all season, as he bursts into the Onyx Club’s private room and demands Chalky’s head on a platter from Nucky. Narcisse has proved himself a worthy opponent to Nucky, but despite the Atlantic City boss’ resistance toward yet another power struggle, he’s fed up with this self-righteous interloper and reclaims his role as a full gangster by asking Narcisse in an applause-worthy moment, “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
But don’t think Nucky’s going back to the Albatross to relax with a glass of red wine in a white pantsuit after that encounter. The next morning, he’s standing over a trembling Lansky, who, along with his heroin, was picked up by Eli and Knox the previous evening. Enraged over his betrayal, Nucky is about to permanently end the Lower East Sider’s burgeoning mobster career when Lansky entices him with a cut of the heroin business. Before Nucky can sit down with Joe Masseria, though, he’s alerted to Chalky’s situation and goes to the American Legion Hall for a tête à tête. While he believes Chalky was reckless in his actions, Nucky can’t deny his loyalty to his friend – or so we think. He orders Chalky to not do anything until he sends word.
Next thing we know, Nucky is having a daytime meeting at the Onyx Club with Joe Masseria and his newest partner-in-heroin, dun, dun, dun! Valentin Narcisse. And he’s demanding one-third of the business while agreeing to Narcisse’s terms of “full support on the Northside” and giving up Chalky White. Wait, huh? Guess Bobbi Flekman was on to something: “Money talks and bullshit walks.” Well, it was more that Nucky was naive to think that Mayor Bader couldn’t be corrupted by anyone but him. Right after his powwow with Masseria and Narcisse, Nucky calls Bader requesting two sheriff’s deputies to “get Chalky White out of town.” The policemen collect Chalky and Maitland, who is still sporting some nasty bruises from last week’s Narcisse-beating but is determined to stay by her lover’s side. When Nucky made the call to Bader, he couldn’t see the mayor’s uneasy expression at the other end of the line. But thank God Willie was around to notice Bader’s hourlong meeting with Narcisse. Demonstrating that he’s a natural at gangstering, Willie immediately alerts Nucky to what he saw, and within minutes Nucky is organizing a contingent to rescue Chalky and Maitland. At this point, even Eli can’t dismiss Willie’s integral role in the family business anymore. To Willie, it’s the only thing that comes organically: “Pop,” he says. “Isn’t it what we do?”
That is, if Chalky and Maitland can be found. While Maitland softly sings “River of Jordan” in the back of the police car, the melancholy tone quickly turns to one of fear once Chalky notices the deputies “missed the turnoff” to Philadelphia. A chaotic struggle ensues with Chalky and Maitland engaging in their own version of Bonnie and Clyde: Chalky shoots the officers while Maitland jumps into the driver’s seat, steering them to safety. As the two fugitives dispose of the dead bodies, the camera closes in on the car’s headlight, leaving Chalky and Maitland’s future both ambiguous yet slightly hopeful. But as much as we enjoy seeing Chalky and Maitland together, they’re leaving behind a big ol’ mess in Atlantic City that no one will be allowed to forget anytime soon. Sure, Chalky creates way more heat with Maitland than he ever did with Lenore, but when Lester and Maybelle enter the Onyx Club after hours, we’re reminded of how good chemistry can also be explosive. A sullen Maybelle goes up to the private room, where Narcisse just happens to be cooling his heels. Introducing himself as Richard Pastor, he patiently listens to Chalky’s daughter lament her broken engagement and her mother’s deep depression, all at the hands of her father’s infidelity. Taking advantage of Maybelle’s vulnerable state and her reborn desire to lead a more dangerous, exciting life like her daddy, Narcisse’s leering eyes suggest he’s found his next protégée.
I’m still enjoying Margaret‘s journey from timid housewife to self-sufficient gangster on this show, but her desire to remain cut off from Nucky only makes her story line this season feel shoehorned into the rest of the narrative. Unable to make ends meet at her Wall Street job and living in cramped conditions with her family (Teddy looks like he’s sleeping on top of a covered bathtub), Margaret makes a pretty sweet deal with a cash-deficient Arnold Rothstein: She’ll commit insider trading (alerting Rothstein to buy or sell his stock at the same time her boss Mr. Bennett, does) in exchange for a rent-free apartment “in a safe neighborhood and rooms for the children” for five years. Just in time for the stock market to crash, Rothstein to die and for Margaret to be indebted to no one. “I earned this,” she tells Rothstein when he asks why she’ll do business with him but not accept money from Nucky. “When it’s over, I owe you nothing.”
Previously: Still Sitting