Three episodes ago, Nucky, after cleaning up Willie‘s little chemistry mishap, made a prescient remark: “The only thing you can count on is blood.” He meant it in the sense of family, but there has been no lack of bloodshed on the boardwalk since then. What Nucky also couldn’t foresee was that his comment will ring true for either himself or his nephew – and that the other will learn that loved ones are never to be trusted. Who will “win” and who will “lose” in this scenario remains to be seen, but it all remains in the hands of Eli.
As it’s been all season, regardless of Nucky’s cat-and-mouse game with a visiting Sally Wheet, which was more tedious than it was arousing (again, no blame pointed at Steve Buscemi or Patricia Arquette), the gripping drama this week was reserved for the ongoing battle for the Northside. In the episode’s final moments, Daughter Maitland transformed from eye (and ear!) candy into a game-changing player in the ongoing Boardwalk Empire saga, switching allegiance from her creepy surrogate father, Dr. Narcisse, to her lover, Chalky. With one deft and fatal move, she eliminated one of Narcisse’s trusted henchmen, put herself and Chalky into a whole new boatload of danger – and brought to mind this Chalky nugget from Season Two: “Purnsley be done.” Yep, the smooth-talking Dunn Purnsley bought the farm at the end of a tension-filled episode that saw his betrayal of Chalky reach its boiling point in the form of a spectacular, all-out brawl between the two men.
Chalky’s suspicion of his right-hand man started brewing when Dunn was conspicuously absent from Deacon Cuffy‘s funeral. Speaking of suspicion, Lenore is totally on to her husband’s infidelity – the only thing Chalky wasn’t doing during Daughter Maitland’s rendition of “The Old Ship of Zion” (also the name of the episode) was drooling out of the side of his mouth. Hell, even Maybelle noticed Daddy’s eyes were transfixed on a lady who isn’t her mother. Later in the day, Chalky insists on Dunn’s company when they raid a heroin den – which just happens to be where Dunn was conducting business while the deacon was laid to rest. Dunn digs himself deeper into a never-ending hole of his own creation when he impulsively kills/silences the drug-den operator Moses, temporarily saving his hide but only further raising Chalky’s distrust. If anything, Chalky should be grateful to Dunn and his sloppy double-agent tactics: A flier in Moses’ pocket advertising a play written by Dr. Narcisse offers Chalky the perfect opportunity to counterattack with his own performance. Wouldn’t Chalky like to know that good ol’ Dunn Purnsley was the provider of said flier?
It doesn’t take much more than for Chalky to bang on a garbage-can lid to get all of the Northside to leave the Doctor’s pretentious, distended play Omnira (“liberation”) – featuring characters named “Wanton” and “Africanus” – and to watch him light several bundles of heroin on fire while accusing Narcisse of being the source of Atlantic City’s latest scourge. “This one called Harlem by Torch Light,” Chalky announces. No one expected Chalky to back down from Narcisse’s takeover, but that little piece of performance art is nothing compared to the fire and brimstone that the Bible-thumping Doctor is certain to bring down in the coming episodes.
There’s no doubt of Narcisse’s inner fury, but it’s when Jeffrey Wright speaks in that maniacal whisper that his character is at his most frightening. And that is precisely how he issues his next set of orders to Daughter Maitland for the evening. She is to welcome Chalky to her room for some more sex n’ spying, but “there will be another visitor,” so she is to keep her lover there at all costs. But maybe it was the way her guardian/mama-killer fondled her hair. Maybe it was the way Narcisse called her depression a “weakness.” Or maybe she’s just a sucker for men who weep when she sings “The Old Ship of Zion,” like Chalky did when she reprised the familiar funeral hymn at his request – because two seconds before the expected knock at the door she stops crooning to declare, “It’s wrong.” Sure enough, Dunn materializes, and through several wide shots, making Maitland’s room look the size of the Artemis Club in order to illustrate the emotional distance between Chalky and his former confidant, the two men engage in the showdown that’s been rapidly building since the season premiere. Dunn’s intention was to pin everything on Narcisse – the heroin presence, Deacon Cuffy’s death – but Chalky sees right through the ruse. Words devolve into punches, and eventually into a double act I like to call “Atlantic City by Broken Glass.” The grisliest moment comes when Chalky plunges a wooden shard right into Dunn’s lower lip (Erik LaRay Harvey confirmed for me in an interview that the magic of CGI was responsible for the Game of Thrones-esque injury), but that handicap doesn’t stop Dunn’s hands from choking the life out of his now-enemy, whom he has pinned to the ground. Just when it looks like Michael Kenneth Williams is going get killed off of yet another HBO series, Maitland stabs Dunn from behind, effectively saving Chalky and permanently placing him in her debt. It’s hardly going to be champagne and jazz tunes at the Onyx Club for these two, though. Sure, Chalky’s alive and Maitland’s realized that the Doctor is more scary than saintly, but as the wise 1980s philosopher Tootie Ramsey used to say, “There’s gonna be troouuubblle!!!!”
–Just when it looks like the Thompson family has been pasted back together for the 437th time, along comes Agent Knox/Tolliver (Tollinox?) with his Chesterfield cigarettes and surly demeanor to make sure they won’t be singing novelty tunes in the parlor for much longer. After spending a couple of days at the Albatross with Uncle Nucky – and getting some no-nonsense advice from Sally over breakfast – Willie agrees to return home, with Nucky setting him up with a job at Mayor Bader‘s office. Life seems swell for all the Thompsons: Nucky’s got his new Jimmy Darmody in place (“All I require is that you keep your eyes and ears open”) and Willie is, at long last, part of the family business (“I want the family to be back where it belongs). Anyone else notice how Nucky gave him his old copy of Ragged Dick, the Horatio Alger novel Gyp found in his office last season? The only one who’s in a bad mood the night Willie, Nucky, June and the 72 other Thompson kids are yukking it up over “Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” is Eli. Why? Because Agent Tollinox is blackmailing him into turning informant on Nucky: Either Eli rats out his brother, or Willie goes to jail. That snitch Clayton – give him a few packs of Chesterfields and he’ll dish anything about the roommate who got him tossed in the clink.
Previously: Prescription for Chaos