One of the most common pitfalls of a serial drama like Boardwalk Empire is the glut of characters and their corresponding narratives. As the show progresses, it becomes harder to keep track of the overlapping story lines, and some characters will even go missing for long enough periods of time that when they do reappear, you find yourself saying, “OK, so Michael Shannon is still on Boardwalk?” It’s for this reason I must applaud “Two Imposters” writer Howard Korder for tabling most of the secondary subplots in order to turn the focus back on to Nucky, who spent most of the penultimate episode in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position. In fact, the deferral of the whole Margaret-is-pregnant-with-Owen‘s-baby thread until next week will only make the outcome more fulfilling.
After spending the season as the nearly untouchable monarch, Nucky is now a hunted man – and with few friends to call his own, he might as well be a pauper. Gyp has arrived in Atlantic City with a battalion of men and weapons, and he’s taking over. Once again, Jimmy‘s prophecy is permeating the air, only it’s not so much the lack of booze this time, but that of company.
It’s a couple of hours after “A Man, A Plan,” and the crate carrying Owen’s dead body is being hauled away. There’s a brief mention of Margaret and the children having been taken to the train station (they don’t appear at all in the episode), but their destination is unknown, and it’s unclear if their departure was at Nucky’s behest for their safety, or whether was of Margaret’s own volition, given her now undesirable status of “fallen” wife carrying an illegitimate child. Nucky only has minutes to brood over Margaret’s lugubrious revelation that she was sleeping with the help before the phone lines go dead and the Ritz-Carlton suite has three new guests carrying shotguns. Having become adept at wielding a firearm over the past season, Nucky successfully takes out all three men, then he and Eddie Kessler – who refuses to leave his employer’s side – escape out the hotel’s back entrance in a stranger’s car (the blue Rolls-Royce is a touch conspicuous). As they drive away, Nucky, oblivious to anyone’s problems but his own, begins rattling off a plan until Eddie starts passing out behind the wheel. Turns out Eddie was shot in the stomach, so Nucky gets into the driver’s seat and heads toward the hospital. But even though “there’s a fucking wing named after [him],” Nucky is no safer at St. Theresa’s than he was at the Ritz. Just before he’s about to dispense his German valet at the emergency room (swell guy, that Nuck), Nucky spots two of Gyp’s thugs approaching the car, and he speeds off.
It’s the first time all season, possibly in the entire series, that Nucky is exhibiting a real fear for his life. Sure, there have been prison threats, but he’s always been surrounded by enough allies that he wasn’t ever in any actual danger. That’s all gone now, and Steve Buscemi pulls off these first several intense scenes with alacrity – so much so that by the end of the episode, I found Nucky to be pretty damn likable again, which I haven’t felt since maybe the first half of the second season.
Nucky and a rapidly-losing-consciousness Eddie (now only speaking in his native tongue) drive up to a beachside shack that doubles as Chalky‘s honky-tonk. Inside, Chalky is holding court in a shabby armchair, and for once, the tables are turned on Nucky, who is taken aback when his African-American counterpart doesn’t automatically offer up his men as an army. Chalky, who is still smarting over Nucky’s brisk dismissal of his Cotton Club-on-the-boardwalk idea last episode, lets him sweat a little, reminding him of how poorly he’s treated him over the years. Nucky doesn’t do much to help his case while calling Eli in Chicago when he reveals he doesn’t even know Chalky’s phone number. But Chalky does bring in assistance for the injured Eddie – in the form of medical student Samuel (glad to see Maybelle didn’t toss him aside for a more “interesting” fella). While an unwitting Samuel performs kitchen-table surgery to remove the bullet from Eddie’s belly, with Nucky desperately trying to muffle his non-anesthetized servant’s cries, Gyp and his convoy pay Chalky a visit. Gyp announces he’ll be running things in “the white part of town,” and tries to win Chalky’s loyalty by appealing to his minority status: “We both got left out in the sun too long.”
Just to get the Sicilian off his turf, Chalky agrees to shake hands on the management turnover, but when their palms touch, Gyp offers a cool $25,000 to “drag Nucky Thompson out by his dick.” Nucky sees Gyp’s outline approaching the door, and at this point he’s sure Chalky has given him up. But that just goes to show how little Nucky knows his true friends. Not only does Chalky insist he hasn’t seen Nucky for three weeks, but he manages to put Gyp off by hinting he’s got a girl inside (“I just aim to keep my johnson hanging in its rightful place”). Gyp, no stranger to marital infidelity, can relate to Chalky’s predicament, and leaves. But that doesn’t mean Nucky is out of the woods. Chalky is steaming when he re-enters the building: not only did he give up a boatload of cash to save this white guy’s hide, but now that his men know about the reward, it’s only a matter of time before one of them goes to collect. Nucky needs Chalky to get him away from the honky-tonk, and he’s willing to pay anything. Chalky’s price is the boardwalk club, but Nucky can’t even promise that: “How can I give you what I don’t own anymore?”
That night, Nucky tends to a delirious Eddie (he asks Nucky if he needs the car). In a gentle moment, Nucky, choking up, tells his valet he can have the night off. From an earlier conversation with Chalky – who asked if Eddie had any family – Nucky realizes that he knows nothing about the man who has devoted his life to his service. Better late than never, Nucky learns that Eddie has a wife and two sons back in Germany, and that his mysterious Deutsche babbling was a message of encouragement. Chalky arranges to have Eddie rest comfortably in one of his apartment blocks, and then, along with Dunn Purnsley, loads Nucky into the back of a covered truck. Chalky and Purnsley get Nucky to the city’s outskirts – where they take out three more of Gyp’s men before they are able to search the truck – but Nucky refuses Chalky’s admonition to keep moving: “I’m not leaving. This is my town.”
With few options, Nucky directs Chalky and Purnsley to the lumber yard where his nephew Will works. Now that Nucky has hit rock bottom – and Chalky has proven to be a better friend than any of his ward bosses, henchmen, or even his wife – Nucky offers his colleague the boardwalk club on the site of Babette’s, should he get Atlantic City back. Chalky asks what happens if he doesn’t. “You’ll have to make new friends,” says Nucky sheepishly. But Chalky isn’t game for that scenario: “Too old for that now,” he says with a smile. In a sign of brotherly affection, they shake hands, and Nucky is assured he’s not alone in this war. But his army is only beginning to multiply. A caravan of cars enters the lumber yard, and a cavalry of men with shotguns emerges. Looks like Eli was successful in Chicago – because heading up this posse is none other than Al Capone, who’s out for the kill: “We need a bath, some chow, then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies,” he chomps before popping a cigar into his kisser.
Not Without My Best Friend’s Son
It’s the morning after the night before for Richard, who returns to the Artemis Club with sand falling from his pocket and happiness in his heart. But his bliss is short-lived when he catches Gillian sitting in his room. She feigns concern over his whereabouts, but she’s no dummy – she’s on to his hope of spiriting Tommy away. Gillian warns her caretaker against “dreaming about things that cannot come to pass that were never yours to begin with.” As she exits, we see she had Richard’s scrapbook open to the page of his photo with Julia and Tommy at the midway. Lucky for Richard, Gillian is soon preoccupied with a brand-new business partner: Gyp Rosetti, who has decided to make her brothel his base of operations.
When Gillian goes to check on Tommy later in the day, she finds Richard dressing him in his jacket and cap. Richard claims he’s just taking the boy for a walk around the grounds, but Gillian coerces her grandson into telling the truth: “We’re going to Julia’s.” And Gillian is not giving up her last link to Jimmy (and his money) without a very dirty fight. She hurls insults at Richard, suggesting a pretty girl like Julia who “doesn’t look blind” couldn’t possibly love him back and calling him “not really a complete person.” But Richard, now with plenty to live for, finds the strength to stand up to his bully, and becomes the advocate Tommy needs by insisting the boy shouldn’t be living with his perverse mema in a house of ill repute. Gillian won’t hear of it though, because the Artemis Club “is the only home [Tommy] has, not some fantasy world of yours.” Wielding what little power she has left, Gillian announces to the two men guarding Tommy’s room that “Mr. Rosetti” wants Richard to vacate the premises.
Wrap-Up Isn’t it ironic that the three people who wind up being the most loyal are the ones Nucky has treated the worst – Chalky, Eddie and Eli? Plus, never before have I been so happy to see Richard organizing his artillery collection, because while we have to wait for next week to see the end result, he is not leaving Tommy behind.
Previously Shvitz Happens