Two and a half years after his death, the shadow of Jimmy Darmody continues to loom over Boardwalk Empire. The WWI vet isn't even mentioned, yet his ghost is never far from Nucky Thompson's dealings.
Jimmy's prophecy "You can't be half a gangster" came to fruition last season, with Nucky going all-in on murder, infidelity and betrayal as the key components of his lifestyle. But eight months after Gyp Rosetti's reign of terror over Atlantic City, Nucky is back to being half a gangster: his bootlegging business continues to thrive, with loyal allies like his brother Eli Thompson, Chalky White, Mickey Doyle and a fully-recovered Eddie Kessler (now walking with a cane following last season's near-death ordeal) by his side. What keeps Nucky from being a full gangster, at least for the sake of the show, however – as foreshadowed in the final scene of Season Three, where he disappears into the boardwalk crowd – is his new low-key profile. Gone is the luxe suite at the Ritz-Carlton and the sumptuous house in Margate, and he refers to himself as a "bachelor" during a post-coital moment with his floozy of the week. (While Kelly Macdonald continues to receive second billing in the opening credits and has appeared in promotional materials, neither Margaret Thompson nor her children, Teddy and Emily, appear. This establishes a continued estrangement but a possibility of reconciliation down the line.)
The side effect to all of this is, well. . . Nucky's become a bit of a bore. At least in the flamboyant days of Seasons One and Two and his dark, violent days of Season Three, his actions held our interest, whether he was simultaneously glad-handing the African-American (promoting justice after a KKK attack!) and white communities (promoting racism!) or executing a precocious teenage bootlegger. Now he bides his time taking family dinners at Eli's house and considering Florida land deals from the comfort of his solitary room at the far-from-upscale Albatross Hotel. Hey, Nuck, it's great to see that the brotherly rift has been mended and money isn't an issue, but what good is it being the focal point of a Prohibition-era series if someone's not trying to kill you?
This may all be a part of an organic baton-passing progression, though, with Nucky slowly stepping into the background as the series makes way for a new generation of gangsters – much like Johnny Torrio, Arnold Rothstein and Joe Masseria have done with Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano, respectively. After he helped hide Nucky from Gyp and his goons last season, Willie Thompson (Eli's son) has emerged as Jimmy's natural successor. Willie is a college freshman, but he's also enamored of his wealthy and powerful uncle, asking incisive questions about the family business. Nucky, on the other hand, not exactly eager to star in the Great Jimmy Darmody Sequel of 1924, implores his nephew to succeed where his former protégé failed: get his degree. (Yeah, The Godfather trilogy taught us a long time ago that this usually doesn't happen.) Still, it's easy to see how Nucky has transferred his hopes and dreams from Jimmy over to Willie, and that can't be a good sign for Willie's future.
Shouldering the real drama this season are Richard, Gillian and Chalky, whose subplots at least have some bite to them. Richard has left New Jersey and is on a murder-for-hire tour of the Midwest, his final stop a snow-covered Wisconsin farmhouse identified as the Harrow homestead. It opens up the idea of getting this guy's backstory, one only briefly covered during that heartwrenching scene with Angela Darmody while she sketched his portrait back in Season Two. Tommy, thankfully, remains under the care of Julia and Paul Sagorsky. (With Richard busy reacquainting himself with his twin sister, Emma – as well as his proclivity for killing people – it's unclear if or how he still figures into this storyline.)
Gillian has plunged further into an abyss of her own making. She's a full-blown heroin addict, sneaking hits between servicing johns at the now-defunct Artemis Club when she's not pathetically appealing to a judge to regain custody of her grandson (Dominic Chianese's Leander Whitlock has the most snicker-worthy line in the entire episode, presenting Gillian's whorehouse as "respectable lodging for travelers"), or trying to unload her former brothel onto Southern businessman Ron Livingston. And Chalky, now the successful owner of the Cotton Club-esque Onyx Club (built on the ashes of Babette's), treads dangerously close to ruin the longer he keeps hotheaded men like Dunn Purnsley around.
In full disclosure, I have viewed the first five episodes of the new season. Without giving away spoilers, I can reveal that some of the premiere's slow burn does begin to fade away once the episodes progress, but as with many season openers, much of the time is taken up by exposition and housecleaning. Nucky's big meeting with the Who's Who of New York gangsters, while tedious, is necessary so his entire plotline this season isn't spent lurking in a private room at the Onyx Club or in a shabby hotel.
In exchange for being able to walk the streets of Manhattan without "looking over my shoulder every second," Nucky presents Joe Masseria a peace offering: a huge suitcase full o'money. Hell, he's so serious about forming a truce with these people that he even invited Gyp's former right hand, Tonino Sandrelli, back into town. Last time Tonino did business with Nucky, he was murdering Gyp right before being ordered to stay away from Atlantic City. I guess loneliness makes the heart grow fonder, even for your enemies. Arnold Rothstein is also in attendance, if only to show that he managed to evade prison time despite Nucky's underhanded maneuver in having him arrested for possession of the Overholt distillery last season. But these two may be on the road to reconciliation – apparently, all it takes to get yourself back in professional gambler Rothstein's good graces is to offer him no limit at the casino.
Michael Shannon's Nelson Van Alden character doesn't appear in this episode, but ever since he ran off to Cicero in Season Two, the Prohibition agents have mostly left Nucky alone, mainly due to the corrupt machinations of Van Alden's colleague Agent Stan Sawicki. Which makes this season the perfect time to introduce a brand-new recruit, Warren Knox. Knox seems mild-mannered and innocent enough, almost to the point of overdoing it – which is why I wasn't surprised in the least to learn that it's all an act. After a chatty worker at Mickey's warehouse shoots his mouth off about his secret personal whiskey supply, protected by a booby-trapped shotgun, Knox uses the tipoff to have Sawicki walk right into the line of fire. As a bleeding Sawicki lies on the ground, dying from a direct hit to the chest, Knox reveals himself to be an undercover agent working for the feds. And a cold, sadistic one at that, promising to call in the incident "as soon as I get a grip on myself."
Speaking of cold, sadistic characters, the most-talked-about scene this episode will undeniably be the one where visiting racist booking agent Dickey Pastor orders Dunn Purnsley to fuck his equally devilish (yet handy with a napkin and pen – how's about that erotic drawing she made of her and Dunn?) wife, Cora, while he jerks off. He may have moved up the ranks from jail antagonist to kitchen worker to Chalky's right-hand man, but Dunn doesn't know shit about doing business, especially with white folks in 1924. I can't blame him for pounding a broken bottle into Dickey's face repeatedly – not only was he forced to have sex with Cora at gunpoint, but Dickey degraded him even further with regular use of the n-word and vicious taunts like, "There's no changing you people." Except Chalky knows that you can't go around killing Cotton Club employees (Cora manages to escape) just for "15 minutes' worth of jelly." He's livid with Dunn for potentially screwing up a bunch of future business for the Onyx Club, and with Cora still alive, despite Nucky and Eli's help, it doesn't matter how well they can make Dickey disappear. Trouble's just beginning.
Previously: Pyrrhic Victory