"You want it to be one way. But it's the other way." That's a quote from The Wire, another great HBO drama of crime and community. But Nucky Thompson – and the Boardwalk Empire viewing audience – would do well to heed the words of the steely-eyed young Baltimore drug lord Marlo Stanfield. When a fictionalized version of a bit player in gangland lore declares war against Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torrio, and Meyer Lansky – the three men who established the most successful organized crime operation in American history – that war can only end one way.
Granted, it may not be as simple as Nucky dying in defeat at the end. Perhaps he'll find some way to make peace with the kings of New York —"paying Roman tribute," as he puts it to current crime boss Salvatore Maranzano right before the Luciano/Lansky/Torrio alliance tries to assassinate them both. All we know for sure is that he won't be sending them to their graves as promised. But with material this varied and rich it hardly matters. The task of tonight's dynamite episode — "King of Norway" — was simply to show whether a journey to a preordained destination can be worth taking. The answer is yes.
Credit Gillian Darmody as the episode's emotional heart. Though her occasional Lady Macbeth periods obscure it, she's a figure every bit as tragic and as twisted by the machinations of political power players as the late, great one-eyed sniper Richard Harrow. (Viva Jack Huston!) Harrow's body and soul were mangled by the barbarity of the Great War; Gillian was warped by the sexual depravity of the Commodore. She's a prisoner of a women's asylum, yes, but like countless other women in this sexist society, her real prison is her female body, and now those two forces are combining. Dr. Cotton, the white-jacketed fanatic who runs the asylum, believes that insanity is a disease that lingers in the body. The only cure is to cut it out at its source, which just so happens to be a woman's uterus. "Protect your fur," Gillian's fellow inmate told her before being carted off for a forced hysterectomy. But her horrible scar, and Dr. Cotton's equally terrifying certainty, have shown Gillian she has no way to protect herself at all.
It's no accident that Gillian reaches this point of no return in an episode where flashbacks reveal a teenage Nucky facing a fork in the road. Played by Mark Pickering, who mimics Steve Buscemi with an accuracy that's almost alarming, young Deputy Sheriff Thompson is desperate to prove himself to the imperious father of his beloved Mabel. As daddy dearest points out, though, that's hard to do for a man who doesn't really know what he is yet. His subsequent decision reveals exactly what he's going to become: Nucky turns to the crooked but kind Sheriff Lindsay and asks to be let in on the Commodore's dirtier jobs. Lindsay blows him off – but before long, Nucky discovers the body of an executed rival. That's the kind of work required to run Atlantic City. And knowing what we know about their history, sacrificing Gillian to the Commodore will be Nucky's ticket to the top, and his original sin.
Will Chalky White make a similar decision? Returning to town after seven years away, he meets with Nucky, who implores him to simply "start over." Instead, he heads to Harlem to settle his score with Narcisse, the man he blames for his daughter death. Instead he discovers Daughter Maitland, the singer he fell in love with. Her presence in Narcisse's quarters complicates Chalky's assassination attempt – and given his willingness to kill a partner in crime a couple weeks back, it may prevent it altogether. Does that count as starting over?
The episode's funniest, wildest, most unpredictable storyline begins with the very same wish. Atlantic City bigwig turned gangster lackey Eli Thompson gets a visit from his unexpectedly pregnant wife June. That tears it for him – no more long distance relationship, no more living apart from his family. He's going to commit to moving up in Al Capone's outfit and bring the rest of the Thompson clan to Chicago to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Echoing Nucky's words to Chalky, he tells her they can start over.
Famous last words. A disastrous dinner at Nelson Van Alden's hand-made house sees the revelations come one after another. Van Alden tells Eli that Luciano made him for a fed. Eli suddenly remembers that he's been fucking Van Alden's hilariously DGAF wife Sigrid during his alcoholic blackouts, which Sigrid helpfully spells out for the benefit of Van Alden, June, and her own kids. Mike D'Angelo shows up, revealing that he's not a Capone lieutenant but an undercover agent, and that he knows exactly who they are. "Look, I don't know about you, but my life is a fuckin' shipwreck," a miserable Eli later confesses to the man he cuckolded when the two are locked up together. Van Alden's hilarious, perfect reply? "Well, land ho."
Van Alden is right, of course. Some ships simply hit the rocks and sink. They can't escape Capone or the feds. Gillian can't sweet-talk her way out of the operating table and the padded room. Chalky can't simply kill Narcisse and walk away clean. Nucky can't slaughter his way through New York's most ruthless gangsters. Nor, as he discovers in his final scene of the night, can he take revenge for the murder of Sally Wheat. "Who will be called to account?" "No one, I'm afraid." He wants it to be one way. But damned if it's not the other way.
Previously: Performance Anxiety