“This is my place. This is where I belong.”
“Ain’t nobody ever been free.”
The marketing tagline for this season was “No One Goes Quietly.” While the marketing is a different monster than the show, and while the building plot rumbles carry the sense of a supernatural fist being slowly drawn back for the blow, so far season five has been one of slow forward motion pushing against a muddy tide of Nucky’s past and punctuated by reckonings. All of these reckonings were necessary: Chalky getting Nucky’s number one last time, Margaret and Nucky settling a marriage’s worth of scores, Sigrid torching her marriage, even Van Alden and Eli finally acknowledging things that have gone unspoken for nearly a decade. But we’re only now beginning to see Boardwalk Empire’s willingness to burn itself to the ground.
“Devil You Know” was an episode all about being thwarted, with varying degrees of gallows humor; Nucky in drinking the past into oblivion and finally admitting the pile of rot on which he’s built his life, Chalky in taking Narcisse with him, Van Alden and Eli in saving their skins. We see the ceiling of every room this episode, that sense of pressing-in. Even Daughter and Gillian, though not nearly so prominent, have their hopes yanked away from them. In fact, the only one all episode who gets what he wants is D’Angelo, the fed who literally gets handed the only thing he cared about, which is a neatly cynical beat even for Boardwalk Empire.
It was probably inevitable that Van Alden was going to be a goner in the final season. He’s unprotected by historical record and who’s been in a slow freefall since the moment we met him. And what a succinctly Van Alden death. (May flights of outbursts shout thee to thy rest.) Boardwalk Empire often emphasizes the suddenness of violence; it’s a world where the people are self-made legends and death is consistently unceremonious. But the mid-proselytizing head shot was both a likely outcome of trying to get one over on Al Capone at the behest of D’Angelo and the feds, and the sort of pitch-black comedy that characterized the seasons Van Alden’s spent in Chicago, quietly hating his life more with every passing moment. Van Alden is a character made of Being Thwarted, and the feedback loop caught up with him at last.
Before he went, though, we got more of the world’s grimmest buddy comedy, as Van Alden and Eli try to pass a satchel of torn paper into the Capone vault and sneak out the ledgers. Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham have been a gem this season, and they both get some of their best moments so far in this utterly botched caper, which manages to be both tense and sparklingly funny. Their plan in itself is laughable (Michael Shannon’s lamentation, “This has not been thought through,” competes for his best of the night). Them being caught is priceless, as Capone stares them down and wonders, not without grounds, what they could have been thinking. “Greedy,” Van Alden admit with priceless, resigned lack of affect. “Just, very greedy.” And that’s true of Van Alden—not for money, but for the sort of recognition that’s borne of respectful fear: from the feds, from Margaret, from his wives, from his employers. It’s fitting that he went out expressing his loathing for Capone and asserting his identity; recognition, one last time.
Eli, who didn’t think he had farther to fall, is in the even worse position of being a charity case. (In the episode’s most perfectly delivered exchange, Capone laments that Eli’s never thanked him for his hospitality. “Thank you. Very much.” Capone, with a delivery like a distracted elementary school teacher: “Doesn’t count now.”) He survives—largely because Van Alden quite literally took the bullet for him—and he falls into the stupor of the doomed. His life, a sea of apathy saved by apathy, is such a surprise that when D’Angelo tells him to disappear he startles at the touch of the money like he’s waking up from a bad dream. One can only assume where he considers home, these days, but since he makes his first grown-up appearance in the flashbacks, it’s safe to say he’ll be finding his way back to the brother who suddenly might need him.
Nucky spends this week hitting bottom. He’s thwarted in business, reeling from Sally’s death, and determined to drink himself into admitting he’s wretched. The evening’s long con starts in a dive bar with a woman’s pity, becomes mutual suffering (Steve Buscemi’s unamused laugh in the dive bar after the paste-jewelry joke is a sad thing), detours into strip poetry and bemoaning ambition, and ends up where Nucky so often ends up: self-loathing. Him getting robbed in the alleyway feels so inevitable that their meandering chat has the formal intricacy of a stage play. The surprise comes when the fresh-faced young recruit happens upon him, and a delirious Nucky sobs, “You stupid fucking child, why would you trust me?”
It’s a chilling allusion. We know that Nucky’s childhood has been on his mind, so that he’s kind to hustling street kids and trying to make the peace with one wife he never made to her predecessor. But these flashbacks have gone from origin story to Nucky’s ledger, and we’ve reached the place where darkness has begun to creep in. We’ve seen him ambitious and willing to bend the rules to get ahead. This week we see him step crucially closer to the Nucky we know, schmoozing politicians through careful sentence construction and ass-kissing, noticing more than he lets on, and lacking the courage (or the foolishness) for open confrontation. Instead, we see his first use of a since-patented Nucky move: discover a weakness, and then just wait. Unfortunately, the trap he sets is for Gillian. His inaction around Gillian’s time with the Commodore has always been one of Nucky’s darkest corners, but Nucky’s a master of believing whatever it is gets him out of this mess. That he’s admitting the depth of his wrongs is, for him, a revelation.Of course, as soon as it comes, it goes, and Nucky tries to buy his way out of trouble, because he knows no other way to balance the accounts. For the first time this season in the modern day, the lonely seagulls off the water swamp the soundtrack; ragged cries and lonely calls, and Nucky with nothing to do but to sit and remember it all.
But this week’s heaviest goodbye unspooled during Chalky’s mission of revenge, which was thwarted on every possible level, and ended the way we knew it would. Chalky has spent the entire series trying to get on top and never, ever managing it. More loyal than his colleagues, with a longer memory and fewer options, he’s a tragic figure, with all the humor, heartbreak, and immediacy Michael K. Williams’ performance can give him. Amid what we know is coming, the presence of Daughter and her child is both a harbinger of doom and a gift, allowing the momentary reckoning we needed, just to make peace. ( Though even on this suicide mission, some wounds are too raw: “She’s not his,” says Daughter, and when Chalky asks “Then whose?” it sounds like something he wouldn’t help, and he’d just as soon not hear the answer.) Of course, Chalky’s forgiven neither her nor himself, and his usual ability to cut to the bone makes it all the more wrenching when she explains she had to leave to be free, and he—standing in Narcisse’s quarters with her amid all the oppressive old-money luxe, waiting for the man himself—challenges her,”You free now?”
Of course she’s not. No one is. Not even Narcisse, who comes home so angry at Luciano’s business practices that he’s barely surprised to see Chalky, gun and all. It robs Chalky of yet another revenge—fear, even animosity, would have satisfied—and because Narcisse has more to bargain with and fewer loyalties to hamper him, we know exactly how this will fall out: freedom for Daughter and her child, with Narcisse winning Chalky in exchange. And that reckoning is an empty promise; Chalky’s a man who’s never been able to secure a guarantee. His death doesn’t come after a room full of cronies with guns and a rousing decision to stand his ground. His death isn’t an angry attack on the man who wronged him, shouting promises with his last breath. His death (his silhouette looking up at the sky) isn’t even given the honor of Narcisse as a witness. Instead, it’s an anonymous alley, a fearless “All right then,” the sound of a record coming to an end, a hiss into nothing.
Chalky goes quietly. Ain’t nobody ever been free.
- Goodbye to Michael Shannon and Michael K. Williams, who turned in two utterly disparate performances that still managed to be some of the show’s best ever.
- “I was going places.” “What happened?” “Your father set me up with your mother.” Mickey Doyle continues to bring joy to my heart in direct proportion to how much he brings heartburn to everyone else. I’d say I’m surprised he’s still alive, but then, we still have two episodes.
- After a few episodes of treading water, Stephen Graham gets to unleash Capone in both anger and fear, while delivering some of the best comedy he’s ever tackled.
- Amazing casting of the week: Paul Muni and George Raft sitting stone silent in the parlor, sublimely second-guessing.
- The quarter-assed burlesque act this episode is a thing of beauty.
- “Everybody kept calling me Nucky.” “Oh, no.”
- Gillian admiring Nellie Bly is a poignant parallel to Margaret admiring Carrie Duncan and her flight across the world; two symbols of determined, carefree freedom to women who had no such luck.
- Marc Pickering continues to nail a younger Nucky so effortlessly it’s almost scary.