Tell me what you want to hear
I’ll whisper softly in your ear
All the things I’ll pledge to do
To prove to you my heart is true.
“Who don’t you trust?” Nuck asks Eli.
Eli’s just suggested a group meeting with Masseria, Lansky, Luciano, Petrucelli, and Narcisse to move things forward on the new Tampa accord. But Nucky’s on guard now; he’s had a call from Gaston Means about a traitor within the organization. In the presence of his beloved brother, he’s trying to figure out who’s against him.
The answer, of course, is: everyone, all the time. On Boardwalk Empire, trust generally gets you nowhere. This week is just a series of timely reminders, as characters are calmly and calculatedly betrayed, making for a relatively quiet but haunting penultimate episode that unfolds like the long sigh just before stepping out into the line of fire. And it’s no coincidence that “Havre de Grace” features several shots of characters on porches or balconies or beside windows, looking out at avenues of escape they can’t quite reach.
But Eli’s shot was a near-direct mimic of the opening credits, which almost always means something terrible on the horizon. And it’s going to be; the the slow-burn rift between Eli and Nucky has been looming ever since Knox flipped Eli. But on top of having increasingly ambivalent feelings about his son, Eli’s wary of springing the trap. He knows what it means to cross Nucky unless you can finish the job—it hasn’t been that long since prison—and he’s worried, so coiled with guilty energy that he can barely look anyone in the eye. His conversations with Nucky during their family visit are full of long silences so loaded you can practically hear Ennio Morricone being piped in from another room even before June accidentally tips Eli’s hand about Knox’s visit to the house. (For an extra helping of irony, Nucky had already named Knox as a potential mole, based on Eli’s own suspicions earlier this season.)
Even if Eli’s duplicity is a wholesale surprise to Nucky, though, the shock doesn’t last long. For all the simpatico and honesty they’re capable of sharing, the Thompson brothers have one another’s numbers by now. Eli summed Nucky up neatly for Knox (“He talks about peace. He doesn’t mean it. Never has”), and Nucky still knows he can get Eli’s goat by reciting the poem he wrote in eighth grade. “To see how you react,” he explains down the stairs to Eli, and just for a second, Eli seems to recognize the trouble he’s in.
But even with the traitor identified, and informant Will in place, Nucky knows how close he is to danger; in his last words this episode, he tells Sally Wheet, “I want out.” (Good luck with that, Nucky.)
The shoe actually does drop this week for Gillian, as Roy Phillips finally, finally betrays his true purpose in seeking her out. And perhaps it’s just that this episode has more organic conflicts elsewhere, but the big reveal feels strangely off-key. Initially it raises questions about the bizarrely long con Phillips was running, and the extremely optimistic plans that were apparently in place throughout her detox and the staged murder. But the oddness isn’t entirely the fault of Roy’s plan, or his origin (somebody was going to come looking for Roger sooner or later, might as well be the Pinkerton Detective Agency), or even that this is the crime that finally nails Gillian to the wall—the brief appearance by Roger’s friend earlier this season was a reminder that she’s a soldier who killed a civilian.
But Gillian, however free she feels after letting go of her grandson, is still one of the most successful keepers of secrets in a group of people who make a business of secrets. Even her post-sobriety autobiography to Roy, made in the candid bloom of love, didn’t have much information he couldn’t have learned elsewhere; aside from her first kiss Jimmy, it was a confessional digest. In love or not, she’s well aware of the power of information. She’s also punishingly self-aware, and even while talking to Roy about their bright future, she’s attuned to his mood and the expectations she’s performing under: “I’m nattering. Not an appealing quality. I’m stopping.” It’s feasible she’d admit to having killed someone in an attempt to draw Roy further under her judgment in the fallout from his “murder.” But the idea she’d spill those beans with such specificity, even under duress, rings false. Love or not, free or not, she knows the lay of the land better than that.
The other lay of the land this week is up to Chalky, for all the good his learning curve does him. After last week’s attempt on his life, he takes refuge with his mentor, Oscar Boneau, who he clearly hopes will provide the haven of the title, and give him time to plan a strategy to take back Atlantic City. But the house Boneau offers is as decayed as his sight, and Boneau’s manpower can be counted on one hand. From the moment they pull up, Chalky’s expression starts to fall, and every quietly fruitless hour is a visible sting, another nail in his coffin. Boneau’s pragmatic advice about their chances doesn’t help: “When you’re done, you’re done.”
His scenes in the outmoded grandeur of the house have a certain comfort, even a certain charm—Boneau’s men are loyal and not asking for trouble, which is more than most of their associates can boast, and Chalky makes some noises about quitting the business entirely and setting sail with Daughter for unknown shores. But Daughter knows better: Chalky can’t turn back.
He tries; he promises Daughter the open sea. And it’s easy to see the temptation to let unfinished business go, given the lay of the land: any dreams of revenge Chalky entertained would have been badly dented by how far Boneau’s setup is from the temporary fortress Chalky would need if he wanted to regroup and forge his way back to Atlantic City. (He’s never going to get the chance Nucky got.) Instead, he spends the episode quietly losing. He loses his long-held image of his unstoppable mentor, who spends most of his waking hours scolding Chalky, warning him off his quest, and being dismissive of Daughter. He loses Daughter, who slips away under cover of night and robs him of his reason to turn his back on everything. Finally, he loses Boneau himself to an attack by Narcisse’s men, who picked up his trail through means unknown. It’s a collection of betrayals large and small that build on one another until Chalky goes numb from it, frozen in place, stricken and hopeless.
He’s too much of a survivor to give up on revenge—even as Scrapper and company lay down their first covering fire, you can see Chalky calculating his security-team numbers up by three—but this season’s many conflicts have driven home the fact that Chalky will always have to fight twice as hard for the same share, and that he will simply never have the option to walk away. He has everything to lose, now, and there’s no one left in his corner. (Who’s against you: everybody, all the time.)
This week, Chalky sits down briefly to a game of checkers. He loses his train of thought for a moment; he’s told: “Your move.”
It is now. Let’s hope he lives through it.
- “There’s a skunk in your cellar.” “Who is this?” Oh, Nucky. You’re kidding.
- You can practically see Stephen Root licking his script over lines like, “Who has sent you grim-visaged thuggies?”
- Nucky’s series-long descent into the depths of self-serving, black-comedy peevishness continues apace, as he manages to blame Chalky for almost being murdered: “For what? Didn’t I warn him?”
- Eli, to Nucky, when Nucky decries the idea of peace under Narcisse’s thumb: “You squeaked by last time. You ready for that again?” Not sure you’re in the position to be whipping that one out, Eli.
- Prior to everything falling apart, Gillian and Richard reached as close to an understanding as they’re likely to get. They’ve been at odds for so long that the reconciliation is surreal; Huston and Mol give their dialogue a suitably uncanny undercurrent of strangers meeting.
- This show seriously knows how to cast; Louis Gossett Jr. gives a season’s worth of performance in this episode.
- My pet shot of the week happened while Nucky and Will were chatting post-dinner about family business. Morally iffy but observant Will suspects something’s wrong with Eli, and Nucky already knows exactly what it is and how he plans to punish Eli for it. Between them, an illuminated sign on an empty beach: “FOR SALE.”