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“All manner of dark doin’s afoot.”

“So what? Knock on the door, they say, ‘Welcome Home’?”

Though this show enjoys its careful balance of meditations on a theme, pitch-black comedy, and gleeful bloodbaths, sometimes it’s best when Boardwalk Empire cuts to the bone: This is a show about family, and that can be as poisonous as it gets. Families of all kinds were on display in “King of Norway,” one of those stellar episodes in which the half-season of setup begins to unfurl, balancing plotlines along a single cunning edge, resurrecting old ghosts, allowing character beats to overlap in ways that mean little to them and everything to us, and building a beautiful dread as it goes.

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There’s plenty of gathering clouds this episode that suggest the various family showdowns that will involve bloodbaths, but in terms of the poison-family ideal, nothing tops Eli bringing his pregnant wife to dinner with the Muellers, in what feels like a dark mirror to the long-ago “Sunday Best”. It’s the centerpiece of the episode, capping the resentful discomfort that hovers under Van Alden’s roof and shaking Eli and June’s marriage, which their reunion early in the episode reminds us is probably the warmest and longest marriage the show’s followed. It’s a neat trick that makes sense of Eli’s introduction this season, during an excruciatingly enjoyable scene that hinges on some of the most loaded silences this show’s ever come across, with director Ed Bianchi shooting the dinner table like a war room flanked with Craftsman pillars as the bars of a jail, and powered by Sigrid’s resentment, so palpable her green knit feels like armor. Her sheer lack of giving a shit imbues her with magnetic power (she’s a column of envious color), and Eli’s revelation in the kitchen doorway feels like she commanded him to remember it—remember he’s been here before, and slept with Sigrid in a drunken stupor that until now had been remembered as a yodeling fever dream of skin and bacon.

And the truly astounding fight this would have become, spanning both families and their tangled circumstances, gets interrupted by the feds, who instantly drag both men back to their violent pasts and remind them that this family makes demands as grueling as those the Capones are asking. (Jesus Christ, the ledger man with the bugs.) Van Alden and Eli, who know too much about each other to even quite hang onto the fire of new wrongs, face facts beautifully in their scene in the holding pen, sitting across another table, joined together in mutual disaster. (Eli demands, “Why don’t you do it yourself?” Van Alden, knowing better: “Because we’re the expendable ones.” Finally, an Expendables I’d pay to see.) And of course, they know the treason they’re about to commit against the most powerful gangster in town still pales in comparison to the crumbled marriages they left behind in a house where the roof is leaking.

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Of course, Eli’s sitting at this table because of another poisoned family he left behind, and this is one of those episodes that reminds you how far-reaching Nucky’s influence has been. (We learn Nucky sends Eli’s family an allowance apparently contingent on them staying in New York, which has to be one of the coldest things he’s ever set up.) In an episode full of cockroaches, Nucky’s become the very best. He’s always just suspicious enough to avoid a downfall, always just insightful enough that he can scrape up an ally when he needs one; he’s rarely welcome, but it’s awfully hard to kill him. Luciano and Lansky try (with an assist from Torrio), during a meeting where Nucky warns Maranzano about Luciano’s ambitions—moments before the shots begin. And Nucky, an island unto himself, lives, and wants them to know it.

The Nucky who makes death threats down the phone line with blood spatter across his face would seem like a significant pivot from the guy who’s trying to set up a legal trade and get out of the underworld scrapping, but this week’s flashbacks remind us that both these Nuckys have always been cohabiting. His struggle has been between the importance of winning and the importance of being socially admired. Young Deputy Thompson makes it as good as he’s ever going to, a law enforcement officer who’s still invited into the Commodore’s office for cigars and strategy, even if he has to sit in the back. When he finds himself with a hostile potential father-in-law (there’s no end to the family faceoffs this episode) and a woman he wants to save, then lo and behold, he’ll find a middle ground between praise and power. After all, looking at the Sheriff’s family he idolizes, that’s just what the head of the family does.

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And it’s head-of-the-family Nucky who meets up with Chalky again. (Chalky, who knows him pretty well, gets in his own old-wound insight about Nucky’s intel: “You wrong…for once.”) It has, unsurprisingly, the same feel – even much of the same framing – as last week, when Margaret came to have a chat with her ex-husband and bury the hatchet at last. Chalky’s been family to Nucky before, not that Nucky ever returned the favor. But time has passed, and Nucky’s helping now, even if the reconciliation feels too good to last (Michael K. Williams’ wary, heartbroken expression when Nucky assures him it’s “between friends” makes the scene). It would feel like Nucky cultivating another ally, except that Chalky, ever the pragmatist, has accepted that his family is cut from the picture, and so his hunt for Narcisse feels like a suicide mission rather than the beginning of a plan. You know it from the first time Nucky points out that a patdown won’t stop a man determined to cause harm, and Chalky agrees smoothly, both a warning to Nucky and an announcement of intent: “Something to reckon with.”

This whole episode is something to reckon with. Returning writer Steve Kornacki is relentless about the overlap of family dynamics; everyone’s family somehow, whether related by blood or not, and everyone’s been poisoned by it. The ray of hope in something that sounds so devastating is that there’s a chance to stagger through it stronger on the other side. Gillian’s heartbreaking cameo reveals her charm offensive failing against another man she’s captive to, and she knows just what she’s in for: a fellow inmate groggily reveals what looks like a hysterectomy scar, which would be a chilling and abstract family disruption, and a warning to a woman who’s lost every family it’s possible to lose. But Mickey covers for Chalky (in his own blithely awful way), and Margaret’s developed an immunity to the criminal life at last, as she sits across yet another table, coolly stares down Carolyn Rothstein, and then instructs her employer on the new status quo (shorting stock in Mayflower Grain—a storm on the horizon). And sometimes there’s a family that throws you beyond words; among the most bitter family cliffhangers in an episode full of them, we close with a speechless Chalky, who shows up to kill Narcisse and comes face to face with Daughter and her sleeping child.

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As for Nucky, who gets the news about Sally over the phone (another makeshift family gone) and blearily finishes his glass as if it’s all he can think to do in her honor? He’s waking up to the inevitable. He’s an engine powered by the audacity of his enemies, and that joins the driving question that’s at the heart of who he is, the two halves of him at last agreed, his warring impulses about family and success honed into a single demand of the world: “Then who will be called to account?”

Stray observations:

  • You really don’t get a better background cast than this show provides: Mrs. Zeller is note-perfect, and Marc Pickering is an uncanny young Nucky, with stars and contingency plans in his eyes.
  • BEWARE The Villain Stalks! SAK’s 34ths fur storage vaults are ready to protect your furs!
  • I hope everyone enjoyed Al Capone’s constipation.
  • Nucky nagging Torrio into getting him a drink is strategic passive-aggressive perfection, topped only by his refusal of a sandwich as if Torri’s offered him a severed finger. That’s too much hospitality, Torrio, get it right! Where’s Eddie when you need him? (Oh.)
  • “That’s funny. We found his teeth all over your living room.” Closure for the death of the world’s most out-of-his-depth Fed. This mostly makes me worry about Mickey and that insurance payout.
  • “Both of us are fighting over the same thing.” Nucky is often so full of shit it’s best to just sit back and laugh. But he also has the ability—never flawless, merely very good—to think about what people want in the long term, and boil it down to action items he can handle. Watching this skill develop makes this one of the more interesting flashbacks so far.
  • “Doesn’t anyone drink any more?”
  • New candidate for Best Line Delivery Michael Shannon Has Ever Given This Show: “Chester, that would sound better much further away.”
  • Margaret has spent the last two episodes dressed in the color of blood. I’d love to know where this is heading.
  • “That was an accident.” “You mean like a streetcar hitting a horse?” Well, I mean that now.

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