[Note: I’m thrilled and nervous to be writing about Boardwalk Empire, and stepping into the shoes of Noel Murray, whose recaps are amazing. Let’s start a new season; hope you enjoy!]
The opening images of a season of Boardwalk Empire don’t like to waste your time; the major threats to the eternally under-fire reign of Atlantic City’s Nucky Thompson tend to show themselves pretty early on. In the second season, Richard and Jimmy oversaw a shipment as Nucky lived things up (foreshadowing the twin problems of betrayal and complacence); in the third, we got a bang-on callback to the opening credits with Gyp Rosetti standing at the edge of the water, looking out on Nucky’s domain, a living reminder that all it ever takes to drag you under is one person more ruthless than you.
Nucky, at the end of last season, had triumphed over all three: welcomed his murder-plotting brother back to the fold, pulled the sort of strategic hat trick best left to the truly desperate, and watched almost everything else vanish. His mistress was killed in the fire that leveled his nightclub, his wife is gone to New York City, and his belief that he’s unshakably firm in his business smashed to rubble by someone who just wanted it more. This is a show that believes in framework; it wants to set up what it tears down.
Last season, as Rosetti rattled every cage he could find and built the ones that didn’t exist, events didn’t come to a close so much as tear open a bunch of gaping wounds, and since last season, they’ve been festering but good. Not for nothing, season four opens with Richard shooting to kill, and Chalky auditioning a nightclub act.
There are bigger scenes in the episode: a shocker we’ll get to, and the most important in light of last season, Nucky holds a meeting of the minds that includes Eli, Masseria, Lucky, Lansky, and Rothstein, as Nucky does what he always instinctively does: tries to get as much as he can without having to handle real conflict. (He introduces the idea of safe passage by claiming he’s worried about being able to shop in peace; only when Rothstein out-snips him does he cave and admit, “I want peace, that’s all.”) Everyone leaves the room more or less peacefully for the moment, though when Rothstein admits he was taking personal odds on whether Nucky would kill him, it’s a reminder of things Nucky doesn’t want to have to think about, and he actually seems affronted that Rothstein would think such a thing. Surely the worst is over, now that he’s worked things out; he wants peace, that’s all.
But for major themes this season, you see them set out in the first two minutes: Never underestimate a man alone; survival is a performance art. Neither of these is any surprise, in a show so much about the lies (and the corpses) on which empires are built, but this episode leaves us in no doubt that this season, the actors have it, and he who stands alone might stand last.
Interestingly, Nucky’s not as comfortable with others’ performances as he used to be: His nephew Will’s college anecdotes are as awkwardly received as his desire to join the family business, and even a starlet can get tossed out just for mentioning Billie, his last performer.
The Onyx Club, of course, is a play within a play, a home for performers both onstage and in the audience. As Chalky promised last season, it’s “black on stage and white in the house,” and there are hints that this season will spend time examining African-American identity more centrally. This episode doesn’t waste time there, either; after an anvil-subtle round of innuendo and New York Sours, Dunn slips away for a tryst with Mrs. Pastor, the wife of a talent manager, in what turns out to be a cuckolding sting, where husband Dickie demands at gunpoint that Dunn act “like the n——— you are” and finish having sex with his wife. For an awful, loaded moment, Dunn obliges. Then he grabs a liquor bottle and slices Pastor to death. The violence of the moment is tightly visceral, shot close, but framed with deliberate similarity to the insults and humiliation he suffered.
Though, interestingly, a subtler power dynamic that plays out from this scene is Chalky’s ease in dealing with the situation. Last season, he built his influence in both big ways and small ones, but bristled (correctly) at Nucky often consigning him to the role of thug. Now, he summons Nucky and Eli as equals in his confidence and handles awkward murders with the calm control of a man who knows he has the power to make problems disappear and the strategic sense that some problems have to be actively managed. All the world’s a stage, and Chalky’s right at home.
Eli does a little amateur work of his own this week. He’s still an earnest family man whose adorable family dinners make Nucky squirm, but he’s been picking up management techniques from Nucky since the Thompson brothers joined forces again; when Agent Sawicki reintroduces the forcibly gormless new federal liaison Warren Knox (he drinks tea! I never!) and reminds Eli he’s been there a month, Eli’s backhanded dismissal is right in the family.
But Knox is this week’s finest performer; after some painfully naïve patter, and claiming, “I don’t see well in the dark,” he hangs back from a shakedown (one it turns out he’s orchestrated, and after Sawicki’s been shot and he’s assassinated the middleman, he gives himself a celebratory drink) after wiping down the cup, of course. As far as I can tell, this is Knox’s first appearance, and it seems something of a big reveal for a first introduction, but everybody has two faces, and perhaps this season there’s no point in denying it. (That also makes two middlemen who bite the dust this week).
The only man this week who doesn’t bother with an act? Al Capone, who’s interested mainly in his name–literally, as he bursts into the offices of the Tribune to perform an uncomfortably personal spelling lesson, but it’s safe to assume this isn’t being introduced just to remind people to proofread; building a legend is easier when you don’t mind putting on a show.
But as always, this boardwalk empire is hardest on its women. Margaret appears only in the empty spaces in Nucky’s hotel suite, the walls having closed in on him and never again opened up any air or light.
Gillian’s roll downhill last season, where the last of her conscience vanished with Jimmy and she got to drown his doppelganger in her brothel tub a few episodes before she got shot up and left for dead, has somehow only gotten steeper. She’s got a full-blown addiction and is fighting an uphill battle trying to win her grandson Tommy back from de facto guardian Julia Sagorsky, for versions of “de facto” that mean “Richard showed up on my doorstep with him.” This episode shows Gillian showing her house for sale as a cover for prostituting the only thing she’s got left, and in her wistful dreams for the restored glory of the house, the most disturbing thing about it is that she has no fight left. The introduction of Piggly Wiggly disciple Roy Phillips as cheerful financial savior must seem to her like a lucky wind saving a plane from freefall, but given how rife this episode is with performance and false identity, Roy Phillips is just a man whose mask we haven’t seen past yet.
And Nucky, a man who has survived by being able to see past the masks of others, paints a weary figure here. In the last two seasons, he’s been shaken to the foundations, and there’s only so many times a man can forgive his brother for plotting to kill him, or realize how deeply he’s misjudged his wife, before he realizes that he’s sometimes an easy read. Yet for a man who’s pretty nimble in his business, Nucky has bought into a dangerous amount of his self-made legend by now; he views his personal life as something beyond the veil of normal men, which means he’s still stung by anyone else’s happiness, or staggered by any indication that they know him at all. At the end of the episode, having sent his starlet away, Nucky stands on the balcony of the aptly-named Albatross Hotel, framed off-center and gazing onto a desolate Boardwalk, with dawn very far away.
As for Richard? He closes the episode standing on the steps of an unknown house, greeting his long-lost sister Emma. Alone, and offering no performance, this is a man who’s starting over. Let’s see where he’s going.
- Though Rosetti might have been more obvious about his attraction to violence as the solution to every ill, there’s no mistaking how many people Richard is capable of killing (100,000, calmly, in a single overhead shot), so it could be worth nothing that Richard killed more people in this episode than Gyp “Most Easily-Affronted Man in the World” Rosetti did in his introductory episode. If we needed a reminder Richard is a stone-cold killer, we got one. And if we needed a reminder he’s got a dark streak we’ve somehow barely touched on, he shoots a man through the cheek to main him before he finishes the work.
- Warsaw, Indiana: home to the second longest continuous brick wall in the world, apparently.
- The Busby Berkley shot of the Onyx Girls is a classic callback. Since Chalky auditions an act of tap-dancing brothers, is that a sidelong hat tip to the Nicholas Brothers?
- Al Capone knows how to make everyone in a room feel at ease, as he introduces some ladies to the gents at the Cicero Quilting Society: “Here you go, gentlemen, plenty to choose from, dive right in.”
- Still, more game than Nucky, who, when told by a comely young starlet that he’s dangerous, dusts off: “Then you’d better hightail it,” clearly picturing himself as the Full Byron instead of a man who offered his ex-wife money in the middle of a hallway if she would come home again and claimed in all seriousness that it meant nothing.
- Rothstein opines, “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.” And more often than not, the man reads a room better than anyone. We’ll see, I expect, just how that plays out.