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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “Resignation”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “Resignation”
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This week, as Richard and twin sister Emma quietly catch up on the deaths he’s missed–their father, her husband–Richard points out their father’s headstone gives the wrong date of birth; he’d always lied about his age. Emma thinks this over, but it doesn’t take long. “The stone’s paid for,” she shrugs. “No changing it now.”

This grim pragmatism, the sense of the futility of forward motion, sneaks deliberately through the aptly-titled “Resignation,” another patchwork episode that sets up disparate conflicts, presents one of this season’s guest antagonists, and handles its first loaded point just about as badly as it could have.

Enter Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a Trinidadian impresario from New York who arrives at the Onyx Club with Mrs. Pastor in tow, in search of his missing talent manager and a cut of the profits from the man in charge, and he knows he’s all out of talent manager. His real question is: Who’s the man in charge?

And he’s chosen the worst (or best) possible time. Chalky’s got a foothold in high-profile circles–enough to impress his potential in-laws–but it’s precarious, and old tensions are close to the surface. In a telling sequence of languid takes, Chalky makes his way through a backstage he rules absolutely, only to be caught front of house by a repulsive customer who rubs his head for good luck; Chalky can barely keep his resentment in check until he’s off the floor. When he meets Narcisse, he’s already seething and defensive, and Narcisse’s genteel Bible quotes and talk of shared “Libyan” ancestry goes over about as well as posturing usually goes over with Chalky.

All Jeffrey Wright and Michael K. Williams’ shared scenes are electric this episode, but perhaps none more so than this introduction. Chalky recognizes a threat a mile away (Mrs. Pastor is leverage, and he knows it) and has stonewalling down to a science, but Narcisse is just as good at recognizing weak spots in others’ armor. He uses his gentility as a weapon, wounding across class lines and exiting with the faux-sympathetic and utterly devastating, “You know what I saw? A servant, pretending to be a king.” It’s the worst thing anyone could say to Chalky… until Narcisse blocks Chalky’s performers and sends a note claiming, “A servant is not greater than his master.”

That none-too-subtle message lends particular tension to Dr. Narcisse and Mrs. Pastor’s next meeting with Chalky–and Nucky. It’s obviously an uncomfortable decision on Chalky’s part, and with good reason, since Nucky’s easy manners provide the thin end of the wedge Narcisse was hoping for to divide and conquer. Mrs. Pastor’s tale of rape, an accusation so dangerous that Chalky doesn’t bother with negotiation (“Say how much and let’s end it”), means that even Nucky can’t long keep up the pretense that he’s only present to help a friend. As Chalky starts to threaten violence, Nucky offers Narcisse 10 percent of the club’s profits–right over Chalky’s head. “It’s better off settled,” Nucky tells Chalky: an assurance as patronizing in its own way as the head-rub, delivered by someone who thinks he’s actually settled something instead of putting another crack in a relationship that probably would not be up to much more testing.


And of course, Bible verses aside, Narcisse is as ruthless as anyone else in the business, and as soon as Mrs. Pastor has served her purpose (and expressed a desire to see Dunn hang), she’s a goner. Not that there was any way this loaded subplot was going to end well for her, but no thanks are due for the anvil of bringing in an overtly sexualized and deceptive character to make false rape accusations and then be literally dragged through the mud so we can get a long shot of her strangled corpse because “A thing mixed is a thing weakened” and hers is a story Narcisse has heard “one time too many.” Beneath even a bullet, apparently, is the problematic Mrs. Pastor.

More equally-doomed cycles of power move a space on the board this week, with the low tension of early days. Nelson Van Alden is treading water in Chicago as he delivers flowers and/or beatdowns for O’Banion and tries to finish his new home, until he’s called up by Al Capone for some Election Day violence and pointed questions about his loyalties. Frank Capone plays good cop, but despite being let off the hook, Nelson seems increasingly aware his position won’t hold. Not surprisingly, Nelson seems more at home delivering punches than handling irons or flowers, but amid the action of the election melee, being George Mueller and serving two masters leaves him living in another kind of half-assembled house; he’s going to have to let go of something, soon.


The episode’s other power play, by the infinitely more comfortable undercover Agent Knox, is notable on two fronts: Knox reveals himself as a tool of Acting Director of the Bureau Hoover (to the dismay of busted Agent Elliot), and Nucky reveals himself as so suspicious of Knox that he’s had Gaston Means look him up. “I’d say your Knox is a hayseed,” assures Means, which seems a bit blithe from a man with his livelihood, but Nucky tends not to take potential enemies at face value, and the report doesn’t sit well. Knox is clearly a master of the wide-eyed act, but Nucky’s paranoia has grown for good reason over the years; it will be interesting to see which of them springs this trap first.

Nucky’s other travails this week are minor (as Steve Buscemi continues to make pissiness an art form). When Nucky shows up to demand payment from the Mayor on an unrelated construction site, he seems genuinely aggrieved the Mayor wouldn’t have considered Nucky was owed a cut, and he relishes getting to play magnanimous exasperation when the Mayor asks if he’ll wait a day for payment. Nucky just wants everything to run by itself; why do people keep doing stuff?


His biggest thorn is the episode’s titular resignation from Eddie Kessler, arguably Nucky’s last functioning relationship, who makes a play for more responsibility within the organization, beginning with a seriously passive-aggressive egg dish and moving on to surreal endorsements (“[Nucky] is in the sky and sea. He is in the dreams of children at night”), determined either to get a promotion or to walk. Nucky, of course, tries to handle it with money, but he’s aware just how alone he is, and ends up giving Eddie what he’s asked for. Unfortunately, either because of devotion or myopia, Eddie seems not to have considered the fate that befell pretty much everybody else who’s stood at Nucky’s right hand, which makes this promotion either quixotic or a death wish. By and large, he’s been out of the line of fire; that’s about to change.

But Richard, who’s apparently come home as a symptom of trying to grow a conscience, has the episode’s last resignation. He hands out a pardon to the third man on his list of People I’ve Been Paid to Kill; he can’t bring himself to shoot the family dog; he tells Emma, “I don’t want any more of it.” She asks no questions of him – their conversations are made up of half-comfortable, half-spoken things, maybe to be expected between siblings as damaged as these two – but she’s also clear that she guesses his habits, and that the next time he leaves is for good.


And as the man he spared ends up just as dead and debt’s building up on the property, Richard stands in the empty foyer as if he’s bolted down. He can’t leave, and he only knows one way out of problems like these; you can hope to start over, but there’s no changing it now.

Stray observations:

  • No one on this show, and honestly no one on many other shows, can deliver a death stare like Michael Kenneth Williams.
  • Chalky gets a great callback to last season’s chandeliers conversation with Nucky as he shows his potential in-laws around the Onyx Club: When Mrs. Crawford asks about the chandeliers, Chalky delivers the pitch-perfect correction, “Sconces.”
  • Frank Capone seems like a magically effortless leader, particularly contrasted with Al, a hammer for whom everything looks like a nail. Interesting choice, for varying historical reasons that are probably looming.
  • We probably could have done with a different Mrs. Mueller bit than just spendthrifting – she brained a man half to death last season to protect the family secret, surely she’d be an asset when you’re beating up voters.
  • The touches of comedy on this show can be wonderfully played sometimes: Steve Buscemi’s face during Eddie’s sky-and-sea speech is matched only by Michael Shannon’s look of utter despair being caught out by Al Capone.
  • Tonight’s outro is “You’ve Got to See Mama Ev’ry Night,” which I note only because both Gillian and Margaret are missing from this episode, and while Gillian made a showing last week, I don’t think we’ve even heard Margaret’s name. Are she and Rothstein shooting pool and making plans somewhere? (If so, can we see? Because that’s probably pretty great.)