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Boardwalk Empire: "The North Star"

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: "The North Star"
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This week, Nucky punched a woman.

One of the most interesting and telling things about Boardwalk Empire since its beginning has been what it chooses to linger over, and what it chooses not to show (and when, and why). It isn’t always effective; in fact, one of the major and often justified criticisms that gets leveled at the show is that its various thematic eddies often stall the overarching season plot, which tends to gain traction only after weeks of laying groundwork. But having Boardwalk Empire keep things from its audience makes the viewer a participant rather than an observer; for the length of the mystery, we, like every character on the show every second all the time, have to decide how we’re being lied to, and why.

This week moves a lot of pieces forward on the board; maybe because of this, it misses some of the tight interconnectedness that helped give last week its punch. But it’s a study in what gets shown and what’s obscured, both from the characters and from us. Eli is desperate to open up Eddie Kessler’s safety deposit box. Chalky’s cracked open by “St. Louis Blues,” standing hidden in the shadows where he thinks no one can see. Margaret returns, bearing a life that’s entirely obscured from Nucky. Richard returns, bearing an injury much greater than the one with which we left him, whose provenance is entirely obscured from us. Agent Knox is given charge of translating a note, and we have no way of knowing if a word of it is true.

And Nucky punches a woman, in a frame bisected by a doorway to obscure the point of contact, quite literally softening the blow.

It’s a loaded choice, but amid the many things this episode gets done, it remains in the end a murky one. It’s not as though the show has a problem with intimidation and violence against women (it’s not even the only instance of it in this episode) or the fact that it leads directly to sex (ditto). And it can’t be that we’re trying to preserve Nucky’s reputation; in perhaps one of the most frankly dismissive episodes Nucky has had in a while, he heads to Tampa with Kessler’s effects untouched and deputizes his grieving by having Eli handle the details, obliviously guilting others for not knowing Kessler better, and being peevishly sorry for himself.

Lucky for Eddie, who rightfully haunts this episode, there are still Thompsons who are actually sorry about him. Margaret is shaken to hear of his death and gets in the perfect eulogy/poison barb about it (“No one knew how to look after you like Mr. Kessler”). And Eli, who’s been ordered to retrieve Nucky’s things from Kessler’s many accounts, ends up awash with empathy that would probably seem suspicious in anyone else; instead, when he carefully refills birdseed, it’s as much an oblique last rites for Eddie as it is animal care. This grief, tied up in his own family anxieties but genuine on its own, tinges his need to understand Eddie’s last note beyond simply gauging whether it’s a confession. And it makes him sharper than usual with Knox—so much so that the episode’s suspense comes from wondering whether Eddie’s note mentioned something after all, or whether Eli’s insight has finally focused on the too-gormless-to-be-true rookie agent. And director Allen Coulter must have known we’d want Eddie avenged; the lingering moment Eli hands the note over to Knox, crushing all hope he’d gotten an offscreen translation elsewhere, carries all the dread of someone investigating an abandoned building in a psychological thriller—fitting, considering Knox’s carefully-constructed vacancy.


The letter, according to Knox: “My dearest son, this afternoon I got the happy message that I am a grandfather. I cannot express the joy.” A family man at heart, Eli weeps to hear it; even Agent Knox looks chagrined (just for a moment, where no one can see), before he hands Eli a monogrammed handkerchief Eli recognizes; the shift on his face from grief to recognition suggests that maybe Knox will get what’s coming to him, after all. It’s a little earthquake in the status quo.

“The North Star” is nominally about steadfastness but is rife with the tremors that ruin those smooth surfaces, right from the opening shot, where Nucky’s teacup rattles. There are tremors in Nucky’s nerves during his meeting with Margaret and in the flickering illumination of the dark and stormy night when he punches and then kisses Sally Wheet. Richard’s return disrupts Julia’s practiced coping, and though she’s clearly pleased to have him back, his willingness to take responsibility for what happened at the Artemis Club will only shake her further as the custody hearing gets closer. And while Lansky and Luciano are still remarkably open with one another, they part ways on the Tampa deal because of Petrocelli’s involvement, sniping with all the personal sting of a married couple breaking up. (The scene in which Lansky and Luciano part ways is deliberately bookended by a split shot of Meyer at a table with an empty chair opposite him, because he was always alone on this deal.)


In fact, though I don’t think anyone even died this week, battle lines are being drawn all over. (It’s not a coincidence that we got introduced to the alligator pit of half-starved animals prodded until they’re out for blood.) Knox takes shit from Hoover that’s making him desperate to seal the deal on his syndicate work. Eli, Lansky, Luciano, Nucky, and Richard all run into new debts to be settled. And Chalky’s screentime this week is brief but deliberate; his silent breakdown while listening to Daughter Maitland sing is perhaps the most vulnerable he’s ever been, and it’s transforming, for as long as it lasts. That’s not long.. When he intimidates her (alongside the wrist-grabbing that turns into sex that is apparently just par for the course this week), it’s as much as anything because she implied she’d seen the real him, and it’s something he simply can’t risk.

And amid the other oncoming storms that are already building, Chalky’s vendetta is more abstract for its antagonist being absent this week, but it’s characteristically long-simmering and absolutely direct: when Daughter Maitland tells Chalky to take his issues up with Dr. Narcisse, Chalky steps forward with, “You think I won’t?” You can practically hear the thunder rolling in.


Stray observations:

  • First and foremost: I’m still not sold on either Patricia Arquette or Sally Wheet, but it feels good to have someone punch Nucky in the face and call him a whiner, doesn’t it?
  • Let it be noted that Lansky is the only person to remember on his own: “My condolences for your man, Eddie.” Replies Nucky, because he’s Nucky and sometimes this show is not subtle: “That all happened somewhere else.”
  • Nucky’s occasional self-awareness makes his obliviousness stand out in bas-relief, doesn’t it? The man who lacked the courage to actually explain what happened to Eddie can relate with self-deprecating insight that he ordered a cinnamon roll he knew he’d hate, just because someone else had one.
  • That said, in vino veritas, Nucky: “He lived for me, and all I can think is: What don’t I know about him? Do I need to be worried? … What kind of person does that make me?”
  • In this episode, Margaret was an afterthought, but if nothing else, her dampening effect on Nucky’s ability to bullshit is so marked it’s practically a superpower. Oh, Peg of Old, come back to the five-and-dime.
  • Emma Goldman gets namechecked as a political agitator! If Downton Abbey got Virginia Woolf, can we get a cameo here?
  • If the alligator-pit scene taught us anything, it’s that introduction etiquette among gangsters is as complicated as anything in an Austen novel.
  • Line of the week, from the shameless Mickey on entering Eddie’s quarters: “He lived here? If this was my room, I’d kill myself.”
  • Runner-up: the meal Buscemi and Macdonald make of Nucky’s offhand, “I wouldn’t put something alive in a box,” and the resulting hilarious and terrible silence.
  • Second runner-up, the one two punch of Sagorsky and Richard’s re-meet: “I’m dying.” “Right now?”
  • Sagorsky relates an anecdote where, while stationed in the Philippines, he asked for ID from a 13-year-old girl who told him, “I am who I am; what else could I be?” He shot her in the face. He makes the interesting decision to tell this story to Richard. Given their respective histories, Sagorsky had to know what he was doing; I suspect he’s hoping to get cirrhosis of the shot-in-the-head in the near future.
  • I think this episode was hoping the above quote would be the leitmotif that stuck. I don’t think it is, but I do think this is pretty on-the-nose rhetoric for Richard. He isn’t buying—his days of buying into his own legend died with Jimmy Darmody, and Emma’s parting injunction to call himself to account is probably still ringing in his ears—but if you were still on the fence about whether Richard’s planning to take up the gun at a strategic moment, this is probably your answer.
  • I suspect this week’s leitmotif was actually more offhand, from the bank manager who refused to open Eddie’s deposit box on the grounds he and Eli could go to jail for it: “You don’t want that again, do you?” For any value of “that,” nobody here does; this season has been a fight against That Again, and the mistakes being made this week are made by striking out against the ghosts of That Again. Let’s see how it haunts them.