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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “What Jesus Said”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “What Jesus Said”
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Do you know what I have to show for it? This tea set. That hideous chair. This ring.”

Holding on to what you have. That sounds like a good idea.”

Sometimes you get an episode of TV that both does just what it sets out to do and manages to encompass several of the show’s head-scratchers in the process. This has always been a show unafraid to introduce new people, but five episodes from the end of the entire series, we spend most of “What Jesus Said” with guest stars, and in the closing minutes, writers Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder even manage to introduce a third newcomer, as if afraid to run out. There’s the objectification and victimization of women that the show must, at this point, consider a quota; certainly the episode approaches both the titillation and the violence with a sense of begrudging duty.


And yet, this is also an episode with a deep sense of places—plural. Last episode, I mentioned that when the show was firing on all cylinders it managed to echo a wider landscape. This episode, director Ed Bianchi establishes spaces again and again, each character existing pointedly within isolated places all their own: every room a palace, every palace a jail. The guest stars exist to illuminate the spaces in which known characters find themselves. And everyone’s a fixture in their world as much as the chairs are, and just as incapable of moving alone. Nightclubs, houses, offices, letters addressed from “The Pirate Sea”—this episode is preoccupied with the walls that hold someone in, the search for ways out, and all the trappings that block a clean exit.

The most trappings, of course, belong to Nucky. His flashbacks this week establish him as a fixture in the hotel at the beck and call of a montage of aspirational figures using him without a second thought (how formative), and show us a woman put on a pedestal and then murdered (how formative). Not coincidentally, we also meet young Mabel, more a place than a person herself, standing atop the breezy dunes like a half-remembered dream. It’s the only open horizon Nucky sees this week. He’s struggling to preserve his business at a time when that’s decidedly uncertain, and so every room he’s in seems both claustrophobic and not quite his. Even Sally, who’s as affable and steadying as ever, stands before her majestically towering bar in Cuba, only thinly connected to him now; it’s just the telephone cable holding them together, as Nucky points the phone at a radio framed like an altar. Sally’s very firmly in a place, and happy, and even if the last few minutes of the episode hadn’t happened we might have known from her smile and the grid of bottles behind her that things are probably doomed.

Nucky’s still fighting for the win, though. He even has a meeting with Joe Kennedy in which Nucky’s so eager to please it takes on the air of a first date. Nucky declines the hard stuff in an attempt at solidarity, which is either the ol’ Thompson desperation or a reaction to the ol’ Kennedy charm. Nucky even trots out family anecdotes for small talk, mentioning his Chicago brother’s family bounty. (“Family out there with him?” Kennedy asks, at which even Nucky finds himself momentarily at a loss to spin his answer in a way that doesn’t make him sound like a monster.) But though the headline strip act impresses Kennedy, Nucky’s offer doesn’t; from “the crows’ nest of the HMS Thompson,” Kennedy departs to visit strip act Kitty, with little more to offer Nucky than a patronizing pat on the shoulder and a condescending pour. It’s hard to tell what Nucky resents more, the loss of potential connections or the fact that Kennedy’s an effortlessly above-the-fray mirror of Nucky himself: richer in business, absent of troubles, and possessed of a happy family. (We’ll get there.)

Never absent of troubles: Chalky. We knew that the partnership of Milton and Chalky was never going to be a smooth one, and given the short season, it wasn’t going to last long. However, we spend significant time this week as as they break into a house looking for a safe and end up holding a mother and daughter hostage, for no more particular payoff than Chalky watching yet another potential partner let him down. I’ll be honest, I feel like if we never saw a man sexually threaten a woman as proof he’s not morally upstanding ever again it would be too soon, and the added dynamic of having Milton, a man of color, creeping on a white tenth-grade girl makes this a pretty eyebrow-raising beat at a very odd point in the series. (It’s a dynamic complicated still further by Chalky’s resentful exchange with Fern’s mother: “I can tell that you aren’t like him.” “Yes I am, ma’am. I absolutely am.”)

That said, the show’s casting continues to be more than up to the task. Warner Miller turns on a dime from butt of the joke to chilling criminal, and he and Michael K. Williams spark sharply off one another, with an assist from Olivia Nikkanen, who gives young Fern enough spine to play the game against two professionals. (In case we weren’t sure this was an episode of place, the mini-bottle episode of this subplot opens with shots of the empty, peaceful house; Chalky, who’s spent much of his tenure with the show trying not to feel out of place, avoids the crunch of broken window glass that would give him away.) It’s certainly a tense subplot, but despite its merits, it offers little momentum besides asking Chalky to define himself (again), and Chalky ends the episode as lost as when he started. “Does she know what you are?” Fern demands about his daughter, once she’s grabbed the gun, and Chalky’s answer is as certain as it is ragged: “She knew what I was.” The present tense is unaccounted for; he has no house, he’s got only nine dollars for his trouble, and has no one to come back to. He’s a man of no place at all.

His usurper, Narcisse, has spent the last six years becoming a man of absolute place. His office is a haven of muted colors and layered textures, so comfortable in his surroundings he can sit facing away from the door. That place is, however, as separate as it is absolute. Luciano and Benny Siegel couldn’t be more out of place there; their blue suits, their over threats, all ring sharply alien in Narcisse’s subdued luxury. When Benny Siegel tries to sell partnership with Maranzano by saying, “Uptown, downton, it’s all New York,” Jeffrey Wright pins him with perhaps his most withering stare to date (which is saying something) before understating, “My experience is otherwise.” The lesson Narcisse gets sent at the end of the episode—an entire brothel gunned down to remind him of the costs of doing business, at angles that emphasize the building, the place itself that’s being violated—is both the opening move of a war and a reminder that he’s not so far away from the tangle of things after all.


Which brings us to Margaret. From her first moments this episode, her olive drab suit a not-quite camouflage in the old-money office where she’s on the hook for the Redstone account, she’s out of place and in trouble. Her attempts to play coy don’t work for long. She’s old hand at keeping her own counsel, and she’s no stranger to lying for survival, but her advantage came from being underestimated; once she’s been correctly estimated, she doesn’t have the resources to up the stakes. It’s familiar that her position is untenable—her position, whatever it is, ever since the first time we saw her, has been untenable. Her visit to Carolyn Rothstein is, therefore, as visually interesting as it is textually priceless: She’s so at home amid Carolyn’s things that she practically disappears into the walls, and they couldn’t be more at odds. Margaret’s cringe-inducing innocent act falls apart even faster this time (“Don’t work it so hard,” Carolyn advises around a cigarette). The truth—the sand pit of trying to escape the crooked life knowing it’s only a matter of time—is harder for her to say, and Carolyn’s not interested in any case. If her own husband punished her, then now it’s Margaret’s turn.

There’s no reason I should be happy that, at the end of the episode, Nucky wakes from a dream of Mabel to find Margaret sitting and waiting for him (a suitable-enough echo of how they met). Their marriage was a shambles long before Margaret finally ended it. On the other hand, Buscemi and Macdonald’s rapport was interesting to watch even when it was poisoned, and maybe they’ve suffered enough in one another’s absence to be happy nowfor any ally they can find. Certainly their shared smiles are equal parts resigned and knowing; they hazarded all they held dear, a long time ago, thinking it was a price worth paying, and maybe that mutual debt is all they can hope for. (That’s how we are, men like us: all or nothing.)


Stray observations:

  • Has there ever been a more succinct demonstration of this show’s approach to women’s sexuality and nudity (aiming for edgy, occasionally for commentary, and often landing short) than Nucky and Kennedy judging the drunks from General Motors who are shouting about (or masturbating over) Kitty he headliner strip act, while the camera sneaks us as many lingering shots of the topless performer as time allows?
  • Hats off to the two beachgoing gents with their walrus moustaches and blue wool suits.
  • “You said Maranzano told you God Bless.” “They told the Indians they could keep Oklahoma.”
  • “Okay, one thing, I don’t take my mood out on you.” Mickey is a walking sense of place, utterly self-contained, from his ability to read a room to his pouring of the good stuff back in the bottle like he’s smelting silver. If this is your only appearance this season, Mickey, it was worth it.
  • “I’m sorry you came up this far for nothing.” Given how things ended for Narcisse this week, I can’t wait to see if we run into this quote again.
  • And there’s no question at all we’ll see this exchange again: “Those men are gangsters.” “What are you?”