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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: "White Horse Pike"

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: "White Horse Pike"
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Verily the works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befel other folk and may therefrom take warning.”

— Introduction to the Arabian Nights

This title card appears at the beginning of The Thief of Bagdad, the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks epic that Mickey mentions in passing this week. In a story extremely loosely taken from One Thousand and One Nights, the acrobatic thief Ahmed vies with other suitors for the hand of the Caliph’s daughter, and deceptions, double blinds, bold attacks, and magical last-minute assistance are the order of the day. Two of the princes hoping for the throne attempt to secure rare treasures to impress the princess, and fail; the third, a Mongolian monarch treated with singular racist revulsion by all, reveals that his real goal all along has been to take Bagdad and rule it himself. Only Ahmed is still free, and can act. Cue the heroics.

In “White Horse Pike,” Chalky asks for help.

A lot else happens (this episode is a gallon of plot in a jug barely big enough), but this is a key moment. A year ago, Nucky came to Chalky begging for sanctuary, and Chalky’s arc this season has rested in key ways on what happened when he agreed to offer Nucky shelter. Early this season, he had power; it’s been eroded. This episode, Chalky moves prematurely against Narcisse, and ends up alone, nursing a bullet wound inside the old Veterans' hall, with Nucky his only connection to the outside world and his only chance at safety. (Works and words of those gone before us have become examples to men of our modern day.) Nucky offers it, but not before he makes sure Chalky understands the depth of their reversal of fortune, and the significance of this favor. The camera make sure to show Chalky, sitting back on a couch several inches lower than Nucky’s chair, his power diminished.

Nucky does end up on Chalky’s side against Narcisse, but as suspected, it’s not out of any real loyalty to Chalky and more out of a little good old-fashioned racism. When Narcisse demands Nucky tell him Chalky’s whereabouts, it’s the manner and not the content of the question that offends Nucky. His response: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” and an order to get the hell out of “my club.” Jeffrey Wright’s double-edged deliveries have maybe never been better when he bids Nucky farewell with, “When I run him through, watch the light go out. I hope he knows what a friend he had in you.”

And of course, Chalky knows exactly what kind of friend he has in Nucky. When Nucky comes to visit and mentions Narcisse, Chalky’s first question, without hesitation, is: “What did he offer?” (“Doesn’t matter,” says Nucky, like it’s friendship that stayed his hand. It probably doesn’t matter what Narcisse would have offered—we know Masseria and Narcisse’s later offer of a third of the heroin import in exchange for Chalky didn’t matter—but Nucky didn’t align against Narcisse for the reasons he might like to think he did. Of all the villains in The Thief of Bagdad, the Mongolian prince could be most freely hated.)


In the season opener, I noted Rothstein saying “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself,” and wondered how it would pan out. I’m not convinced we’ve seen its full resonance yet, but much of this season has been about restlessness, being adrift and uncertain, being wary of being friendless, dealing with personal losses and losses of power. This episode builds on the un-fired guns of last week with a sense of an unsettling ‘almost’ that haunts the many turns in this episode; everywhere you look people almost die, almost help each other, and almost connect.

This almost is alive and well in the chilling scene of Narcisse trying to get to Maybelle; he’s as smooth and creepy with her as he ever was with Daughter, and while she wises up and gets out, it’s too late to be unrecognized. It’s been evident over the last two seasons that Maybelle was coming closer and closer into her father’s orbit, and nothing on this show happens without consequences. But falling into Narcisse’s line of sight just at this moment leaves the door wide open for a damselling I’m not sure we needed. It’s not as though we lacked evidence Narcisse was a bad guy, and Chalky’s already dealing with the victimization of one woman at the hand of a villain; that’s not a leitmotif we need a lot more of on this show. Narcisse has Chalky alone. It should be dangerous enough.


But even alone, Chalky’s a man to be reckoned with—and not even because he can deceive and kill two men in a moving vehicle with only one good arm, but because he was kind to Richard when he didn’t have to be. Richard is one of the few people this season who’s an independent agent, but his loyalty is practically a superpower; it’s why he helps Chalky, with nothing in it for him. (The thief Ahmed has the freedom to move quickly and alone; he slips unseen into the palace being held by the enemy, and kills them all.)

The other independent agent this season also got put back into play this week. Margaret knew as soon as she saw Rothstein that she’d end up being employed. But this time, she’s not going into it hopeful; she’s not that woman any more. She’s as desperate as anyone, and more canny than some, though she still makes feints at feeling badly about being as selfish as anyone else on the show openly is. During negotiations, she even convinces herself out loud that one corrupt man is the same as another (which gets her a priceless look from Rothstein), such as her husband (which gets her an even more priceless look).


But she’s nobody’s fool by now. When Rothstein initially offers to become her landlord, she clarifies instantly, “In exchange for what?” And when she hands him the stock tip he asked for and promises to let him know when to sell, he asks the question right back—they both enjoy being very clear. Theirs feels like a subplot being sown for next season more than something pressing, but they have the potential to work very well together. He’s ten times as forthcoming as Nucky ever was, and she’s learned how to set terms that make clear when her obligations are over. As Rothstein ruminates on it being “quite the treat’ to do business with a woman, Margaret can’t help smiling—not because it’s gallant, but because she’s in a position, suddenly, to be conducting business.

Only in an episode as busy as this one could the weekly massacre seem like a footnote. Al Capone makes a brief appearance this week as a suitor for power, dismissing Johnny Torrio’s contributions to Chicago business and then suffering an extremely coincidental attempt on his life by three guys with machine guns that nearly level both Al and Ralph. It’s perhaps to Capone’s credit that when he tells Van Alden, “Lucky for Johnny he left when he did,” he seems to be sincere. Best of luck with that, Capone.


Another suitor for power, Agent Jim Tolliver, is in a much more interesting position this week. An undeniable creep with a mumbly fever for bringing organized crime to it knees, he’s viciously leveraged two informants to get to Nucky, and is absolutely chilling in his power plays. (When Eli gives him outdated intel, he shows up at the Thompson house posing as a life insurance salesman, but still his smiling threats at the breakfast table don’t cut as deep as when he reassures Eli, “You’ve handled yourself well. I’m sure you were a good cop.”)

But the glimpses into his situation at the FBI show a bureaucrat desperately spinning his wheels. At the moment, Hoover’s interest in the shadowy activities of a few rich white guys is nothing next to Marcus Garvey’s Black Star shipping line: “3,000 Negros with ideas in their heads – that’s a threat worth worrying about.” Tolliver, sidelined and anxious to throw his weight around, positively thrills at the chance Nucky offers him to bust Nucky’s Tampa convoy, and shoots someone in the head to force compliance. There’s absolutely a frisson of interest in the ways he senses this eyewitness evidence could pan out for him, and he eats up every piece of information he can get, but by now the purpose of the power is secondary to the use of it. It’s a result; right now, he’ll take them where he can get them.


At episode’s end, there’s a lot left open: Chalky’s alive, but where? Does he think Nucky turned him over to Narcisse? Will Eli be able to outmaneuver his personal fed? Who ordered the hit on the Capones? What’s Tolliver’s endgame purpose? But the most relevant questions might be between Eli and Will, who’s feeding Nucky intel from the Mayor’s office, much to Eli’s dismay; his face positively cracks open as he asks, “This is the life you want?” Will answers, sounding almost human: “Pop, isn’t it what we do?”

And it is; folk may view what admonishing chances befell other folk and may therefrom take warning, but the Thompsons are doomed to repeat history, and they know another war is coming. In the end, what else can Eli say but the looming, “All right. Let’s get this sorted out.”


Stray observations:

  • Sally Wheet, once again, barely cameos; she’s an information and emotional pipeline for Nucky in Tampa, but if she has some deeper significance, we’re still waiting for it.
  • Meyer Lansky bet big on his deal with Nucky; after spending most of the episode at gunpoint and used as a pawn to get Nucky and Masseria in for a meeting, I wonder how he’s feeling about the heroin business.
  • Narcisse fires his pistol in duelling stance, because of course he does.
  • You just know Narcisse convinced Masseria to walk out first and waited for his big moment before he stepped into sight.
  • Some of the transitions this episode didn’t quite cohere, but there are still some lovely shots: Lansky staring into his grave amid the lush green wilderness of home; Tolliver’s coffee stain spreading inexorably across Mrs. Thompson’s lace tablecloth.
  • I’m still unconvinced that Daughter Maitland is going to make it to the end of the season, but it’s interesting to see how Narcisse’s insidiously fixated, false paternalism has created a survivor. Having stabbed Purnsley to save Chalky, this week she hurls herself across a corpse to steer the car, and ends up slithering over the seat to brake the thing with her hands. Pretty quick draw in a crisis.
  • Amid this week’s many plot threads, we skip Gillian, and so we know nothing more about Roy “I’m the worst” Phillips than we did before; I’m fine with the wait, but just making a note of it now for whenever that shoe drops.
  • Margaret and Rothstein have so much simpatico hyper-repressed body language that it’s somewhere between comedic and sublime.
  • Joke of the week, from Richard as he explains to Chalky how he knew at a glance the state of his wound: “I’ve been around many people who’ve been shot.”