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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: "William Wilson"

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: "William Wilson"
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I began to murmur—to hesitate—to resist.

— Edgar Allen Poe, “William Wilson”

[The superman] is not liable for anything he may do, whereas others would be, except for the one crime that it is possible for him to commit—to make a mistake.

— Nathan Leopold, a letter to Richard Loeb, October 10, 1923

There’s nothing quite like seeing old friends, is there?

The episode opens with Al Capone shooting a cop in the face point-blank, as the cop reads up on the newest in the Leopold and Loeb case: two young men who committed what they thought was the perfect crime, only to be caught out. And on Willie Thompson’s last day of classes at Temple, there’s an on-the-nose class discussion of “William Wilson,” Poe’s tale of a man faced with his doppelganger (his conscience, the professor helpfully explains), and eventually murdering him. The short story itself, not coincidentally, is an exercise in deliberate pacing, steeped in the atmosphere of an inescapable acquaintance, and though the finale certainly shocks the narrator, the story is less suspenseful than it is inevitable.


It was a veritable class reunion this week, as several players from arcs old and new stopped by to visit: Esther Randolph is assisting the newly-minted FBI in their organized-crime operation; James Cromwell’s Andrew Mellon appears long enough to give the affair a pageant wave; Remus stops by the Bureau offices for breakfast, where he was insulted by the lack of pancakes; Frankie Yale pops up in Chicago; Deacon Cuffy presides over his congregation; and Gaston Means visits Atlantic City to call on two old friends.

That inevitability settles over a lot of things this episode, as we begin to see wheels turning for the standoffs at season’s end; most bring with them little twists that shock (or would) their counterparts, but seem pretty fated to viewers. Part of this is the effects of history—when O’Banion signs over the brewery to Torrio moments before the cops burst in, we know how O’Banion will be repaid, even before Torrio slips Capone’s leash—but part of it is that with friends like these, you’ll never want for enemies.

Of course, it’s no surprise to us that Daughter’s affair with Chalky has been arranged by Narcisse in order to get the dirt on the competition, just as when she talks about the man who strangled her prostitute mother, we know Narcisse is the man who took her in before he ever bears the chest her mother scarred with lye while defending her life. It’s no surprise that, when Narcisse inserts himself into the congregation at Shiloh Baptist Church, decrying the uptick in the use of heroin with an utterly straight face, he’s inserting himself as a community leader in the absent Chalky’s place. When these vises start to tighten, Chalky will be in serious trouble, and in his meeting with Narcisse, it seems he knows it. (“What will you do for me?” Narcisse asks. Chalky: “I already offered you a whiskey.”) The one crime he could make is a mistake.

For some characters, the inevitable is already unfurling. Luciano gets strongarmed into a deal with Masseria, because he’s on his own now, and when Masseria says Tampa, right now, Mickey can only ask how fast (and he knows it; one of the few this week who aren’t taken by surprise). Agent Knox—or John Tollimer, if you read his hankies—gets to watch his work on the organized-crime angle get scooped by Hoover in a single bound; his indignation is comically sincere, though having Gaston Means as his confidant might be his biggest misstep so far.

His second-biggest misstep is having given that hankie to Eli in the brief blip of guilt over Eddie’s suicide. Eli knows enough to be suspicious; Nucky, as put out by all of life as ever, still has the foresight to look into Eli’s suggestion. Unfortunately, this brotherly simpatico is short-lived, as Eli gets furious about Willie dropping out, and Nucky’s attempts to intercede totally backfire, leaving Eli drunk, furious, feeling like an ineffectual father, and knowing just where to hit Nucky hardest: “You never had a family,” he spits. “Nothing ever came from you.” (Have a pair of doppelgangers, if you’re looking for some.)

It’s true enough, and we can see how deeply it stings Nucky to hear it. What Nucky has, of course, is a trail of dead proteges, and it looks like Eli’s outbursts may have put Willie next in line.


And for some, the inevitable is still hanging over them. Gillian spends the episode moaning through a heroin overdose in a strikingly barren room, only to get the full woo from Roy Phillips as soon as she can put a sentence together, claiming he’s always put business at the expense of family and love. “Everything else can go hang,” he says, before kissing her like the leading man at the end of a talkie and promising her he’s leaving his wife. (Man, I have rarely trusted someone less on this show than I trust this guy. If he opens his mouth later and Cthulu falls out, I will not be surprised.)

But amid all the things that so many of the character can’t see yet, we get Margaret.


Always a one-person microcosm of the concessions women have to make in the world, no matter how straight a path they’re trying to walk, she’s a secretary to a shady businessman, and half her job is to show up in the doorway as “Mrs. Rohan” with a convenient sob story about poor investments designed to scare unwary investors into putting down big money. When that investor turns out to be Rothstein, however, we get one of the most awkward reunions in the show’s history, with Rothstein providing an out she refuses to take, which only amuses him further. Of course he knows this racket. Of course he’ll leave a hefty tip for her; and as the phone rings at Margaret’s desk, she already knows exactly who’s on the other line. Rothstein would like her to do some work for him. Would that suit her? “It would,” she says, with all the grim acceptance of someone who sees farther than most people see. She knows full well after her time in Atlantic City that no powerful man can resist extending his grasp as far as possible, and in saying yes to an offer she can’t refuse, she’s trading one devil for another.

This episode lacks some of the thematic punch of others this season, but it does a yeoman’s work. Things are coming together; it’s a storm that’s still on the horizon, but occasionally, even those trapped in the middle of it can sense when the winds are changing. In fact, Margaret and Nucky are doppelgangers, and always have been, in this way: wary of portents they can do nothing about, able to sense the scale of a threat long before it can be acted on. When Means points out Knox is clean, Nucky isn’t having it: “Ever wake up with a vague feeling of unease? Like you know something’s wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it yet.”


Give it a minute, Nucky. It’ll come to you.

Stray observations:

  • This episode gives us our best look yet at Hoover. In the land of impeccable tailoring that is most of Boardwalk Empire, Hoover’s suits are an inch and a half too wide on either shoulder; it’s a tailor’s power play (make the shoulders look wider and give gravity to the man), but it also serves to make him look somehow like a child in his fathers’s suit. Basically, it’s perfect.
  • Nucky warns a restless Willie, “If you’re trying to impress me, you’re off to a very bad start.” But while Willie might not yet be able to forget killing a man and framing his own best friend for it, he knows just how to get one over on Nucky without Nucky realizing he’s being played: the one-two punch of seemingly avoiding conflict and invoking family guilt gets that job done but good.
  • Speaking of Willie: Doris, you dodged a bullet.
  • Talk about inevitable: Deacon Cuffy, having never seen TV before, tells Purnsley he’s going to turn him in, while they’re alone and Purnsley has something behind his back.
  • I joked in my recap of “Resignation” about whether Rothstein and Margaret were playing pool and making plans. Who knew that would actually happen? (Now all they have to do is play pool!)
  • Damn, but Stephen Graham owns his scenes; Capone left an impression this week far larger than his screentime.
  • Ditto for Michael K. Willians. Chalky’s moment of pause during Daughter’s family history, where we see him wondering about his part in the cycle of using women as commodities, and trying to comfort Daughter by admiring her mother as best he can; the flicker of doubt doesn’t last long, but it lingers.
  • Ditto for Stephen Root, actually; his Gaston Means is one of the most charming vipers around.
  • The way Narcisse looks at Daughter is one of the most dangerous things we’ve seen this season. She’s a particular possession, and that can only get worse for her from here.