A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as
“I like this room. One looks down in secret and sees many things. You know what I saw?” -Dr. Valentin Narcisse
“A servant, pretending to be a king.” -Narcisse
Jeffrey Wright doesn’t turn up until midway through “Resignation,” and he only has a handful of scenes. But he puts what screen time he gets to spectacular use, establishing Narcisse almost instantly as one of the show’s most compelling characters. Whether he’s intended to be this year’s version of Gyp Rosetti – a character actor imported for a season to cause trouble for Nucky and friends – or is part of a longer game for the series, I cannot wait to watch every single damn minute he is on screen.
Wright makes an impression the first time we see him watching the action at the Onyx Club from the windows of Nucky’s office, but the moment where I knew I was in with Narcisse for the long haul was when Wright delivered the line, “Oh, so it’s more than friendship? Or perhaps less. I think it might be less” with such absolute glee and precision. Where Gyp was basically a rabid dog in people clothes, and with a dangerous backer in Joe Masseria, Narcisse is someone who uses words to cut his opponents down to size. He has forces behind him, and has his own hired muscle (who murder Dickie’s widow once the negotiation is completed and she’s more useful to Narcisse as an inconvenience for Nucky, with the corpse dumped at Edward Bader’s construction site), but he is just an incredibly sharp operator – the sort who seems like he could enter a battle of wits with Arnold Rothstein and come out the victor.
And the arrival of such a polished, elegant gangster of color makes this season’s spotlight on Chalky – clever but illiterate, powerful but unrefined – feel extra bright and harsh. Chalky has come very far in the world, but he’s always had a sense of insecurity around more educated blacks – not to the pathological, homicidal level of Gyp, but enough that he’d chafe around this interloper even if Dunn hadn’t put him in a position where he had to give Narcisse a cut of the club.
It’s a great performance, and a great dynamic with one of the show’s best pre-existing characters. Very, very promising.
In the interests of touching on as much of the episode as possible within the time limitations of this part of September, let’s go straight to the bullet points:
* This one was co-written by “Boardwalk” veteran Howard Korder and novelist Dennis Lehane, who had a similar staff position on “The Wire” in that show’s later years. His book “Live By Night” is set around this period, and involves a Northeastern gangster (albeit from Boston rather than Jersey) heading down to Tampa to explore business opportunities there, as Nucky does at the end of this one.
* We get a lot of clarity on the killings Richard performed last week, but as he spends more time with his widowed, pregnant sister Emma – and as he puts more distance from both the war and the violent things he did for Jimmy and then Tommy Darmody – he begins to realize his heart’s not in killing anymore – not even to be merciful to the ailing family dog. As he puts it to his sister, in a fine moment for Jack Huston, “Emma, I don’t want any more of it.” The structure of this show suggests he will find his way back to violence in time, but the idea of a gunshy Richard Harrow is an unexpected and interesting one.
* I really enjoy the awkward interplay between Nucky and Eddie – Buscemi plays a lot of those scenes as if Nucky is thinking what a pain in the ass that his butler got shot saving his life – and as someone who’s always enjoyed Anthony Laciura’s performance, it’s nice to see him rewarded with more screen time, and Eddie with more responsibility. His rebuke to Bader – “Mr. Thompson is part of everything. He’s in the sky and sea. He’s in the dreams of children at night. He is all that there is, forever.” – was eloquent and hilarious in its conviction.
* Though Narcisse is the most memorable antagonist introduced this week, Eric Ladin (whom you might know as Betty’s brother on “Mad Men,” among many other roles) is amusingly revealed to be the very young J. Edgar Hoover – and, perhaps of more immediate trouble for Nucky, we discover that the duplicitous Agent Knox has been working for Hoover. I think Ladin has the right twerp-y attributes to work as Hoover, and this is a more aggressive, less corruptible organization than the Prohibition agents were under Supervisor Elliott.
* Also, Nucky’s inquiry into Knox gave us a brief but welcome Stephen Root cameo as Gaston Bullock Means, and reminded us that Means, while formidable, is not infallible.
* Poor Van Alden. His DIY house isn’t assembled properly, O’Banion loans him out to the Capones as extra muscle, and he takes a beating when the Capones try to disrupt a speech by the Democratic candidate for mayor of Cicero. (Also, given this scene from “The Untouchables,” it’s funny to see a Capone holding a baseball bat, even if it’s Al’s brother Ralph.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com