Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘What Jesus Said’

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
09.21.14 42 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight's “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as my fortune wafts down from Episcopalian Heaven…

“Does she know what you are?” -Fern
“She knew what I was.” -Chalky

On “Boardwalk Empire,” Nucky and Chalky have never exactly been equals, simply because the racial politics of the time wouldn't allow for that. But they were presented as each other's opposite number on the white and black sides of town, Chalky was Nucky's last ally standing when Gyp Rosetti's army invaded, and the two characters were more or less treated as co-leads last season. Outside forces pushed them together and pulled them apart, but they liked each other, and were alike in many ways – in particular in how each pulled himself up from poverty to a position in high society, right alongside all the swells whose errands they used to run.

Both are in sketchier circumstances at this stage of the final season, though Chalky's are vastly worse than Nucky's. He's a fugitive from a chain gang pulling off bumbling capers with the telephone-fearing Milton, while Nucky at least still has the trappings of high society, even if he's a bit cash-strapped and mostly desperate to get the hell out of this business. But one thing that's apparent in both of their stories in “What Jesus Said” is that the part of them that came from poverty has never entirely left.

In Nucky's case, we're getting flashbacks to remind us of his dirt-poor beginnings and the esteem he held the rich folks in, whether the girl he's ultimately too timid to kiss or the romantic hotel guest who winds up murdering his sweetheart. In 1931, he's very far from that little boy, but there's still an almost reflexive deference to those he recognizes as his superior. Joe Kennedy comes from a richer background, but he's still Irish-American, which in the eyes of the Brahmins makes he and Nucky roughly social equals. And Nucky seems eager for Kennedy's approval, not just because he needs his help to close the liquor distribution deal, but because he sees in him a kindred spirit who has managed to accumulate the wealth and esteem without apparently getting his hands as filthy as Nucky did during the first four seasons. He avoids drinking – even though it appears he's come to lean on his own product more than he would like to admit – in Kennedy's company, and is eager to show him the club. But Kennedy can sense the strain teetotaling takes on Nucky, just as he can see how seedy the club has become under Mickey Doyle's management.

Chalky, meanwhile, spends the episode in a house a bit smaller than the one he used to occupy, and whose residents have themselves suffered mightily since the start of the Depression. It's mainly a suspense storyline – Will Milton go too far in looking for the money? If so, will Chalky do anything to stop him? – but it also gives Chalky a glimpse at a life something like the one he used to have, and a white girl not too far in age from Maybelle when Richard Harrow shot her. That he ultimately sides with Fern and her mother over Milton is Chalky being careful, because Milton's clearly too unstable and dangerous a traveling companion, but also because the women remind him of the life he threw away – even if it was a life he never felt entirely comfortable in.

Speaking of Maybelle, both Chalky and Nucky find themselves discussing children who are lost to them, though in Nucky's case, he has the physical ability to get in a car and go see his kids, if not the emotional wherewithal to go against Margaret's wishes on the matter. And the end of the episode suggests that situation may be changing, rapidly.

Margaret has also climbed many social ladders over the course of her life, and has seemed more at ease on whatever rung she's found herself (her problems with being Nucky's wife were entirely about Nucky, not about being rich). And as she faces a stark plunge back down the ladder – possibly ending up in jail, if Arnold Rothstein's widow doesn't get what she wants – she finally turns to her lawfully-wedded husband for help. I was almost as pleased as Nucky to see her in his room in the final scene, because that relationship has always been more than the sum of its parts. On their own, Nucky and Margaret can each seem like a come-down from some of the more vibrant corners of the show, but they bring out the most dramatic and liveliest sides of each other when they're united.

With the return of Dr. Narcisse – about to be at war with Luciano's crew – it's tempting to just root for a rematch of season 4's Narcisse/Chalky hostilities. And I'm sure we'll get a reunion before the end. But they're not the only two with unfinished business to be dealt with over the remaining five episodes, and I look forward to whatever the Nucky/Margaret team-up brings.

Some other thoughts:

* A nice callback to the season 3 premiere when Mrs. Rothstein produces a ring she got at Nucky and Margaret's gaudy New Year's Eve party in that episode, as proof that she knows who Margaret used to be.

* It really is depressing to see what's become of the club under Mickey's management – though not surprising, considering it's Mickey.

* I cannot overstate how pleased I am to have Jeffrey Wright back in this role, even if we don't have many more episodes to enjoy him in it.

* Before Margaret returns, we get another reminder of how Nucky and Sally remain simpatico, even if they're not each other's one true love, when she extends their phone call so she can enjoy hearing the song he's listening to on the radio. For us, that's quaint; for them, to be able to share this moment while a thousand miles away from each other is a technological wonder.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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