Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Devil You Know’

A review of tonight's “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as the room is as occupied as a room can get…

“What sense that make? We headed to different places.” -Chalky

There's always been this pattern with each season of “Boardwalk Empire.” You get midway through any year of this show, and you start wondering exactly where these stories are going, why the writers are spending so much time on characters who seem like dead ends, when Richard Harrow's going to take out his gun collection, etc. In those previous years, all the seeming randomness and narrative throat-clearing inevitably led to a riveting final three or four episodes that inevitably made you realize that almost all of what seemed like a waste of time was actually really important to the great conclusion.

With its shorter length, large amount of story ground to cover, plus the decision to spend time on Nucky's origin story, season 5 has suffered more notably from those mid-season blahs. But if “Devil You Know” – instantly one of a handful of the very best episodes this show has ever made – is any indication, the conclusion to this season, and series, will be even more powerful than what's come before.

Obviously any episode that killed off either of Chalky White or Nelson Van Alden, let alone both, would be a memorable outing. But the way in which Howard Korder and company saw those two off was masterful: one shocking in its suddenness, one devastating in its inevitability.

Van Alden's someone I imagine the show would have gotten rid of years ago if he wasn't played by Michael Shannon, and he essentially became a wholly new character after season 2 – which is why it was so satisfying that his end should come because of the sins he committed in his previous life, and should come right at the moment when he is loudly declaring his allegiance to that life, including the utterance of his real name and the sort of Old Testament rhetoric he made a habit of back in the days when he wore a badge. That his death should come at the hands of another Treasury agent – one who either disappeared too deeply into the undercover role for a moment or decided to save his own skin (because what were the odds of him and Tweedledee and Tweedledum getting out of that suite alive if Tweedledee succeeded?) – only makes his death more appropriate, as belated justice for Agent Sebso. I never thought the episode was actually going to go full Tarantino and let one of its fictional characters murder its most famous real character, but Shannon's performance was so vivid and full-throated – and Nelson's explosion such a welcome catharsis after he had spent so many years (three for us, nearly a decade for him) as a bullied, henpecked, cowering loser – that it seemed possible for a second or two there.

Instead, Van Alden has half of his face blown off, and yet in death he winds up responsible for the biggest “bust” of his career, as the whole weird incident inspires Capone to hand the incriminating ledgers over to Mike D'Angelo. (The show continues to treat Elliot Ness as an afterthought, though Eli's use of his name saves Mike's life, and the case.) Eli gets money for a ticket out of town, though where does he go at this point? Back to Atlantic City to join Nucky's apparent suicide mission against Luciano? Does he try to patch things up with June (who, for all we know, is still at the Mueller house with Sigrid) and flee even further west? I don't know, but he's a man who knows he has come to the end of his road – and who in some ways might have been better off if Capone had just shot him while he was muttering his apologies to his wife.

Speaking of suicide missions, that's exactly what Chalky went on when he headed to Harlem, and exactly what he wound up doing, only his intended result in the morning was very different than what he wanted at the start of that long, strange night(*). He walks in the front door of Narcisse's cathouse looking for revenge; he walks out the side door having accomplished something more satisfying in maybe securing the futures of Daughter and his own daughter.

(*) Given where last week's stories ended for both Chalky and the Chicago crew, I knew at least part of this episode would have to take place on the same night the last one ended on, but setting the entire hour (other than the Nucky flashbacks) on that night only added to its power. 

And it's the maybe of it that ultimately gets me. As Narcisse and Chalky acknowledge to each other during their brief “partnership,” Chalky has no way of knowing for sure if Narcisse will keep his word. For all he knows, Daughter could remain blackballed throughout the country, or the bodyguard could turn the car right around and bring her and the girl back to be Narcisse's prisoners, or any number of other lousy fates. But as a man who burned down his own life, and played at least some role in the murder of another daughter, he's going to take any chance at saving the only family he has left, even if it means putting his trust in a devil he knows all too well.

Michael Kenneth Williams has had so many incredible moments on this show, from the bookcase speech all the way to Chalky's various confrontations with Narcisse last year, yet I'm not sure he's ever been better in this role than he was tonight. It's a measure of how well he's calibrated Chalky's scowl that Jeremy Podeswa could shoot him mostly in shadow in the scene as he listens to the recording of Daughter singing “Dream a Little Dream” – finally hearing the magical voice he told her he had long since forgotten – and trust that Williams would show us every bit of emotion in the slightest shifts of his jaw. And when Chalky tenderly gives Althea the only fatherly advice he'll ever be able to impart to her, then gives Daughter a tender kiss on the cheek, well… let's just say things got awfully dusty around here.

Where Van Alden dies a stooge, suddenly and in the grip of religious mania, Chalky faces his death head on. He exchanges words with Narcisse one last time – and, for once, gets the better of his more verbally dexterous foe with the line, “Ain't nobody ever been free,” which renders Narcisse (enslaved to Luciano, and possibly still to J. Edgar Hoover) speechless – straightens his jacket and welcomes what's coming next, the sound of his lover's voice floating in his ears, taking away the pain that's coming from the bodyguard firing squad. It's about as beautiful as an execution scene can be, enhanced by the choice to have the song cut off the moment we hear the gunshots, and to let the closing credits play out with the sound of the record needle turning again and again over the blank part of the record. Chalky White died a very long way away from Elgin, Texas. He achieved much in his life, threw much of it away, but ultimately made peace with this world before he was sent violently into the next. That's a hell of an ending for him – like Richard last year, or Jimmy at the end of season two, “Boardwalk Empire” did very right in sending off one of its most vivid characters.

With most of the business in Harlem and Chicago wrapped up, that leaves Nucky's war with Luciano as the dominant piece of the story still to come. Ordinarily, an episode with two huge deaths like this would leave Nucky feeling like an afterthought, especially since he spends much of the hour getting drunk with two random barflies and thinking back on the latest piece of his origin story. But Nucky's drink before the war had power in its own right, and the flashback even more.

We've known for quite some time that it was Nucky who delivered young Gillian to the Commodore, and there was no context that would make that crime any less heinous. But we've gotten to know this young version of Nucky – to see him as a decent guy who, for all his hard work, can't seem to get a leg up, gets saddled with a nickname he hates (and will be stuck with for the rest of his life), and is completely ignored by the only man whose interest truly matters in this town. And realizing that he is going to give this little girl to the Commodore as a way to finally get ahead… well, it turned my stomach in a way that even hearing the story (and from the perspective of a Nucky Thompson who was already damned long ago) couldn't. This is Nucky's original sin, the thing that led to his fortune but cost him his soul in the bargain, and the thing that still makes him feel so apart from the world he so cravenly bought his way into. That's why he'd rather drink at that rat hole of a speakeasy than go to the Ritz-Carlton, why he's always seemed uncomfortable in every fancy joint he's visited, or even owned: he remembers where he came from, and what he had to do to get here, and he knows that he doesn't belong.

Like Chalky, he's headed to New York on what seems a fool's errand. Like Van Alden, he's a fictional character (fictionalized, anyway) trying to take out a real one whose story continues well beyond the confines of this show. I do not expect a good outcome for Nucky Thompson, even with all the men Mickey was able to round up with his Paul Revere impression.

But based on the brilliance of “Devil You Know” – not to mention how well this series has previously done with finales – I expect Nucky's bad outcome to be great to watch.

Some other thoughts:

* In his rant, Van Alden recites his full name: Nelson Kaspar Van Alden. Rest in peace, Mr. Mueller.

* I know some of you are wondering if Mickey's new sidekick is secretly Tommy Darmody, come to have some kind of reckoning with the man who killed his daddy. I don't know that I buy the theory, but this episode provided more clues that it could be correct, including the kid being puzzled when Mickey makes a joke about his father and mother, a dazed Nucky greeting him by saying, “You think I don't know who you are?” (which is meant as Nucky still thinking about Gillian, but would read otherwise to the kid if he is actually Tommy), and even him introducing himself as Joel Harper from Indiana, which sounds not dissimilar from Nucky's alter ego, Francis X. Bushman of Missouri.

* The poem that a drunken Nucky/Francis recites is Longfellow's “Song of Hiawatha.”

* George Raft and Paul Muni are in town to do research for the original “Scarface” (aka “Scarface: Shame of a Nation”), in which Muni would play a Capone-esque gangster. Decades later, Raft would himself play Capone, sort of, in “Some Like It Hot” (where his character was responsible for a fictionalized version of Capone's Saint Valentine's Day Massacre).

* In the flashback, we find out not only that Mabel is pregnant – presumably with the baby whose death will drive her to madness, then suicide – but that Nucky's nickname is one given to him by the rich swells in the Commodore's social circle, and one that he personally hates. Yet another reason for that dyspeptic attitude so many decades later.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at