A review of tonight's “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I protect my fur…
“I don't think you know what you are.” -Mr. Jeffries
That comment by Nucky's future father-in-law is repeated in one form or another to many of the major characters in “King of Norway,” who have to figure out who and what they intend to be before it's too late.
Is Nucky the upstanding young man he presents himself as to Mabel's father, or the pragmatic climber who offers to help Sheriff Lindsay on special projects for the Commodore to get ahead? Is Chalky the man who wants revenge on Narcisse at all costs, or the man who might be able to reconnect with his old family – or, for that matter, the new one he appears to have with Daughter Maitland? Is Van Alden the henpecked, cuckolded husband of Sigrid, and Eli his blackout drunk sidekick, or are they still men of the law? Is Gillian sane, or a crazy woman who will be tortured by the psychiatric surgical standards of the day?
As we move into this final season's second half, things are starting to move quickly – these last few episodes have all taken place within a few days of each other – but maybe a little too quickly at times. Chalky finally makes his way back to Atlantic City, for instance, having acquired a new wardrobe in his criminal travels, and then seems to make it all the way to Dr. Narcisse's joint in Harlem in the same day, even though Nucky refused to tell him where his nemesis is hanging his hat.
On the other hand, certain parts of the episode feel very long and satisfying in coming, like Nucky referring to Chalky as a friend, or the federal government finally catching up to Agent Van Alden.
A lot happens in the hour, including Chalky's return, Luciano and Lansky (working in cahoots with Johnny Torio) trying to wipe out Nucky and Maranzano in one move(*), Margaret making a deal with the widow Rothstein and in turn enabling Nucky's latest business move, a time jump in the flashback scenes to 1897, and perhaps the worst day in the life of crazy Nelson Van Alden.
(*) Nucky is saved by bodyguard Archie's quick thinking, but it's unclear if Maranzano survived. For what it's worth, his death in real life was under different circumstances, but I wouldn't be surprised if “Boardwalk” killed him off here for the sake of narrative economy.
The dinner gone awry at the Sears catalog Mueller home is the hour's big centerpiece, and the painting of the episode's title character inspires Eli to realize that one of the many things that happens during his blackouts is sex with his partner's wife. It's an uncomfortable, funny, pathetic double date for both Eli and Van Alden, and one that goes from nightmarish to potentially deadly when Mike D'Angelo shows up to recruit Agent Van Alden and Sheriff Thompson to be unofficial – and very expendable – Untouchables. Winter and company don't seem to be heading for some kind of “Inglourious Basterds”-style ending where Al Capone's history gets rewritten wholesale, but inserting Eli and Nelson into the story in some small – quite probably suicidal – role doesn't seem out of the question.
But given the structure of the show's fourth, and best, season, the development in the episode that interests me most is what happens at the very end. I'm of course looking forward to the final showdown between Chalky and Narcisse, but I imagine that ends with one or both of them dead. And even though the show is ending – therefore rendering either's continued stories non-existent, dead or alive – I think I might prefer it if he, Daughter and the little girl (whether Chalky is her father, or Narcisse is) slipping out the side door into the night, one of the few central characters on the show escaping the life and getting something resembling a happy ending. Chalky thinks he's a man who's only fit for violence and revenge, but what if he doesn't really know what he truly is?
Some other thoughts:
* That's English actor Marc Pickering as the twentysomething Nucky, doing such a good job of capturing Steve Buscemi's gestures and speech patterns (while not just seeming like he's doing an impression) that the opening scene barely even needed Deputy Thompson to introduce himself at the end of it.
* It appears the eye/circle montage is specifically tied to Eli's drunken blackouts. I'm wondering if the fish is something Sigrid cooks him before or after their assignations.
* Nelson's eldest daughter whispers to June, “My real mother died. She was a ballerina.” Whether this is a fantasy she dreamed up herself or something Nelson has told her, it's almost certainly better than ever letting her know about Lucy Danziger.
* And now Nucky's reason for helping out Margaret – beyond any remaining affection he has for her – becomes clear, as she explains to her boss that Nucky intends to short the stock of Mayflower Grain, simultaneously making a lot of money for himself while punishing the Brahmins who looked down their noses at him.
* Of the remaining characters, Gillian is probably the one whose story could be most easily excised, but damn it if I didn't feel afraid for her when the doctor promised her, “We'll find what's inside you. We'll fix it.” Given what he already did surgically to Gillian's friend Charlotte, this could be very ugly. I just wonder how – or if – this may wind up tying in with Nucky's story before the end.
* I had wondered how Chalky kept the pistol hidden when one of Narcisse's guards frisked him, since the dark lighting of the scene obscured some of the action. So I checked in with HBO, and was told the stage directions for the scene say the guard “perfunctorily pats him down,” and that Chalky later slips the pistol out from where it was hidden in his crotch.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com