Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘The Old Ship of Zion’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I mix myself a rum swizzle…

“Well, it’s all about who you know, isn’t it?” -Jim Tolliver

Outside of the action in Illinois, the warfare on this season of “Boardwalk Empire” has been of the cold variety: lots of stealthy moves and countermoves, with players either focusing on the long game or oblivious to the fact that they’re at war in the first place.

That sort of combat plays to the strengths of certain characters like Dr. Narcisse, Rothstein and Gaston Bullock Means, less so to men like Chalky White or Eli Thompson. They have their political gifts – Chalky has successfully controlled an entire voting bloc for Nucky for years, and Eli had a healthy run as sheriff – but they’ve been developed more out of necessity than preference. Chalky has never been entirely comfortable in his fancy clothes and his bourgeois life; usually, when we see a White family dinner, it ends in him resentfully chasing away his more refined wife and kids. Eli can supervise business for Nucky, but pretty much every defining Eli moment of the series – including a great one here in the diner booth with Tolliver and his partner – involves his volcanic temper getting the better of him.

Chalky and Eli are at the fulcrums of the two big plot pivots of “The Old Ship of Zion,” but they end the hour in very different circumstances.

I’ve been worried for weeks that Chalky is badly outclassed by Narcisse, and now too entranced by Daughter Maitland to have the first chance of figuring out what’s happening to his own organization and community. It turns out he’s not completely at a loss, as he brutally cleans up the shooting gallery Dunn has been running on Baltic Avenue(*), then very publicly calls out Narcisse in front of his potential new followers. Their confrontation in the street is among the best-looking “Boardwalk” sequences ever (unsurprisingly in an episode directed by Tim Van Patten), with Chalky defiantly banging on a trash can lid and Narcisse glowering through fire and smoke as he recognizes that this illiterate hustler has temporarily gotten the better of him.

(*) As always, reference to any of the Atlantic City streets from Monopoly makes for a disorienting moment. 

And even Chalky’s unabiding love for Daughter Maitland winds up serving him well, as it turns out that she hasn’t just been playacting with him. She feels enough for him – and how could she not, after he poetically describes the sound of her voice as “like you tying up a secret”? – to warn him of the threat Dunn poses. (Though Chalky’s antennae had been up about Dunn for most of the episode.) What follows is more gorgeously shot tension (with each man standing as far from each other as possible in the apartment), and then brutal action, with callbacks to Chalky and Dunn’s first encounter in the Atlantic City jail, and with Chalky surviving against his much larger and more powerful opponent only through the intervention of his lover. I’ll miss Dunn Purnsley as both a character and a foil for Chalky (do any of Chalky’s other underlings even have names?), but as with Eddie a few weeks ago, he went out in memorable fashion, and now sets up a new, more open phase in the White/Narcisse battle.

Speaking of Eddie, Agent Tolliver(**) finds a new weak link in the Thompson organization, and this time a man like Eli who has everything to lose. Eddie had the ability to escape his predicament in the exact manner in which he did. Were Eli to jump off a balcony at the Albatross, Willie would still be in danger of prosecution for Henry’s murder, and who knows what would become of his wife and his other kids?

(**) There was a stilted quality to Brian Geraghty’s performance that I thought worked when he was posing as Agent Knox, but that hasn’t always served him so well when he’s in Tolliver mode.

In an ideal world for Nucky – who remains a largely passive(***) background figure so far this season, here befuddled by the arrival of Sally with the first load from Tampa – Eli would come to him with this news and they would find a way to escape the noose Tolliver seems to have placed around Eli and Willie. But relations between the brothers have always been strained, and they’re at another bad spot right now because Willie seems to be turning to his uncle for parental advice, and because the two of them kept the Henry story secret from Eli. I don’t anticipate the Bureau of Investigation collaring Nucky anytime soon, but Eli’s an ideal target for Tolliver in more ways than one. It’s not like he hasn’t already demanded his own brother’s murder, right?

(***) One very active, satisfying moment for Nucky: he takes back Eddie’s cane and beats on the annoying Mickey with it. The decor, management and entertainment at the club have all changed, but Mickey Doyle is still getting assaulted by his colleagues there.  

Another strong outing, particularly on Chalky’s side of town. As I’ve been saying, so far this season feels a bit more loosely-constructed than the last few, but most of the individual are really strong, and they’ve got several episodes left to tie together as much as they want to.

What did everybody else think? And is HBO leaving money on the table if they don’t release a tie-in album of Margot Bingham singing songs of the ’20s as Daughter Maitland? 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at