Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘White Horse Pike’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I take the new Duesenberg for a test drive…

“At times, it seems all there is is us and our unhappiness.” -Dr. Narcisse

Bullets fly often in “White Horse Pike,” which features a pair of failed assassination attempts on Dr. Narcisse and Al Capone, Agent Tolliver murdering one of Nucky’s drivers just because he can and Chalky battling two Atlantic City cops inside a moving car on an isolated country road. And it concludes with the now-familiar image of Nucky, Eli and their guys arming up for the inevitable bloodshed to come.

And the episode is very good at the action, in the way that “Boardwalk Empire” usually is. The assault on Narcisse’s headquarters, for instance, concludes with a marvelous shot – by both director Jake Paltrow and Dr. Narcisse himself – of Chalky diving into a getaway car just as a bullet hits him in the shoulder.

But what drives the series, and makes episodes like this one so satisfying, are those moments before the guns come out, when deals are being cut, alliances are being formed, and very smart men (and, occasionally, women) have to decide whether the offer on the table is better than the arrangement they already have – and, just as importantly, whether the offer is real at all.

Several of the season’s notable movements start to converge here, as the Chalky/Narcisse feud connects with Nucky’s new Tampa operation, thanks to Joe Masseria, who has an arrangement with Narcisse and who has used his cousin and Lansky and Luciano to smuggle heroin on Nucky’s trucks. Nucky and Narcisse have already had one heated confrontation – where Narcisse’s temper swallows up his cultured tones and replaces them with a harder, more working-class Caribbean accent, and where Nucky finally gets to ask this intrusive black man, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” – before Narcisse is able to compose himself and re-enter the Onyx Club with his Italian allies from New York. The negotiation is a fascinating one because we don’t know to what extent Nucky will go to protect Chalky (especially after all the talk of how the Onyx Club itself repaid the debt Nucky owed him from last season), just as we don’t know how willing Masseria and Narcisse are to live and let live, given how Mr. Thompson has gravely insulted the both of them.

Nucky appears to take the offer, but only to buy time for Chalky to get out of town – not realizing that Narcisse has already co-opted another of his allies and that he’s sending Chalky into a death trap – and one has to wonder what the next step of his plan would have been if Mayor Bader hadn’t changed loyalties(*). Was another war with Masseria inevitable no matter what? And given that Masseria is one of the show’s real-life wiseguys, is it now inevitable that Narcisse will be sacrificed so that Nucky can claim some kind of victory here? Whatever happens, it’s an interesting role reversal from a year ago, when it was Nucky bringing trouble to Chalky’s doorstep, and perhaps fitting for a season where Nucky has been treated a bit more as a member of the ensemble rather than the unquestioned lead.

(*) And remember that Bader was one of the few members of Nucky’s inner circle to stick with him during Jimmy’s coup attempt in season 2. Also, Bader doesn’t know he’s just teamed up with the man responsible for the corpse dumped on one of his construction sites earlier this season.

I note sometimes that this mixture of real and fictional gangsters can be a tricky one for the show. The average viewer may not have intimate knowledge of Al Capone’s story, or Meyer Lansky’s, but I suspect if you care enough about the period to watch “Boardwalk” at all, you know that Capone’s not going to die from machine gun fire on a sunny day in 1924. But both that assassination attempt(**) and the scene where Nucky threatens to have Lansky shot and dumped in a hole both had the requisite amount of tension, the former because it was staged so well, the latter because Anatol Yusuf sure as hell sold Lansky’s fear of dying, even as I knew he was safe for the time being.

(**) A few episodes ago, Van Alden was on the verge of murdering Capone just to get him out of his life. Here, he saves him. Was this just cop instinct taking over, or has he moved up so much in the world thanks to Capone that he wants his new boss to stick around?

Not all of the deals being cut have violent consequences: Margaret and Arnold Rothstein get to enjoy a nice meal together, each coming out of it with exactly what they want: a nice rent-free apartment for Margaret and the kids, and some illegal stock tips for Rothstein. This one feels a bit like Van Alden’s arc from a year ago, where the show is moving Margaret into a position where she can be more useful in the following season, but I enjoyed seeing Rothstein in a negotiation where he had no animus for the other party.

And while all of this is going on, Eli’s busy being squeezed by a frustrated Agent Tolliver. We find out here that he’s trying to string the G-man along with bogus info – as he was the one who went to Chicago last season to recruit Capone for the Masseria war, he knows damn well what’s up with Torrio’s organization – and Tolliver unsurprisingly does not appreciate this when he figures it out. But unlike some previous law enforcement gambits against Nucky’s organization, this one feels fairly escapable, both because Tolliver isn’t quite all there (shooting the driver in the head, after previously setting up Agent Sawicki to get killed back in the premiere) and because J. Edgar Hoover is much less concerned with the real threat of organized crime than he is about the idea of blacks and other minority groups seeking a place at the table.

Dr. Narcisse is, of course, affiliated with Marcus Garvey – taking advantage of Garvey’s organization to peddle his dope – and I wonder if Agent Tolliver might have more luck getting the boss’s attention if he notes that one of the many mobsters about to go to war in Atlantic City has much darker skin than the rest.

Some other thoughts:

* I assumed Nucky would quickly put Richard to work as a hired gun; instead, he’s a lowly dishwasher at the Onyx Club, though Chalky looks on him favorably for Richard’s help in dealing with the KKK problem back in season 2. We have to assume that, as we saw during his Midwest travels at the start of this season, Richard wants to be done with killing – otherwise, Nucky or Chalky would just send him to deal with the Narcisse problem by himself. It almost feels in a way like Winter and company realized just what an omnipotent killing machine they made Richard into with the assault on the Commodore’s mansion last season, and the only way to keep every plot from being resolved by having someone ask Richard to get his guns is to make Richard not want to use violence anymore. Of course, I don’t think his pacifist phase will last forever.

* I also wondered why Chalky called Richard, rather than Sam, when he had a gunshot wound, but we get part of the answer later when his daughter tells Narcisse that Sam (or, rather, Sam’s mom) broke off the engagement.

* In a nice moment of the season starting to come full circle, Nucky tells Chalky about Rothstein’s advice about a man’s difficulty sitting quietly in a room. Nucky himself has been unable to heed that wisdom.

* Jake Paltrow’s a new director for the show – though he has ties to Tim Van Patten, one of many “White Shadow” actors who were mentored into directing by Jake’s father Bruce – and he did a fine job here. Would not object at all if he were to be added to the show’s regular rotation.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at