Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘William Wilson’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I earn a D in civics class in 5th grade…

Nucky spends much of “William Wilson” trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious Agent Knox, whom we learn is actually Jim Tolliver, Bureau of Investigation agent and old law school chum of J. Edgar Hoover’s. Nucky fails to learn the truth because he puts too much trust in the slippery Gaston Bullock Means(*), who once again is playing multiple sides at once, always looking out for himself above all else.

(*) This episode was a cornucopia of entertaining but rarely-seen “Boardwalk” recurring characters, including Means, Esther Randolph, Andrew Mellon and George Remus – and I hope to God that Hoover’s admonishment to him to stop using the third person does not stick, because it is always funny – along with the return after several absent weeks of Arnold Rothstein and Dr. Narcisse.

That question of identity and loyalty is one that applies to nearly every story this week.  Chalky thinks he’s getting closer to Daughter Maitland, even as we learn that her ultimate loyalty is to Narcisse, the villain in her terrible story about the murder of  her prostitute mother. Nucky doesn’t find out who Tolliver really is, but Tolliver is betrayed nonetheless by Hoover, who takes all credit for his underling’s work (in any era, played by any actor in any manner of male or female clothing, Hoover is always an ass). At her new investment boiler room job, Margaret effectively plays the role of the naive, financially clueless wife to help her boss push bad investments on clients, but she’s dumbfounded by the appearance of Rothstein (operating under a fake name, and no doubt working a scam of a vastly higher order than her boss’s), and forced to keep his secret even as he keeps hers.

Even Willie Thompson, whose story finally comes into focus here, is shown to be playing a role. He’s not a good college student; he’s a budding gangster, and one who will likely wind up in Nucky’s organization(**) and likely cause tension between the Thompson brothers. He walks out of college after listening to the professor expound about the Edgar Allen Poe short story that gives the episode its title, and though the parallel isn’t exact – the man Willie killed wasn’t his doppelganger, but his rival – it does lead to the metaphorical death of one version of him as he tries to give rise to the Thompson he thinks he’s always been.

(**) Kudos to those of you who predicted the writers were setting Willie up to be Jimmy 2.0. He doesn’t have the tragic World War I backstory (nor the awful, incestuous relationship with his mother), but there are enough commonalities that I can imagine Winter, Korder and the other writers realizing that they missed certain aspects of the Jimmy/Nucky relationship and wanted to try recreating it without the baggage that necessitated Jimmy’s death. 

After last week’s cameo, it was good having a more extended glimpse of Margaret’s new circumstances, and to see once again how smart and quick she usually is (except when faced with a stunner like Arnold Rothstein in her boss’s office). Connecting her with Rothstein isn’t how I might have expected her to return to the narrative, but it’s intriguing.

I also loved every scene involving Chalky, Daughter, Narcisse and Dunn (who murders Deacon Cuffy before Cuffy can rat him out to Chalky as the local heroin dealer). Narcisse is so smooth and charismatic that it’s easy to imagine him even winning over the girl who watched him strangle her mother, and it’s clear just how out of his league Chalky is against this adversary.

Overall, this season so far feels more fragmented than the last few. Season 2 had the Nucky vs. Jimmy war driving all the action, and though Gyp Rosetti came and went from Atlantic City a few times, his directness created more conflict more quickly and unified season 3 more. This year, we’re getting some action in Atlantic City, an entirely unconnected (but very entertaining) mob war in Chicago, intrigue in Washington, Tampa, etc., with some of it tying together and some not. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I’m greatly enjoying most of the individual pieces, and have seen my patience start to be rewarded on others like Willie, but this season is playing the long game even more blatantly than the show has in the past. I know the assumption is that Narcisse will be dispensed with by the end of the year, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if a lot of the stories introduced this season were designed to carry over into next year. And given what a reliable performer “Boardwalk” has been for HBO, I’m fine with that.

Some other thoughts:

* Director Jeremy Podeswa opens the episode with what I think is our first iris-out since the show’s Martin Scorsese-directed pilot.  For the most part, the show has moved away from using cinematic flourishes from the Teens and Twenties, even as the other visual elements of the pilot have remained.

* Johnny Torrio’s attempt to talk Capone out of killing Chicago cops wasn’t quite “You think you can change how things get done in Chicago?!?!,” but it sounded closer than perhaps it should have.

* Roy finally reveals a bit more of himself, as he tells Gillian that he filed for divorce the day after he met her. Thus far, he’s been presented as too good to be true, especially for the walking human tragedy that is Gillian Darmody, and that revelation – whether it’s real or an elaborate lie to impress her – is our first major sign that something is awry with our man from Piggly Wiggly.

* Eli’s younger kids didn’t know he was in prison? Wonder what their mom and Willie told them. It’s not like it was a two-week sentence.

* I said it before and I will say it again: I will be very unhappy if Remus stops Remus-ing.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at