'Boardwalk Empire' post-mortem: Jeffrey Wright on season 5 finale
Spoilers for the Boardwalk Empire season finale ahead! With Nucky winding down his operations, Van Alden reclaiming his identity, and Harrow going from living to not living (sad!), the major players of Boardwalk Empire each found themselves undergoing a transformation during the fourth season finale.
Harlem intellectual and “business” man Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) started off the season as the new king in town, chipping away at Chalky White’s control of the predominantly black North Side community in Atlantic City. By season’s end, he may have survived a botched assassination attempt, but according to Wright, he suffers a “real spiritual assassination” when J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) forces him to become his informant for the Bureau of Investigation.
“He becomes what he despises at the beginning and that is a servant pretending to be a king, so it all comes full circle,” Wright explains.
Narcisse’s fate is now at the mercy of Hoover — almost inevitable given the historical period the series showcases. Wright says, “Looking from the outside in, what’s fascinating about that dynamic is that it reflects some level of accuracy relative to Marcus Garvey and the UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association].”
He continues, stating, “Hoover’s first Civil Rights obsession was with Marcus Garvey and there were clearly people who played the role of Judas, if you will, to Garvey. And so now, we’ll see where it goes, but Narcisse who has been really villainous before — even though maybe not within his mind — is clearly fallen to the bottom of the barrel now.”
Despite selling heroin, beating Daughter to a bloody pulp, and being an overall creepy albeit dapper guy, Narcisse has never thought of himself as the “bad guy” — until now. “I think for him, what will be interesting is that he will be the only one who knows,” he says. “I imagine that will be a fairly tortuous kernel of knowledge for him because he doesn’t feel that what he’s doing prior to that is undermining of the Negro Race.”
No matter how Narcisse acts, he sees himself as the “representative of the pinnacle of the Race.” Wright states, “Whatever he does to serve himself, serve those like him, serves the interest of the Race. If he has to separate the wheat from the chaff by weaning out the weaker among the Race then it only strengthens the cause, so he doesn’t feel that what he’s been up to is outside the realm of progress. Now, he’s clearly betraying everything that he holds dear so it’ll be an interesting continuation of the journey.”
Acting mainly for the big screen — his latest film role is as the brilliant Beetee in Catching Fire — Wright calls his first long-term TV stint a “fantastic experience.” He shares, “I remember the first time I sat down opposite him [Michael K. Williams] and Steve [Buscemi], I was looking at them as a fan more than as a character who is interacting with them because their work is so strong and the legacy of what they’ve created is so strong. I was looking at it admiringly.”
He lauds his fellow Empire cast and crew, stating, “everyone involved is top-shelf, so if you have an issue working in an environment like that as an actor, then you should probably go to accounting school or something like that because you’re wrong.”
So far, Wright is keeping mum about if and when his character will return in season five. He concedes that his return “remains to be seen. We see where Dr. Narcisse is and we’ll find out where he goes or where he doesn’t.” Luckily, in an interview with executive producer Terence Winter, TVLine confirmed that Narcisse will be back next season. Winter affirms, “That storyline has not concluded.”
Check out more from Jeffrey Wright in an upcoming Pop Culture Personality Test!
— Reporting by Mandi Bierly