Boardwalk Empire recap: 'What Jesus Said'
It sounds crazy, but we’re now more than one-third of the way through Boardwalk Empire’s final season. The question is, will the next five episodes be enough to resolve all of the loose subplots still flailing around from Chicago to New York to Atlantic City to Cuba to wherever the hell Chalky White is (an off-hand reference to the town of “Chambersburg” suggests he’s somewhere in Pennsylvania)? Already it feels like certain characters are being sacrificed for the greater good of giving Nucky a Walter White or Don Draper-worthy send-off: Jeffrey Wright’s much-lauded villain Dr. Valentin Narcisse makes his eagerly awaited season 5 return in “What Jesus Said,” only to be relegated to a single scene. Michael Kenneth Williams, meanwhile, continues his quiet, tortured performance as Chalky, but he spends all his screen time stuck in a seemingly unrelated bottle episode-esque story line.
Still, this episode was momentous as it brought Boardwalk‘s two leads back together again after a two-season estrangement. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Nucky and Margaret are going to ride off into the Atlantic City sunset, leaving behind years of adultery, betrayal, and murder in their wake. Sally Wheet, despite her lack of dependency on Nucky to fulfill her sexual needs, is clearly his better match (the two share a sweet moment this week listening to “Happy Days Are Here Again” on the radio—with Nucky holding up the phone receiver so Sally can hear it all the way in Cuba). But, as mentioned in last week’s recap, there had to be a reason for the Thompsons to remain married, even if it was just to serve the plot. Margaret is still in hot water following her Wall Street boss Mr. Bennett’s suicide, with probate proceedings unearthing her involvement with Bennett’s client “Abe Redstone” (a.k.a. Arnold Rothstein). While Rothstein has been dead for three years, accountants reveal to Margaret that Redstone’s account has been “very much alive,” with a grand total of $111,000 having been withdrawn since 1928. The withdrawals may have been made by Mr. Bennett for his personal gain, but the signatures of “Margaret Rohan” are all over the paperwork. Not to mention that Rothstein’s widow, Carolyn, is suing the firm.
Kelly Macdonald and Shae D’lyn (who plays Carolyn Rothstein) absolutely kill in their one scene together, in which a desperate Margaret puts on her trusty naive Irish-immigrant facade and attempts to feign complete innocence in her involvement with Carolyn’s late husband. Margaret’s faux-surprised “Do I?” in response to Carolyn’s accusation that she’s been living in one of Rothstein’s apartments all this time is a perfect blend of her seasoned role as a gangster’s-moll with just the right dose of fear. The bottom line is, Carolyn knows full well that plain ol’ Ms. Rohan was well-entrenched in Rothstein’s business affairs, and that she is in actuality Mrs. Enoch Thompson—so procuring $111,000 should be a breeze. Or else, she warns, Margaret will be reading her “name in the paper next to ‘Notorious Husband.'”
So nearly eight years after escaping her gilded Atlantic City prison, Margaret has no choice but to return Nucky in the episode’s final scene, sitting in silhouette while her husband awakens from his latest 1884 flashback/dream (in which we learn that the prissy little girl who taunted young Nucky with her prepubescent feminine wiles that summer wound up becoming his first wife, Mabel). Nucky’s initial disappointment that the figure isn’t Mabel slowly turns to beatific relief when Margaret snaps the light on and reveals herself to her husband. Their pleasure in seeing each other again is nice to see because there was a time, albeit a decade ago, when they made a great team. Now that Margaret has had time away to build up her own criminal credentials using the skills Nucky taught her, perhaps by consolidating their talents they can end the series at the top.
Margaret’s arrival comes just in the nick of time, because if anyone needs a confidence boost, it’s her husband. By the end of the episode, Nucky has been completely emasculated by his latest frenemy, Joseph Kennedy. Nucky’s pathetically obvious desire to emulate the Boston businessman had Steve Buscemi chasing Matt Letscher like a lovesick schoolboy all over the boardwalk, making the flashback scenes between Nolan Lyons and young Mabel a distinct parallel. Nucky’s desire to bring Kennedy in on his Bacardi deal seemed secondary to his lousy attempts to transform himself into a teetotaling Irish Catholic family man who can seamlessly disappear into the Episcopalian upper class. But it’s not so much Nucky pretending to be something he’s not that Kennedy calls him out on—it’s his lack of a legacy. Kennedy notices there are no photos, cards or drawings on Nucky’s office walls, correctly deducing that Nucky is alone in his quest for money and power. At least Kennedy, with his euphemisms for breaking the law (and not being caught) as “good business,” knows that he and his family are going to end up in the history books. Nucky, on the other hand? Whether or not he emerges from Prohibition on the right side of the law, no one is going to remember the little Irish Catholic social-climber from Atlantic City. So maybe now is a good time for Nucky to ask Margaret to bring the now-teenage Teddy and Emily along on her next visit.
NEXT: Survivor’s Guilt
Nucky’s extended date with Joe Kennedy this episode doesn’t leave much time to drive the plot forward with Chalky and Dr. Narcisse, leaving us once again with teases as opposed to developments, especially in the case of Narcisse. Since his arrest and forced role as FBI informant in last season’s finale, the urbane Narcisse appears to be living comfortably uptown, running a brothel as well as various other businesses. We learn nothing of what J. Edgar Hoover has had him doing in regards to collecting information on Marcus Garvey over the past seven years, nor do we know if Narcisse played a role in Chalky’s incarceration. What Narcisse does accomplish in this episode is he manages to piss off Charlie Luciano and Benny Siegel when he exhibits indifference toward the news that Salvatore Maranzano would like to fill the vacancy in the heroin business arrangement Narcisse had with the now-deceased Joe Masseria. Narcisse’s failure to immediately comply with Luciano’s demands results in a late-night massacre at his Harlem whorehouse.
If anything, Chalky will be pleased to hear that his onetime-arrogant rival is in no less danger than he is. Chalky may have broken free of his chains back in the season premiere, but right now he’s little more than an escaped convict on the run with a deranged felon named Milton for a sidekick. It’s tempting to refer to Milton as “Crazy Eyes” (because he’s sure got ’em), but that’s ultimately an insult to Uzo Aduba and her Emmy-winning performance on Orange Is the New Black. Chalky’s story line this episode primarily serves to depict how the Depression was a color-blind menace that didn’t care what race it put into the poorhouse—and that seven years on, Chalky is tormented by guilt over Maybelle’s death. Chalky and Milton spend the episode holding a white mother and her teenage daughter hostage, only to learn that they weren’t lying when they said they had $9 to their name. The suspense builds as to who will make it out of the house alive once Milton takes his displaced fury over a supposed tipping slight from this family years ago out on a bedroom wall with nothing but a hammer. Chalky is little more than a bystander in this particular subplot; broken by years of prison and misery for his indirect role in his daughter’s murder, he watches silently as Milton degrades the teen girl, Fern, into modeling her new spring formal dress. It’s only when Milton is about to shoot Fern in the head—and her mother, Marie, breaks open the safe to prove there’s nothing in there but worthless Liberty bonds—that Chalky realizes this is a lost cause, and it’s not worth the death of another innocent teenage girl. So he drives the hammer into Milton’s neck, effectively killing him, saving the mother and daughter and relieving the audience of having to care about another new character with Boardwalk so close to the end.
Free from his chains, free from jail and free of the psychotic Milton, it’s time for Chalky to rejoin the rest of the Boardwalk narrative. Which means he needs to get his ass to Harlem.
–Any theories as to the sender of Nucky’s mysterious letter with the return address “Miss Nellie Bly, the Pirate Sea, En Route to Cathay”? Boardwalk-philes will remember that in the season 2 episode “Two Boats and a Lifeguard,” Nucky and Margaret play the board game “Round the World With Nellie Bly” with Teddy and a polio-stricken Emily. It’s in this scene that Nucky asks Margaret’s children to start calling him “Dad.” Considering that the globe-trotting reporter died in 1922, it’s unlikely she was writing to an Atlantic City gangster from beyond the grave. Think it might be a teenage Teddy or Emily trying to get in touch with their stepfather?
–The Depression—and Chalky’s incarceration—has not been good to the Onyx Club. Once the jewel in Chalky’s crown, the former upscale nightclub is now a burlesque joint being run by Nucky’s longtime minion, Mickey Doyle. Tuxedos and evening gowns have been replaced by suits and day dresses, and the overall seedy vibe (check the dude in the fez beating off right at his table) makes one yearn for the days where Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) was in residence.
–Cute reference to Joe Kennedy’s growing brood of eventual U.S. political figures while Nucky treats him to lunch: “Number nine is on the way!” Number nine, of course, is Sen. Ted Kennedy.