Nucky and Eli duke it out for the prize of Thompson Brother With the Worst Day; an unexpected reunion in Harlem throws a wrench in Chalky's vengeance plans.
If there is one positive to the abbreviated eight-episode final season of Boardwalk Empire, it’s that we only had to slog through four lukewarm episodes in order to get from last year’s fiery finale “Farewell Daddy Blues” to the next (and, possibly, last) truly stellar hour of the series. Although, with only three episodes left, “King of Norway” will, at the very least, end up the fourth-best episode of the season, which ain’t too shabby. Not only was this episode one of the more productive in the show’s history, but, aside from an MIA Dr. Narcisse (who is poised to make up for his lack of presence next week), we got comprehensive updates on most of the major characters, a big-production shoot-’em-up scene and a jaw-dropping plot twist at the end.
Lots of questions are finally answered in “King of Norway,” and it feels like we’re actually getting closer to wrapping up some important story lines. By the end of the episode, Eli Thompson and Nelson Van Alden (so long, alias George Mueller) have reached the “end of the line” of their run from the law. They’ve been pinched by federal double agent Mike D’Angelo and are tasked to help the IRS indict Al Capone on tax evasion. Nucky has all but tossed his intentions to go straight out the window; having survived yet another assassination attempt and betrayal, he’s out for the kill—his targets now Charlie Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and his supposed former ally, Johnny Torrio. Chalky White, out of his prison stripes and back in Atlantic City, offers up a vague description of what he’s been doing these past seven years, with Nucky providing him (and the audience) an update on what became of his family after Maybelle’s death and he went on the run. But probably the biggest reveal tonight (aside from Daughter Maitland’s little surprise) was the meaning behind Eli’s mysterious alcohol-fueled reverie that bookended the second episode of the season.
So what was up with the novelty racist song on the phonograph that Eli kept hearing amid visions of whiskey being poured into a tumbler, flesh-on-flesh, a lock of ginger hair, and a pair of creepy-looking eyes (who else thought that was Richard Harrow at first?) staring down at him? Oh, it turns out Eli has developed a taste for the Scandinavian: He’s been enjoying the company of Van Alden’s Norwegian nanny-turned-wife, Sigrid, for some time. (Props to Christiane Seidel for completely transforming her character from a dainty immigrant nanny into an ornery hot mess in the span of two and a half seasons.) But Eli’s been living in such a drunken stupor that it’s not until Van Alden’s 10-year-old daughter Abigail drops the needle on the “Yodeling Chinaman” record and he stands face to face with a creepy-eyed portrait of the king of Norway on Sigrid’s kitchen wall that his fuzzy memory comes into focus.
NEXT: Oh, brother
Should the brothers Thompson ever find themselves in the same room again (unlikely, but, hey, you never know), chances are they’ll argue over who had more of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on April 23, 1931. In one corner, we have Nucky Thompson: He’s the victim of an assassination attempt while dining with mob boss Salvatore Maranzano in Brooklyn, which is an act of betrayal by Johnny Torrio, Al Capone’s former mentor who is now in league with Luciano and Lansky. Nucky may have survived, but now he’s slipping further and further back into the gangster lifestyle that he’s supposedly so desperate to leave. With blood still on his face, he makes the kind of all-consuming threat to Torrio, Luciano, and Lansky that echoes this season’s slogan (“No One Goes Quietly”), and Jimmy Darmody’s season 1 prophecy that never really went away (“You Can’t Be Half a Gangster”): “I will not rest until I see you in your graves.” All of this happening just in time for Nucky to get word that his business partner and lover, Sally Wheet, was killed by Cuban rebels outside Havana and that the revolutionaries will not be held accountable.
In the other corner, we have Eli Thompson: His wife, June, has arrived for a visit, sporting a seven-months-pregnant belly (the result of her last trip to Chicago). So what better time to sit down to a home-cooked meal at the Mueller house, where young Chester regales the guests with ear-piercing, off-key renditions of “Make New Friends” on the recorder (hey, it may have been bizarre, but at least Diane Keaton can sing in tune), and Abigail lives under the fantastical assumption that her birth mother was a ballerina (to be fair, you’d turn Lucy Danziger into Mother Teresa too if you had a harridan like Sigrid for a stepmother). Luckily for Eli, after Sigrid tactlessly announces to his wife that they’ve been engaging in afternoon delights while “husband makes the collections,” he’s relieved of placating an infuriated June by Mike D’Angelo, who shows up to take in “Nelson” and “Sheriff Thompson.” The former officers of the law are then made an offer they can’t refuse: They’ll have a shot at earning back their badges—or rather, won’t go to prison for murder (Van Alden for his partner Agent Sebso in season 1, Eli for Agent James Tolliver, a.k.a. Warren Knox, in season 4)—by aiding the IRS in stealing Al Capone’s ledger books. Since Capone was indeed convicted of tax fraud in late 1931, we know that the feds succeeded. We just don’t know yet if Boardwalk is going to paint the fictional Van Alden and Eli as the ones to bring Capone to his knees. As bad as their lives look now, were they really that much better when Van Alden was an uptight Prohibition agent and Eli was the corrupt sheriff of Atlantic City?
The future is looking pretty bleak for both Nucky and Eli by the end of the episode—especially with the news about Sally, expect to see Nucky in a downward spiral come next week. Despite the younger Thompson’s infidelity, however, you have to wonder if June’s ninth pregnancy is a sign that Eli is going to emerge from his ordeal in a better place than his brother. Remember Nucky’s frenemy Joe Kennedy? Excited over the impending arrival of ninth child Ted Kennedy and advising Nucky that there’s “safety in numbers”? And don’t forget, last we heard, Eli’s eldest son Willie had secured himself a job as an assistant U.S. attorney…
NEXT: Who’s your daddy?
Chalky’s reappearance in Atlantic City (and the majority of the episode) is used primarily for exposition purposes—it’s not until the last scene that his story line goes full-throttle, but it’s certainly worth the buildup. A short reunion with Nucky shows Chalky humbled by the past seven years, but he’s still got revenge on his mind, and he wants Dr. Narcisse’s head on a platter. Nucky offers zero assistance on that front, but he provides his longtime friend with an update of what became of his ruined family following the events of season 4: They’re living in St. Louis under his wife Lenore’s maiden name. It would be nice if Chalky eventually sought out his surviving children, even if he irrevocably destroyed any future with Lenore due to his dalliance with jazz/blues singer Daughter Maitland back in 1924. But first he’s got to evade the U.S. Marshal on his tail (he did escape prison and kill a couple of people, after all) and settle his score with Narcisse. Thing is, upon arriving at the doctor’s Harlem brothel, Chalky wasn’t expecting to find a little girl (who looks suspiciously around age six or seven), or for his former lover Daughter to emerge in response to the child’s call of “Mama.”
–Gillian Darmody makes her first appearance since the second episode, but the outlook for her character is pretty bleak. She’s still in the loony bin, and given her conviction of murder due to “temporary insanity,” the asylum’s resident physician, Dr. Cotton, dismisses her plea for release. Given the primitive level of treatment people with mental illnesses received back then, where “temporary insanity” is deemed unpredictable and incurable (unless Dr. Cotton decides to play Operation with her body, the way he did with her fellow inmate Charlotte), it’s unlikely Gillian will be getting out anytime soon—or if she does, it won’t be in one piece.
–The flashbacks have fast-forwarded to the year 1897, where a twentysomething Nucky is now the deputy sheriff of Atlantic City—and is being played by English actor Marc Pickering (remember young Maspath from Sleepy Hollow?), doing a very decent Steve Buscemi thanks to the help of his quintessentially British teeth.
–After spending all of last week’s episode soliciting Nucky’s help in her financial predicament, Margaret completes her deal with Carolyn Rothstein in a brief, single scene. The check Margaret hands Arnold Rothstein’s widow is presumably for one-quarter of the $111,000 Carolyn asked for, and as payback for her husband’s generosity, Margaret’s Wall Street firm—which will now remain solvent—will open an account for Nucky (under an assumed name) to shore up stock in the Mayflower Grain Corporation (the last piece in his going-legit plan). Yep, there’s always a catch for a Nucky Thompson favor.