Two major characters meet their fate in this pivotal episode of the final season, while Nucky gears up for yet another gang war.
Last week’s episode, “King of Norway,” may have been the best of the season, but tonight’s “Devil You Know” was the most pivotal. At the expense of two of Boardwalk Empire‘s most complex characters (and talented actors), the show now heads into its final two episodes with Nucky Thompson front and center. Thing is, it’s hard to get all riled up for Nucky’s upcoming war with Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky—because we’ve seen it before, at the end of almost every season. In season 2 it was between Nucky and his former protégé Jimmy Darmody. Season 3 was Nucky vs. Gyp Rosetti, and season 4 pitted Nucky against his own brother, Eli. And also because history has proved both Luciano and Lansky emerge from Prohibition alive, the likelihood that Nucky Thompson will suffer the same fate as fellow cable-TV antihero Walter White is pretty high at this point.
It appears that Executive Producer Howard Korder, who wrote “Devil You Know,” is well aware of the audience’s gangster-war fatigue, though. Which is why as added insurance, he craftily connected the 19th-century flashbacks to Nucky’s anticipated downward spiral this week. We may not care that Nucky is going to battle for his empire yet again, but now that we see how one bad decision ruined the trajectory of his once-happy life, Nucky may very well close out the series with a sympathetic following.
But before we pledge our undying loyalty to Nucky Thompson and his Atlantic City kingdom, respect must be paid to Nelson Van Alden and Albert “Chalky” White, two stalwart Boardwalk characters since season 1, whose story lines came to a close in this episode. Given the already-high mortality rate of Boardwalk’s five-episode run, it’s easy to initially be disappointed by both characters’ deaths. At first glance, it can feel like a cop-out on Korder’s part—what better way to get the ancillary subplots out of the way so we can concentrate full-steam ahead on Nucky?—but upon further reflection, we see that in both cases, Van Alden and Chalky had painted themselves into such tight corners that death was indeed the only organic conclusion.
Nelson Van Alden’s 10-year law-dodging saga ended in Al Capone’s hotel suite, where his decade-long pent-up rage, repression, and self-loathing tumbled out at the worst possible moment, resulting in a bullet to the head. Forced to comply with the feds after being discovered for their crimes back in Atlantic City, Van Alden and Eli Thompson engage in a comedy of errors to lift Capone’s ledger books—”This has not been thought through,” deadpans Michael Shannon. Yeah, no kidding—their plan to help put one of the most dangerous criminals in the country can best be described as “winging it.”
When they’re inevitably caught by Al’s brother Ralph, not even Mike D’Angelo (a.k.a the fed/Capone-gang confidant who tasked Van Alden and Eli with stealing the ledgers) can save them, because he’s not going to blow his cover for “the expendable ones”—as Van Alden referred to himself and Eli last week. Too bad Van Alden didn’t remember that fact when, thinking D’Angelo was going to come to his aid while he had Al Capone splayed on his desk and was giving an oratory worthy of his season 1 self (“I am Nelson Casper Van Alden! And I am a sworn agent of the United States Treasury! And I swear by our Lord Jesus Christ, justice will reign down upon you, if it’s the last—”), a gunshot blasted through his skull courtesy of double agent D’Angelo.
It’s a shocking death, but, really, what kind of future did this guy have? He was a horrible father and husband, and he had a deluded sense of reality, thinking he could automatically switch back to being a self-righteous federal agent after years of being a gangster.
NEXT: “Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you…”
Ironically, Van Alden goes to his grave having helped to put Al Capone in jail. The shenanigans he and Eli caused that night convinced Al that his incriminating ledger books weren’t secure in the suite—so what does he have Ralph do? Give them to the ever-trustworthy Mike D’Angelo for safekeeping, just as he escorts a shattered Eli through the door to carry out Al’s execution orders. With the tax-evasion evidence now in the feds’ hands, Al Capone’s Boardwalk story line ostensibly ends here, as the real-life mobster will be convicted in October 1931. And since D’Angelo will likely never again set foot in the Capone hotel suite, he lets Eli go with nothing more than cash for a bus ticket home and a full supply of humble pie ready for the eating.
With the door closed on the Chicago subplots, Boardwalk then moves back to the East Coast to wrap up Chalky’s tragic narrative. Like Van Alden, the onetime king of Atlantic City’s Northside was never going to make it out of the series alive, because he had way too much stacked against him: The U.S. Marshals were on his tail for his prison escape. His family had moved on. And most importantly, no matter what happened, his scenes from earlier episodes in the season confirmed that he was never, ever going to forgive himself for his daughter Maybelle’s death. The difference between Chalky and Van Alden, though, is the unexpected presence of Chalky’s former paramour Daughter Maitland—and the product of their love, a 6-year-old girl named Althea—at his showdown with Dr. Valentin Narcisse allows the gangster to die finally at peace with himself.
“Devil You Know” picks up immediately where “King of Norway” left off last week, with Chalky arriving at Narcisse’s Harlem brothel to seek his revenge only to discover a hardened version of the jazz/blues singer with her own score to settle with her onetime patron. Considering all of the loose plot lines that needed to be addressed this final season, praise must be given to Terence Winter and writer Korder for bringing back fan favorite Daughter Maitland. Sure, her first Harlem visit in seven years just happening to coincide with Chalky’s reappearance is a bit on the contrived side, but it allowed Chalky to go to his death a redeemed man. It also gave us one more chance to hear Daughter sing one of the popular standards of the day, thanks to Margot Bingham’s delectable rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (eat your heart out, Mama Cass!).
Anyway, so when Daughter left Chalky last season, it was to both free herself from Dr. Narcisse’s clutches and from a life on the run. But aside from cutie-patootie Althea (whom Daughter refuses to admit is Chalky’s, even though she so obviously is), her life has been reduced from headliner to maid, thanks to Narcisse’s extensive ability to blackball her from every stage in the country. Daughter has returned to Harlem to literally get on her knees and beg the jealous Narcisse for her freedom. She paid out of her own pocket to record “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which she can’t get released until Narcisse lifts his embargo. So isn’t it lucky for Daughter that Chalky showed up on the same night she did? Because all of a sudden, Narcisse appears to be in a generous mood. He offers Daughter’s career reinstatement in exchange for Chalky coming to work for him. See, Narcisse isn’t feeling too confident these days, now that he’s little more than a puppet for Charlie Luciano.
Chalky and Daughter know that his agreeing to “belong” to Narcisse is signing his own death warrant, but watching Chalky tear up while listening to “Dream,” we see he’s silently made his decision to sacrifice himself for both of his “Daughters.” Within moments, Narcisse promises Daughter will be booked to perform in any city of her choosing, and she somberly leaves with Althea in her arms, Chalky declining her offer to take him with her: “We headed in different places.” He knows he’d still be on the lam if he went with them, so he has no other choice but to stay behind. Chalky does make sure to send Althea off with one valuable piece of advice: “Keep away from men like me.”
NEXT: Chalky finds peace
As dawn breaks, Chalky exits the brothel with Narcisse into a back alley. He’s tired of fighting and he’s resigned to his fate, but not before getting in one last word to his enemy: “It was all a dream to begin with—ain’t nobody ever been free.” It’s a nice little zinger at Narcisse, whose lifelong battle for “Libyan” equality has ended with his businesses being controlled by white men. Narcisse walks away as his men line up and draw their guns at Chalky. The camera moves in on Michael Kenneth Williams’ face as he closes his eyes and strains of Daughter singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” fill the final seconds. Chalky smiles—probably his first real smile of happiness—until we hear gunshots and the screen fades to black. Although it would have been nice to hear the entire version of “DALDOFM” over the credits, the quiet hiss of the record needle ends the episode in just the right haunting tone.
–His face and hands still splattered with blood from last week’s assassination attempt, Nucky spends the majority of the episode getting wasted in a no-name tavern, bemoaning his pathetic situation. He’s technically mourning Sally Wheet’s death, but in actuality, thanks to this week’s installment of The Wire: The Early Years, we’re seeing the exact moment where his life took an irrevocable detour. The two broads keeping him company at the bar don’t get where he’s going with the “Start at the bottom with nothing—you have nothing. When you have an opportunity, you take it” speech, but we do. See, back in 1897, Nucky was newly married to Mabel with a baby on the way, and yet he just couldn’t seem to get ahead with the Commodore. Until the day he notices a young girl being presented to the Commodore, despite her mother’s forlorn countenance. Considering we know that Nucky was the one to procure a 13-year-old Gillian Darmody for the Commodore’s pleasure, his long-repressed guilt is starting to consume him, especially when he drunkenly yells at one of his minions as if he is still talking to a young Gillian: “Stupid f—ing child—why would you trust me?”
–It appears that with Daughter’s freedom and Chalky’s death, Dr. Narcisse’s story line has ended as well. But what happened to his working for J. Edgar Hoover and becoming an informant on Marcus Garvey? The fact that this is never addressed this season is a glaring omission and would have made his subplot a lot more interesting.
–Not only are we introduced to the adolescent Gillian in the flashbacks—she’s a tomboyish street urchin with an uncanny resemblance to a young Michael Pitt whom Deputy Sheriff Nucky catches for selling stolen cigarettes—but we also learn she’s the one behind the “Nellie Bly” return address from that letter Nucky received three episodes ago. Does that mean Nucky’s redemption will come in the form of rescuing Gillian from the nuthouse?