Earlier this week, TV critic Todd VanderWerff tweeted that he finds it interesting Nucky is reluctant to be in the position that he’s in, making him different from most anti-hero characters. Todd is right and Nucky says it himself in this episode, saying he was happier when he was just a crooked politician. And who can blame him? In many ways, those were the good old days for Nucky Thompson. He still had Jimmy, he could still regularly appear in public, he didn’t have to watch his back every other step, and, in season one, he found Margaret.
By season two we saw this all go to hell, culminating with him killing Jimmy Darmody. It’s therefore appropriate that tonight we have a number of allusions to Jimmy and his death. While at school, Willie Thompson competes with a young man who looks somewhat like Jimmy which is an intriguing choice because in one of the show’s few flashbacks we see Jimmy at college, a college which looks much like the one Willie is attending (they’re not but much of the décor is similar). Then we have Gillian being approached by a friend of the young man she killed last season, the young man who she told authorities was Jimmy so she could inherit the house. She acts like she has no idea who the man is but she’s obviously flustered and needs to shoot up some heroin immediately afterwards.
Nucky was already a pretty bad dude by the time he killed Jimmy, but that action cemented it, especially when Jimmy says he forgives him before Nucky executes him, leading Nucky to stand over him as he dies and say, “I’m not interested in your forgiveness.” At the time, I saw some people saying Buscemi didn’t deliver that line like Gandolfini or Cranston would, but that misses the point, I think. Nucky isn’t like the anti-heroes from other shows and when he acts like one he ends up hating himself for it. In this episode he even tells the bartender, played by Patricia Arquette, that he was once alive but isn’t sure about now.
That conversation with Sally the bartender is a highlight of the episode as it is one of the rare times Nucky shows an emotion other than annoyance and allows himself to open up. Compared to other leads in television dramas, Nucky is an extremely reserved character, rarely showing us what he’s thinking. It’s an interesting move on creator Terence Winter’s part and it might have made Boardwalk Empire into something different than viewers initially expected, but I think the results have been exceptional. If Nucky acted like any other gangster we see then the show would be vastly less interesting. That Nucky knows he’s losing himself and doesn’t want to makes him unique. Consider Walter White over on Breaking Bad. Does he know he’s become an awful person or has he been able to justify it all away? It seems to usually be the latter. Nucky doesn’t have that skill of justifying all of his actions; his behavior just sits inside him, slowly eating away.
Nucky isn’t the only one who is considering his past deeds either; Richard Harrow’s time with his sister is wrapping up and she tells him he needs to account for himself, something I believe Richard was hoping to accomplish at her house. Sadly, the arrival of Billings, the man who hired Richard to kill the people he’s done in since the premiere shows up and both Richard and his sister are forced to kill. Since Richard isn’t currently attached to any of the major players I’m very curious to see where he ends up. He’s a strong enough character that he can stand on his own for a bit but I have to think that Winter and the writers plan on eventually bringing him back into the fold. I’m still holding out for a redemption story for Richard, especially after we had a reminder of the hell he went through in World War One, but he might be too far gone, he might have committed too many sins.
Finally, tonight’s episode, an interesting but meandering one, also told us that Dr. Narcisse plans to move against Chalky White via Chalky’s not so loyal right hand man, Durnsley. I think we all guessed Narcisse would soon be causing trouble but I didn’t think he’d be targeting Chalky first. It seems that Chalky’s attitude towards catering to white people has ticked Narcisse off and he’s ready to send a message that blacks, or Libyans as he keeps saying, will not be held back by white America.
We know he’s going to be coming for Nucky, too, and not just because Nucky is the lead of our show. After all, is there a better representative of the evil side of white America than Nucky Thompson?
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.