Man, the titles for episodes this season have not been very inspiring, have they? This week’s is especially blasé. In seasons past we had titles like “You’d Be Surprised” or “Under God’s Power She Flourishes.” I miss those nifty titles.
But I digress. The titles don’t speak to the quality of the episodes. With three more to go after tonight we’re now entering the endgame. This season of Boardwalk Empire has been strangely structured, with character deaths like Eddie’s occurring as early as the fifth episode when we’ve been primed to expect them only close to the end of the season. I think it’s good we’re getting this switch even if it means the show sometimes seems a little more detached from the plot than usual; I like experimentation and can forgive some small misgivings as opposed to when the narrative structure is fairly predictable. Take last week’s episode which felt more like an episode that would come near the end of the season, likely the penultimate episode. As a matter of fact, Eli turning against Nucky was an end of season cliffhanger way back in season one. Now we’re getting it earlier on, which makes it feel like anything can happen.
This sense of unpredictability played nicely into tonight’s episode as I genuinely considered whether or not Chalky would kill Dr. Narcisse. After Nucky put the kibosh on the plan, I knew it wouldn’t be long before Chalky took matters into his own hands, especially after the beating of Daughter Maitland. Let’s pause and talk about that development for a moment. We see in this episode just how devoted Daughter is to Dr. Narcisse, claiming she believes he sees religious visions and doesn’t want Chalky to hurt him because his beating was for her own good. In a show that doesn’t have a terribly large percentage of women it can be a little uncomfortable to have one of them act as a beaten spouse. I think the show mostly gets away with it as we’re not shown most of the violence, but if Daughter ends up just being a sacrificial lamb for the plot I’m going to be rather disappointed. I’ll also be disappointed if Patricia Arquette doesn’t stick around as she’s been a fun addition to the show and I like her relationship with Nucky, especially since it’s more age appropriate than the ones he’s had in the past. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with dating someone younger, but so many shows have had the male lead end up with younger woman that it’s somewhat refreshing to have Nucky with a woman his age even if the show feels the need to have Patricia Arquette’s breasts on display as much as possible.
Over in Chicago, we have Van Alden reasserting his old self. His murder of the three men from his old job is simultaneously shocking and invigorating. It’s a cold, nasty scene, but Van Alden saying, “I am calm” right before the bullets fly tells us that the more violent, unhinged man of season one still lurks beneath the surface. His confession, or maybe even threat, to Dean O’Bannion contains a nice recap of Van Alden’s adventures and ends with him saying he once believed in God, but no longer does. The speech does a lot of work at tying together Van Alden’s many personalities over the last two seasons and I’m glad the show addressed how much he’s changed. If it relies too heavily on actor Michael Shannon pulling the characterization off, which he has so far because he’s amazing, and not addressing it in the writing then we’d end up having a big problem down the line. His return to form means Van Alden is the only character tonight who is able to assert himself as Chalky, Nucky, and Rothstein are all still on shaky ground.
Not asserting himself but still getting what he wants is Richard Harrow. The show has built up so much good will towards Richard despite his violent past that the moment when Richard becomes engaged to Julia is extremely touching and I was genuinely happy for him. Boardwalk Empire often plays long games with its characters and will take a while to pay off some plots; this can be frustrating in the short term but I think it ends up paying off stronger. Had Richard become engaged to Julia last season, the moment would not have had nearly as much of an effect.
On the opposite end is Arnold Rothstein who isn’t even a shadow of the man he was at the start of this season. Nearly broke, Rothstein is forced to make a pathetic, obvious bluff that Nucky sees right through. It’s really only out of pity that Nucky gives in at all. Rothstein’s gambling has been a part of his character since day one so it’s interesting to see it begin to unravel him. We find out that he’s been forced out of the heroin business due to Masseria moving more and more into his territory. Rothstein is going to have to do a hell of a lot to get back in the game.
I’m holding out on mentioning Gillian’s plot yet because so much of it is up in the air, but I do want to mention that Gretchen Mol does some fabulous work tonight. Her character is so despicable that it’s easy to forget how great an actress she is.
I know I’ve said this the last few weeks, but it’s interesting how low key the threats are this close to the end. Dean O’Bannion is gone, meaning there’s no obvious threat in Chicago. Something new could develop, of course, but there’s not much time for it to. Dr. Narcisse is a threat, sure, but he’s more a threat to Chalky than to Nucky at this point. Nucky’s biggest threat is his own brother and that’s one that might simmer for a while. I’m very interested in how this season wraps up because I’m curious if Boardwalk Empire will take some interesting structural turns.
Note: The original version of this article referred to Patricia Arquette as Patricia Clarkson. I’ve fixed it so there’s no confusion.
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.