I’ve been enjoying this season of Boardwalk Empire, but have been wondering if its meandering might be getting to be just a little too much. Tonight, the season really started to come together in the best episode so far. The opening scene between Nucky and Margaret is an absolute master class in writing, directing, and acting. There’s so much history between these two characters, yet very little of it is actually talked about; it’s only hinted at. The most devastating moment comes when Nucky makes a joke that he wouldn’t put anything alive in a box and immediately realizes he’s just brought back memories of the death of Owen Sleater. The look on Buscemi’s face is perfect, a flash of horror and sadness, a look we rarely see from the normally composed Nucky Thompson.
This season has so far been very interested in deconstructing Nucky Thompson and Nucky himself seems to be interested in this to boot. Once more he talks with Patricia Arquette’s Sally Wheet about how nothing can be simple like it used to be, like when Eddie was alive and he didn’t have to worry about loyalty and whether his world might collapse in on him in the blink of an eye. Simply put, he regrets his decisions and despises where he is in life, his money be damned. He knows he’s taken the wrong path but sees no way back.
Sally doesn’t have much time for Nucky’s Don Draper-like self-reflection and promptly punches him in the face. In a moment of hilarious physical comedy, Nucky falls right off his bar stool. The two get into a physical fight before it turns sexual. I think we’ve all seen moments like this play out before in films and shows, but it works here more than elsewhere because Nucky is a fully realized character and we know he’s yearning for someone he can trust and, oddly enough, Sally’s bluntness is a level of honesty he’s not been able to experience in quite some time. Even his relationship with Margaret, when it was at its best, was not as open as this one, especially considering Nucky puts Sally in charge of his day to day operations in Florida. I’m glad we’ll be seeing more of Sally because she brings forth an interesting side of Nucky, one that could drive him to a different, more constructive path. In addition, this show could use a powerful female character and I think Sally might fill that role provided she sticks around and I can’t see her not considering she’s now Nucky’s eyes and ears in Florida.
Even with his dealings in Florida going well, the death of Eddie Kessler hangs over Nucky and the rest of his group, forcing them to be even more introspective than usual. Eli breaks down after learning that Eddie’s last moments included him writing a letter to a son he was estranged from. I’ve not been a fan of Eli’s son’s plot, but this was a nice bit of payoff and a fine acting job by the reliable Shea Whigham. What contrasts Boardwalk Empire with other anti-hero dramas is that a number of the characters actively regret who they’ve become. Nucky, Eli, Margaret, Richard, and even Gillian to an extent are not happy with where they’ve ended up. Regret of who you are has been a major theme this season and it comes to prominence in tonight’s episode, likely one of the reasons this was the season’s highlight so far.
The return of Richard plays nicely into this theme, too. Remember how a few weeks ago I hoped Richard might go down a path of redemption? Well, so far it looks like that might happen. He’s returned to Jimmy’s son and the family that now watches him. He’s reluctant, sure, but gives in and joins Julia Sagrosky, apparently deciding to become a father to Jimmy’s son and, perhaps, a husband of sorts to Julia. Time will tell if this lasts but I hope it does because a redemption story would be more interesting than just seeing Richard kill more people; we have plenty of other characters more than willing to take over that job.
Even Lucky Luciano regrets where he’s ended up. He’s trying to step out of boss Joe Masseria’s shadow but isn’t quite willing to commit when he learns that a fellow investor is an associate of Masseria’s. Luciano breaks with Meyer Lansky over how to handle this and the friendship between the two looks to be permanently severed. In this episode, it’s really only Meyer who seems to be somewhat satisfied with his position.
“The North Star” definitely acted as a character episode but there were a number of plot developments, too. Agent Knox has more information than ever on the Thompson operation and Chalky has fallen for a singer who works for Dr. Narcisse, this season’s main antagonist. No one is wondering if that will end badly, eh? Despite being an almost violentless episode, there’s the feeling that events will explode shortly, be it with Dr. Narcisse (an unseen presence tonight but a presence nonetheless), Agent Knox, or Joe Masseria.
I’m curious to see where we go from here because a number of our characters are having inner battles while also facing growing external threats. This is not particularly original, it’s the plot of most drama since the dawn of time, but the inner battles are almost more deadly than the external ones this season; you need only look at Eddie Kessler’s suicide to see that.
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.