TV Recap: Boardwalk Empire: "The Old Ship of Zion," or That Fight Ruined the Décor by Donald McCarthy

Boardwalk Empire has long had outstanding direction thanks to a group of A-listers like Tim Van Patten, Allen Coulter, and, of course, executive producer Martin Scorsese. Likely because of Scorsese’s involvement with the show, direction has been such a focal point and tonight’s episode is no different. Helmed by Tim Van Patten, we have beautiful scene after beautiful scene. The most striking one comes just before the end, between Chalky and Dunn Purnsley. The fight scene, which is ugly and truly feels like a fight of desperation, is outmatched by the moments directly before it, when we know violence is about to erupt but we’re just not sure when and how. The shot of Dunn Purnsley at the door, his cruel smile showing us his gold tooth, is absolutely perfect. It’s impressive how actor Erik LaRey Harvey is able to look utterly evil while still having a friendly face. There’s nothing I can point to and say, “That’s what’s off about his look.” He just manages to create a general appearance that tells us violence is about to happen without becoming overtly menacing. We saw that look at the end of last week’s episode, right before he killed the deacon, and we see it once more tonight, before he tries to kill Chalky. I was a little iffy on the killing of the deacon last week as it seemed predictable and a little unnecessary but after tonight I think it worked as some great foreshadowing.

Adding exquisite tension to the scene is the verbal faceoff between Chalky and Dunn. They are at opposite ends of the room and Van Patten shoots them from afar, as if giving them room to suddenly bolt forward. The show gives us no relief as the conversation goes on for some time and it takes a while before Chalky finally reveals that he knows Dunn is here to kill him on behalf of Dr. Narcisse (who, hilariously, is a terrible playwright in addition to being an activist and heroin dealer).

Actor Michael Kenneth Williams has done great work as Chalky, but he’s been one of the show’s underutilized characters for much of its run, especially in the first season. He’s been used well so far this year and I was worried he might be killed off tonight. His death would make for a great moment, but I think it’d be a letdown in the long run since there’s so much more you can do with a black leader in Atlantic City who is allied with Nucky.

So thankfully, he survived and Dunn Purnsley died at the hands of Daughter Maitland (played by Margot Bingham who is singing and acting extremely well- double talent!). Their fight reminded me a little of the one between Ralph Ciferetto and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos episode “Whoever Did This” in that they both feel real and un-choreographed; there were no larger than life moments, no spins and high kicks, no sudden sword fights. We just saw two men on the floor trying to brutally murder the other.

On the flip side, we have the last scene, also fantastically directed, between Eli and Nucky. After being approached by the FBI and likely giving in to them, we have a long shot of Eli heading up to his house, looking absolutely ruined. When he steps inside and sees his son returned home, the son he most likely just betrayed Nucky for, only to see Nucky in the room, too, is devastating. Similar to the scene between Dunn and Chalky, we get extreme close-ups and shots from afar, particularly of the whole family singing a pleasant song that takes a very ominous turn over the end credits.

Eli has long been one of my favorite characters on the show and I’m glad he’s getting more screen time and that the screen time will be taken up by the relationship with Nucky. The love-hate relationship between the two of them has been fascinating and while it’s not a huge shocker that Eli would talk to Agent Knox (who is really named Agent Tolliver), you can still see that Eli hates himself for doing it despite the fact that Nucky has thrown him under the bus in the past. Will this Eli plot develop the same way the Adriana plot did in The Sopranos? I’m not sure, but I hope not; the Adriana plot worked wonders for The Sopranos but it wouldn’t work as well in Boardwalk Empire. I want this to be a complicated event for Nucky, to see him really have to deal with a large FBI presence. The Federal government has been onto Nucky in the past for election fraud, but I want to see him have to take on the big guns. We’ve seen Nucky battle all sorts of gangsters so I think it’d behoove the writers to give him a new, almost unbeatable threat and see how, or if, he can still squirm away with his friends and allies intact. The pressing of some sort of reset button at the end of this season, with little difference from how it started, would be a real disappointment. I don’t think the show will go that route as it hasn’t so far.

With four episodes left, we have more up in the air than ever. Not seen in this episode are Capone, Van Alden, Richard, Gillian, and Rothstein (although his losses at gambling do get a mention) and all of them have plots to be wrapped up. Plots such as Capone’s and Van Alden’s are particularly large and, if the two end up going to war with O’Bannion, will likely end up affecting Nucky all the way in Atlantic City. In past seasons, seemingly superfluous storylines ended up colliding in the last couple of episodes in surprising fashion. I have a feeling we’re about to see that happen once more.


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.