Let’s talk about tension because this episode was absolutely packed with it. We start off with Eli sitting with Agent Knox, telling him what he knows about Johnny Torrio’s operation in Chicago. Beginning with Eli talking to the Feds is a smart move as it gets us on the edge of our seats right away, something Boardwalk Empire occasionally forgets to do when they have more lethargic openings- although, credit where credit is due, they’ve gone away from that a hell of a lot this season, with this being just the latest example.
Upping the ante further, is the appearance of Agent Know in Eli’s dining room come the following day. Visuals have always been Boardwalk Empire’s best friend and the simultaneously composed and menacing Agent Knox suddenly appearing at the head of the table is a great example of that. I know I immediately raised me eyebrows upon seeing him there and Shea Wigham does his normal excellent work as we see Eli try and hide his contempt for Knox from his family while still trying to get them out of the room. Once the family leaves, Eli tries the normal “what do you think you’re doing (something Nucky tries, just as uselessly, with Dr. Narcisse later on)?” but that goes nowhere as Knox grabs Eli and tells him he knows Eli has been feeding him some bullshit information. The scene could play out as something we’ve seen before, but we get another great visual: Knox knocks over coffee and the camera gives us an up close view of the coffee staining the tablecloth. It’s a great symbolic note, letting us know that something nasty is coming and lo and behold just that happens only a few minutes later.
Chalky White’s attack on Dr. Narcisse’s office is shocking in its suddenness because it comes both early in the hour and because it didn’t seem likely that Chalky would go to all-out war without Nucky’s help (or, at least, not to me). This comes with another phenomenal visual: Chalky’s gang, dressed darkly, approaching the office at night while Dr. Narcisse and his associates talk inside, completely oblivious to what’s about to happen.
As Dr. Narcisse survived, I wondered just how long it’d take for him to strike back and it’s interesting that he went right to Nucky, as if he expected Nucky to be able to reel Chalky back in. We know now that Chalky isn’t so easy to handle and I expect Nucky does, too. He shows a brave face to Narcisse but it’s clear he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen next and a Nucky who isn’t in complete control is a very unhappy Nucky. Witness the look on his face, played all the better by a perfectly timed push in on him by the camera, when Dr. Narcisse accompanies Masseria later on. You can see in his expression that he’s in a lot deeper than he realized and I had the same reaction. Nucky seems like he’s fucked, to put it plainly. He has Masseria and Narcisse biting at his heels and he has Knox’s investigation coming down from above. These two threats have gone mostly unnoticed by Nucky so far this year, something that has also added to the tension because we know more than he does, and now that it’s come out there’s not much left for him to do but fight or give in. For a moment, when he offered up Chalky, I thought he might have chosen the latter option and decided to do away with Chalky like he did Jimmy at the end of season two. To my relief, he intended to get Chalky the hell out of Atlantic City.
Unfortunately, Mayor Bader is now in Narcisse’s pocket and he sends two of his men to kill Chalky. I was pretty damn certain Chalky was going to bite it. He didn’t, which makes me both glad but also a little worried.
I’ve talked a lot about the structural differences between this season and the last few and while this episode did somewhat continue that streak, we are also setting up for yet another big confrontation finale with the Big Bad. I don’t know that we need another one of those. Could the show pull it off and somehow make it work perfectly? Likely, but I’m not sure I can think of how off the top of my head. I’m still hopeful that the show will zig instead of zag, it’s done a lot of that this season, but I do still worry.
I’m not going to hold it against tonight, though, as we were presented with one of the tensest episodes yet, with every scene practically warning us that the world is going to come crashing down. Even minor characters, such as Chalky’s daughter, not only seem like they’re in danger, but that their death would be a massive shift in the show.
This all goes back to the death of Jimmy in season two. Jimmy’s death told us this show was playing for keeps, similar to the death of a certain character in Game of Thrones’ first season (or first book), and that’s colored the show to excellent effect.
So tonight we have the season’s best effort so far. This season has had some interesting choices and has gone down avenues I definitely didn’t expect. Granted, it hasn’t had a homerun episode so far, such as last season’s “Sunday Best” which came midseason, although tonight’s is damn close and I’ll be giving it the 5/5 treatment. Big kudos to newbie director Jake Paltrow who did a phenomenal job directing. I want to see a lot more of him.
Lastly, I understand Entertainment Weekly gave our show a negative review recently which just serves as yet another reminder not to take Entertainment Weekly seriously…
Oh, and we need a whole episode of Margaret and Rothstein because that was seriously fun. I love how happy she looked when she realized she took the initiative in the deal. I know she gets shit on from some quarters but I adore the character.
See you guys next week!
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.