Poor Boardwalk Empire. It’s unfair that the beginning of this season has to go up against the final four episodes of Breaking Bad (OH MY GOD, I KNOW). I had to give myself some time after watching Breaking Bad before I went to see what our friend Nucky Thompson was up to, knowing that Breaking Bad’s insane episode might color my enjoyment of HBO’s drama.
I shouldn’t have worried, because not only did Boardwalk Empire produce an enjoyable episode, it also provided one that made me laugh many, many times. The first laugh came with the return of former Treasury Agent Nelson Van Alden, played by the wondrous Michael Shannon. Now working for the mobster O’Bannion, Van Alden pays visits to a new couple, a man who lost a family member, and someone who owes O’Bannion money. Van Alden speaks in the same disinterested voice in every encounter. He does so again later on when he sees his wife has bought new furniture. She’s absolutely thrilled and he replies almost monotone, “Oh, my.”
Of all the character arcs on Boardwalk Empire, it’s undoubtedly Van Alden’s which is the most unrealistic. He was so intensely fixated on his job in season one that it seems a large leap he’d suddenly take up with the mob. The show does its best to make it work but the seams were showing in tonight’s episode as Van Alden went from working for O’Bannion to working for Al Capone. Now we know Van Alden needs money and that he’s gotten in over his head in the past and needed assistance from O’Bannion’s crew, but his sudden admission to Capone about what O’Bannion was planning didn’t sell well with me. Luckily, Capone is such a riveting character that the idea of him hanging out with Van Alden is almost appealing enough that I can overlook the unlikely character development. Still, it’s a point against the episode. It’s clear that Van Alden was too talented at his job as a Treasury Agent that it’d be annoying to see Nucky confound him again and again which meant the writers had to do something else with him. Having him end up in illegal activity in Cicero is an intriguing choice, yes, but I don’t know if it completely works.
The rest, though, was quite good. We see more of Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White as he tries to get his club hopping while he comes to the sad realization that he’s being talked down to by all the white visitors; they get a kick out of Chalky but they still rub his head for good luck, as if he’s a crazy little kid who just hit the jackpot.
It’s another example of the show’s new emphasis on race relations and we see it play out even more with the arrival of Dr. Valentin Narcisse, played by Jeffrey Wright who is the current incarnation of Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig James Bond films. Narcisse make an immediate impact as he points out to Chalky that even though he owns this new Onyx Club, he still looks like a servant, struggling to make sure the white patrons are happy. Chalky doesn’t take kindly to this but we see in his angry reaction that he thinks there’s more than just a kernel of truth in Narcisse’s statement. Narcisse goes further when Chalky and Nucky appear together, pointing out that Nucky isn’t a friend no matter what Chalky says; Nucky will always view himself as something more than Chalky.
In the episode’s final moments, Narcisse kills the white woman who attempted to play Dunn in the last episode after she suggests lynching Dunn. Before he kills her, he makes a comment about how mixing dilutes and while the woman doesn’t understand what he means, the viewer understands that Narcisse is against any sort of mixed race relations. I don’t think it’s too much of a stress to think that Narcisse is interested in a race war of some sort. If played well and Narcisse isn’t just used as another villain then this could be a fascinating avenue that Boardwalk Empire is exploring. An examination of racial conflicts is, sadly, still as relevant today as it was in the 1920s, albeit in a different way. Here’s hoping the show takes a mature route with it and doesn’t use it as an excuse to get some guns blaring before it’s all wiped away at season’s end. I have faith the writers will nail it.
Another plot of note revolves around our old friend Richard Harrow who, shockingly, can no longer bring himself to kill. We learn that the men he killed last week were men who tried to kill a fellow he met on a train. The fellow in question offered Harrow $1,000 for each kill (that’s a hell of a lot of money in the 1920s). For some reason, Harrow just can’t kill the last man. Perhaps seeing his sister, being back among his own family, has brought something back, relit a spark that World War One had previously squelched. I’m not sure if a redemption story is on the horizon for Richard but I’d definitely be game for one. He’s always been one of the show’s most arresting characters and I appreciate how Terence Winter has used him as a way of showing the scars of World War One still affect citizens every day, even in the roaring twenties.
Even though it occupies only a few moments, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sudden sense of self-respect Nucky’s assistant, Eddie, has gained after he received a bullet wound last season. I’m not sure where this is headed but since Nucky is having him deal with his money I’m thinking that Eddie is going to be a major player going forward. Here’s hoping he doesn’t become a fall man for Nucky Thompson’s sins.
As I wait for next week’s episode, I’m going to keep hearing the cool yet intimidating voice of Dr. Narcisse asking, “What shall we do, Mr. White, what shall we do?” I’m more excited for this season than I was after last week’s quieter beginning.
On a personal note, this episode was written by Dennis Lehane, a writer I respect and met at a book signing. He’s one of the nicest writers I’ve met (I went to a ton of book signings when working for the independent bookstore Dead End Books) and one of the smartest. He’ll be a great addition to the show.
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.