Even for someone who likes Boardwalk Empire‘s slowest and most meditative episodes, “What Jesus Said” necessitated the use of caffeine to get through it. The summation of its vignettes seemed to be that you can’t escape who you are. In the end, almost everyone was haunted by the past, or faced with the reality of a life they preferred to keep hidden. Boardwalk‘s final season seems to be, in part, about consequence, and there’s no better way to drive that home than to consider what it is that got you there. Hit the jump, boy!
I’m still not entirely convinced that the weekly convention of Nucky’s childhood flashbacks are working, but they do break up an otherwise dull parade of conversations. By working, I mean that if they are intended to make us feel closer to, or somehow sorry for Nucky because of the trials of his upbringing, it’s not really connecting in that way. How Nucky met Mabel, for instance, felt like one of the most hackneyed revelations (spotted from the moment the girl came on screen) that the show has ever done. And yet, admittedly, the juxtaposition of that with Nucky awakening from the reverie to find Margaret sitting there was a great one.
Margaret, of course, represents what Nucky had been striving to find — a strong, loving wife, children, a stable home. But the reality is that their life together was none of those things, almost always because of Nucky. Him waking up to find Margaret there made him smile, but it’s unlikely that will last. Margaret is back because Arnold Rothstein’s widow Caroline is threatening her with a sound lawsuit for helping to siphon funds from her deceased husband’s account. Margaret, ever-crafty (just as she was when she and Nucky first met), is back to use Nucky for his money and/or protection. And Nucky, as always, is using her to help plant his legacy.
Margaret has, of course, tried everything, both in her relationship with Nucky and afterwards, to create a new versions of herself. She desired to reposition herself as a society lady after her hard-scrabble upbringing and abusive past, but could never quite break through. When she tried instead to become a reformer for women’s health, she was denied that as well. Her affair with Owen — in which she tried to run away with him to live a more honest and purposeful life — ended in utter tragedy. After she left Nucky, though, she still wasn’t fully free. Rothstein used her for insider tips, and now, that alliance has caused her to have to return to Nucky once again. She cannot escape.
The series of scenes between Nucky and his new potential business partner also played into this theme of history. He doesn’t drink, so as not to allow people to think all Irish Catholics are drunks. Nucky plays along, but looks longingly at a glass of wine, wondering perhaps too if that’s a mistake he made too often. And as much as Nucky is trying to rebrand himself as “an advocate for repeal,” he cannot run from his gangster past and persona, which is causing politicians and businessmen, post-Gilded Age, to distance themselves from him. The time of the bosses is over (for now, and at least, openly).
Woven throughout these narratives was a very drawn-out and difficult series of scenes with Chalky and Buck, Chalky’s fellow convict companion, as they attempted to rob two white women. The experience felt a lot like a stage play, and it was in many ways fascinating to watch Chalky’s choice of action and inaction, and the when and the where of it. And while Buck seemed like the unstable one, he actually knew the truth the whole time, and tried to get it out of the women: they were there alone, the safe was in the house, and they did have the combination.
Whether or not this was the exact house that once threw parties where Buck was forced to labor without pay (or at least, tips) is uncertain, but it also ultimately didn’t matter. The point was to show Chalky weighing up his options about who he is in the wake of Maybelle’s death, and his own seven years of incarceration. When the mother, Marie, says she knows Chalky is not like Buck, he assures her menacingly that he is. But later, when Buck continued to escalate his aggression and violence towards Fern, Chalky did feel compelled to step in, finally killing him. Fern, gun in tied-up hands, asked him if Maybelle knew what he is. Chalky acknowledged that, and in doing so, acknowledged who and what is and continues to be.
These struggles against the past, and a reconciliation with the present and future, will surely all continue to play out through this final season, though the ultimate focus will be on legacy, and how those other elements play into it for Nucky and the others. To steal a line from Justified‘s Boyd Crowder, “our chosen way of life only has one ending, and I came to peace with that a long time ago.” It’s time for Nucky to do the same, and settle his affairs before it does.
Episode Rating: B
— I struggle to know how to grade an episode like this, because while it’s so thematically rich, it wasn’t the most engaging hour.
— I think part of the problem with the Chalky story this week is how much of it was seemingly, at first, about Buck, a character we don’t know and definitely don’t care much about. Though ultimately it revealed important things about Chalky, it still a took a heck of a long time to get there.
— I don’t know that any child of Mabel’s age sounds like that (except for showbiz children, and even then), but it did reveal that Nucky has always had a thing for strong women who like to put him in his place.
— So reporter Nelli Bly sent Nucky a letter?
— Nucky got one hell of an education working for the Commodore at that hotel.
— The references to Rothstein and his milk slayed me. Loved that they kept that going.
— I liked the little references too to long distance calls taking forever to connect, and about Coca-Cola and rum.
— The scene between Sally and Nucky, with them listening to the radio together, was swell.
— “Holy mackerel!” “Is that what I smell?” – the disgusting pigs from GM.
— The guy furiously masturbating in the corner to the burlesque dancer was so gross and hilarious.
— That kid O’Doyle hires for his work crew is going to be trouble, isn’t he?
— I couldn’t be less interested in Narcisse and Lucky’s machinations, nor in the shooting up of Narcisse’s whorehouse to send a message from Maranzano.
— Speaking of bloody messages, did Meyer get Nucky’s? No word on that yet.
— I love it when Margaret tries to play dumb. It’s so fake but also cute.
— “Boy!” – everyone in Atlantic City to Nucky when he was working.