The past is catching up with everyone on Boardwalk Empire, under dire circumstances. Of course, these outcomes shouldn’t come as a surprise — this is a show about gangsters. And as Justified‘s Boyd Crowder once said, that kind of chosen way of life “only ends one way.” In “Devil You Know,” Nucky had a choice: to lay down and let the sins of his past overtake him, or get up and fight. Nucky being Nucky, he chose the latter. Because otherwise, what was it all for? Hit the jump, even though “it’s all a dream to begin with. Ain’t nobody ever been free.”
As Nucky faded into drunkenness, remembering some of the darkest turns of his past (like what happened after he met Gillian: he pimped her out at age 12 to that pedophile, the Commodore), Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White met the consequences of their pasts head on.
I had hoped, rather desperately, that the wild-eyed chameleon Van Alden would find a way out of Boardwalk Empire alive. No character has undergone more change, and been so fascinatingly unpredictable as the volatile Van Alden. His journey became detached from Nucky’s fairly early on, but even when his life in no way intersected with the main plot, Michael Shannon was always a joy to watch. His later association with Al Capone and others also kept them relevant. But once George Mueller and Van Alden were outed as one and the same, perhaps that was the clue that his life was over.
Van Alden’s volatility is what has always sunk him, and his final attack on Capone was the perfect way for him to go out. He punched him, choked him, and screamed his true name and his original job when we met him — working for the U.S. Treasury Department. His final words: “and justice shall rain down upon you!” Could it have been better? Mike, the federal who got them in this pickle in the first place, shot him to save Capone. As a show of trust, Capone — via brother Ralph — handed over the ledgers for safe transport to Cicero. Mike got what he wanted in the end. Van Alden paid the price.
Eli, of course, managed to survive by telling as much truth as would let him live. He admitted this had been a federal scheme, but he omitted Mike’s name (or Mike would have surely killed him on the spot, just like Van Alden). The other thing protecting him, as has always been the case, was his association with Nucky. Though Nucky has caused the death or personal destruction of many around him, he has always kept Eli alive, knowingly or unknowingly (the flashbacks this week also showed the origins of their professional association).
Chalky’s story also came to a close in “Devil You Know,” and was another heartbreaking death that at least was given time (like Richard Harrow and now Van Alden) for a decent send off. He could have, and probably should have killed Narcisse; instead, he traded his freedom for that of Daughter Maitland and her daughter Althea (who was clearly suggested as Chalky’s daughter in this episode). He wanted her, and Althea, to be free of “men like me,” something Maybelle tragically wasn’t. The loss of his freedom was only a short-term issue, though. He probably knew Narcisse would kill him, or that he would die soon, but his death had an ambiguous tinge to it. Would Narcisse honor his word? Probably not. Chalky died never knowing if his sacrifice was worth it. But at that point, what other choice did he have?
Both Chalky and Van Alden chose a kind of “death before dishonor,” by sacrificing themselves — or at least embracing their true selves — before the end of their lives. Nucky, too, is clearly looking to fight Lucky, Meyer and Bugsy instead of admitting defeat, even though they are desperate to snuff him out like the rest of the competition, so that they can set up and rule their own crime syndicate.
The problem is, does Nucky’s struggle hold any emotional weight at this point? Or are we just tying up loose ends for the sake of it? This has always been Nucky’s story, yet, for the last few seasons, Nucky has been the least compelling character. All of the fan favorites are dead (except Eli, who has become a sneaky favorite after his fallout with Nucky two seasons ago), and Nucky without his allies isn’t particularly interesting. His struggle — detailed in the two timelines of flashbacks this season — to be something and to make something of himself are dead dreams. He had power, and he lost it. In these final chapters, he’s just an animal backed into a corner, desperate to make his life something worthwhile.
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I didn’t like this episode. But like “What Jesus Said,” I get what it was meant to do. That’s all fine and well, but almost nothing about it was enjoyable though except for Van Alden finally losing it with Capone.
— Nucky’s drunken, foul-mouthed bar companions felt like a riff on a surrealist Mad Men scene.
— So the cycle is repeating with Nucky and the young kid Mickey hired, Joel. Watch out, kid!
— “We came to … rob the joint?” – Eli, who had a great few final scenes with Van Alden (the facial expressions!)
— “This is where hope comes to get fucked in the ass” – Nucky’s charming and classy companion, played by Dagmara Dominczyk.
— “I’ll punch your tits off, you squirrel-faced cunt” – A gallant gentleman in the corner.
— “If you only helped people to help yourself … What kind of world would it be?” – Joel.
— I loved Althea’s little black doll.
— Van Alden and Chalky’s deaths were pretty telegraphed, but the street urchin being Gillian was interesting. And didn’t she always ferret away a box of keepsakes?
— “I’m just trying to get ahead” – Joel.
— R.I.P. Chalky and Van Alden. Loved y’all both.