The split between character moments and plot points in this season of Boardwalk Empire has certainly improved on last year. “White Horse Pike” is a great example of an episode where character development doesn’t have to suffer just because the pawns need to be put into place. Things are heading towards a battle, as they always do around this point in a Boardwalk season, but there are a lot of emotional storylines that are also set to — potentially — explode. Hit the jump for why, as Eli says, we need to get it sorted!
However you ultimately feel about Dr. Narcisse as a character, this season hasn’t been taken over by him in the way Gyp dominated things last year, which has felt like a good thing. As “White Horse Pike” made clear, his role is both overt and subversive. For a (presumably) one-season villain, he’s done a lot to repair the show in a way that will continue after he’s gone. Mostly, that he has been a narratively unifying factor, something the show desperately needed. Narcisse has helped streamline things: his connection to both Harlem and the heroin trade have had implications in all of the story lines — if not directly, then thematically.
Even in “White Horse Pike,” which jumped around a fair amount, Narcisse kept popping up at unexpected moments. He shows up at the table with Masseria to discuss the heroin trade coming up from Tampa. He sits in the dark at the Onyx when Maybelle stumbles upon him waiting for her father. He cozies up to the mayor and gets him to disobey Nucky’s favor to save Chalky. While he didn’t appear in Capone’s story this week personally, the idea of an upstart vying for territory was something that played heavily into Al’s story with Joe Torrio, who quietly decided he was done with Capone’s arrogant ways.
As for another new face this year, Knox also haunted things in the hour, appearing — like Narcisse — either as a direct threat, or a shadow. (But Knox seems like he could be around much longer than Narcisse, replacing the lawman character the show abandoned with Van Alden, whereas Narcisse seems set to expire soon). Though Eli seems to be cooperating with him, it’s only to a point. His tip about heroin sticks, but was that by accident, or did Nucky let him know? Is Nucky in on Eli’s dealings with Knox? It seems unlikely that Eli would betray Nucky again given all that’s happened between him, but the point may be moot if Knox is going to be ignored for his findings at the office anyway.
Speaking of unholy alliances, it’s nice when there are unexpected character pairings or overlaps, like Margaret’s dinner with Rothstein. (With as many characters as the show has, they seem to often stay within certain spheres). Her business deal seem a savvy choice for her, but it also revealed something important about her relationship with Nucky. She wants to earn her keep, it seems, and not have to feel in debt to him. But Margaret’s burgeoning independence — also addressed last year — is coming late in the season, and doesn’t seem like it will ever be fully formed or as lauded as Sally’s or even Emma’s (Richard’s sister), which is a shame for a character who started out so central and is now relegated to a third-tier plot.
Change has been in the air this season. Though some things are the same — Boardwalk usually blows things wide-open to start the season, then brings everyone back together in the end for a showdown — this season has felt more intimate overall, no matter how far-flung things started out. Characters we care about have grown and changed, and Nucky stayed out of things more so than the prior season, acting as a puppeteer (and becoming a resource for people like Chalky, Richard, Eli and Willie in a way he hasn’t been since the first season). That role suits him. The change this year has been to take things back to Season One — Nucky pulling strings, a new Van Alden (Knox) on the trail, and a new Jimmy (Willie) learning the highs and lows of the business. The new alliances have kept things fresh, but it seems the best way forward for Boardwalk has been to look back.
Episode Rating: A-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— This episode was directed by Jake Paltrow, brother to Gwyneth.
— I love the recurring device of Rothstein always drinking milk for his stomach ulcers. His business dealings with Margaret were great, too, especially her dismay at him mentioning he’s married. “You must be joking”
— Very nervous for Maybelle and the White family now that Narcisse knows who they are, while Chalky’s in the wind.
— Chalky knows when he’s being played, thank goodness. The show couldn’t do without him.
— I like that Margaret has helped introduce a stock market storyline, even though it’s only 1924 (I believe?) on the show.
— Boardwalk has shown some of the impact of Narcisse and Chalky’s battle within the black community, but there could be more of that. It’s mostly just alluded to, like the end of Maybelle’s engagement (interesting, given the fact her fiance knew all about Nucky’s dealings from last year).
— Sally is a firecracker! I like it. I just wish Margaret’s character had ever been treated with that kind of respect.
— “What do a bar and a woman have in common? Liquor in the front, poker in the back.”
— Even though Al annoyed Joe, wasn’t it drastic for him to attempt to kill them all? Can’t trust a gangster!
— “Pop, isn’t this what we do?” – Willie