After a scattered and disappointing season opener, Boardwalk Empire returned this week with some great setup moving forward, and some fantastic character moments in an episode that felt both insular and hopeful. I mentioned last week that the show’s oppressively dark atmosphere and over-reliance on violence would be its undoing, unless it showed signs of change and growth and a moral center. Unsurprisingly, it was Richard Harrow who bestowed us with much of that, but even Nucky had some interesting interactions in “Resignation.” Hit the jump for more.
One of the things that made “Resignation” such a great episode was that it kept a fairly narrow focus. It stuck to a theme — changing rules of the game — and played it out just among Van Alden (a.k.a. George Mueller), Richard Harrow, Nucky and Chalky. It didn’t hurt, either, that three of the four of these are fan favorites (sorry Nucky, the care cup is full when it comes to you).
Van Alden, who didn’t make an appearance at all last week (one of the reasons “New York Sour” was such a bust, frankly), opened the hour with his grim visage, delivering flowers and blows to whoever needed them. Van Alden is in an interesting spot. In some ways, he must like the flower deliveries because it’s straight, steady work. And while he also acts as muscle for O’Bannion, O’Bannion recognizes his smarts — something Van Alden clearly takes some pride in. Capone also recognizes him, and almost comes to blows over Van Alden’s assessment of the Cicero v. Chicago situation, but Van Alden, using a winning combination of wit and sincerity, is able to right things enough and end up back in the favor of the family.
At home, Van Alden struggles to balance his family life and their needs with his work, something Richard Harrow also came up against back home with his sister. Richard’s character continues to grow in such beautiful ways, and every detail of his past and present becomes part of a patchwork of one of the best ever on TV. Here, he struggles to compartmentalize his life as a contract killer with his life at home. A book his sister gives him to read is at the office of one of his marks, and he spares him. Back on the farm, he denies having a pistol, and cannot kill the family dog despite his life of carnage elsewhere. His emotional response to that act — one of the first we’ve ever see from him, if the first ever — was a watershed moment. He wants out, but as these kinds of stories teach us over and over again, your pact with the devil doesn’t end easily.
Nucky and Eddie Kessler also wrestle through their new relationship in the wake of Eddie’s trauma last year. He presents Nucky with a choice: resignation or promotion. Nucky of course chooses the later, and the two have a new dimension their relationship. Dr. Valentine Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) also mixes things up for Nucky and Chalky’s partnership. Though he equates his power with Nucky’s, all of his conversations with Chalky seem to suggest to Chalky that he does not have to be in Nucky’s shadow. He exercises his power by stopping the performers at the Onyx Club, using Dickey’s widow and her story to get him a stake in it, before killing her and dumping her to satisfy all of his needs. Business-wise, he’s expanded his empire, and personally, he’s taken care of a woman who disparages a man in order to get revenge.
The advent of Dr. Narcisse does introduce a new sparring partner for Nucky, surely, but it will be more interesting to see how (and if) he turns the tables on Chalky’s relationship with Nucky, and what that will ultimately mean. Dr. Narcisse has a clear racial agenda that’s not the kind of thing that’s being explored in other series on TV right now, and it could be what Boardwalk needs to make it compelling again. The rules are changing not only for some of these main characters as they navigate the criminal world, politics and their own moral code, but also when it comes to race: both between and within.
Boardwalk returned to a strongly character-driven model this week, thankfully, but also set up a number of interesting relationships and situations to come. There are those who prefer the more action-oriented and sweeping episodes like the premiere, and those who prefer the languid episodes that bask in time and place and person like “Resignation;” but the point is, last year taught us that Boardwalk can be very uneven between those two extremes, and this year looks to be the same (also that less Gillian and more Van Alden is a must). Ultimately, “Resignation” has given all of us a lot to look forward to that was not particularly evident in “New York Sour.”
Episode Rating: A-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Van Alden buying that box house and building it himself should be on the DVD extras.
— Ah ha! Indeed, “Knox” is not who he seems to be. He’s one of J. Edgar Hoover’s boys, though Nucky senses something is up.
— “Orphaned in April, married in May, pregnant in August, widowed in November. And they say nothing happens in Plover.” – Emma
— So who is trying to trap Richard, who ended up killing his mark?
— “Everything is only something” – Eddie, who had a stand-out episode.
— Hoover is played by Eric Ladin, who has also appeared as Betty Draper’s brother William on Mad Men, and also appeared in Generation Kill, if he looked familiar.
— Biographical note: Chalky is from Texas, and Dr. Narcisse knows his Bible. It cracked me up when one of the guys from the band piped up “John 13?” after the other read Dr. Narcisse’s letter out loud.
— Jack Daugherty resigning as the Attorney General in disgrace shows more of Nucky’s former cronies falling.
— How amazing was Michael Shannon during that political rally brawl scene? (And yes, Capone was known for helping fix elections). The way he shushed everyone at the start, and then hissed after he was hit … just unbelievable. That’s an instinct you can’t teach.
— Dr. Narcisse has a lot of aphorisms at the ready. “A thing mixed is a thing weakened.”
— “Mr. Thompson is part of everything. He is in the sky and sea. He is in the dreams of children. He is all that there is, forever.” – Eddie