Boardwalk Empire has been dredging up some of its own history this year, but whether the outcome will be different this time around is not yet clear. You wouldn’t think that, with just two brothers, the Thompson family could fold in on themselves so much, yet that’s exactly what’s happening again. Cast ultimate blame where you will (it does come down to Nucky), but the reality is that Eli is being forced to turn on his brother (again) to protect his son Willie. But Willie is also feeling an awful lot like Jimmy 2.0, a fact that Gillian hopefully won’t discover, or he might end up drowned in a whorehouse bathtub. Hit the jump for more.
Boardwalk‘s best episodes are the ones with the most narrow focus. Typically. “The Old Ship of Zion” wasn’t a stand-out episode in many ways — characters talked, alliances shifted, hard decisions were made. But it moved along with a swift narrative that kept to two parallel stories of Nucky and Chalky as they try to keep their houses clean, and weather betrayals from close associates. Still, without Richard Harrow, Van Alden, Margaret and others, something felt like it was missing. This despite the fact that, luckily, we didn’t zoom all over the map this week, keeping things close in Atlantic City.
The feeling came and went though, thanks to the gorgeous direction by Tim Van Patten, who’s fond of striking portrait shots and deep, wide scenes that really illuminate the particulars of the world. Boardwalk has always been a show that’s easy to get lost in, with its sumptuous costuming and set design and attention to period detail. So many times viewers just exist in that world for an hour, and whether anything happens or not is secondary. We’re just watching these triumphs and mistakes of the past unfold against backgrounds of ornate lampposts and tufted leather couches — punctuated by cold steel, painted with blood.
Last week I didn’t grade Boardwalk because the episode was purely functional. It was talky, but entertaining in the basic way the show always is. “The Old Ship of Zion” also advanced a lot of plot points, so it wasn’t completely an opposite take (the escalation of Chalky’s war with Narcisse, The Willie Question, Knox’s investigation), but it played out its points slowly, and in a deeply character-driven way. The violence was warranted and justified — Chalky’s fight with Purnsley was difficult to watch because it was so visceral, but also because it was an antagonistic relationship which had been building for seasons, augmented by the arrival of Narcisse. And in a show that doesn’t mind killing off favorite characters, there were real stakes: would Chalky be extinguished?
Luckily he lived, and while Nucky tuts and him and fails to understand (or care about) the nuances of Chalky’s world, his own house is about to get very messy, if it turns out that Eli made a deal to sell him out. We’ve been here before though, with the brothers torn apart. It’s for a different reason, now — Eli isn’t feeling slighted or hungry for power, he’s being blackmailed. Meanwhile, one of the most telling lines of Willie’s characters was uttered in the conversation with Nucky about what’s next for him: “I can be the person you want me to be.” Nucky paused and countered, “And you want to be?” Willie says yes, but Nucky is right to be wary. The last college boy he took under his wing to learn the business he ended up murdering.
“The Old Ship of Zion” seemed to be a warning shot — things are brewing, and no one is safe. But while Boardwalk has yet to really find its direction this year, it didn’t seem consequential in this hour. We know most of the characters well enough to just be along for the ride, which is something that this episode, in all its beautifully shot glory, illustrated beautifully.
Episode Rating: B
Musings and Miscellanea:
— It’s interesting how difficult of a time Nucky has with assertive women. But he likes it, clearly, with Sally in a way he never did with Margaret. Perhaps it’s because Sally refuses to be saved, and presented herself from the start as someone who didn’t need Nucky (though we know he loves saving people). She “earns” her money from him by her own schemes, and not because he’s giving handouts. Once Margaret started to assert herself as an independent woman, Nucky freaked out because he doesn’t like being challenged and not in full control (also, Sally — like Billie — is not tied to Nucky. He could drop them if he wanted to).
— Willie is almost exactly like young Jimmy at this point, wanting to please Nucky by getting into an industry he doesn’t fully understand the bloodlust and corruption of.
— I liked the stories the agents were telling about the gangsters, especially about how entertaining A.R. is (which we know!)
— So, Eli is basically fucked. Unless he goes double agent on this.
— Apparently Ragged Dick is a “rags to riches by your own bootstraps” story for Willie to cut his teeth on.
— Sally: “He came, he saw.” Mickey: “He conched her?”
— Nice scenes between Chalky and Maitlin this week, especially the song. Glad Purnsley’s gone after where his character went this year, but you know things are just getting started with that.
— How terrible was Narcisse’s play, and how amazing is his ego? It is limitless!
— Spearmint gum was launched as a brand in 1893, and first given away for free with a purchase of baking soda. The song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight?)” was made popular in 1959, but was originally released in 1924. And remains popular to this day!
— Chalky: “That’s the blues.” Nucky: “They picked the right color.”