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Boardwalk Empire Recap: The Dumber They Come

A fat man in ill health — let's call him Mr. MacGuffin — is being rolled down a hospital hallway, his exposed midsection looking a bit like a handful of rancid meatloaf. This is, of course, the moaning man who stumbled from the woods at the end of last week's episode, and Nucky, Eli, and Jimmy all fear he can finger Jimmy as the triggerman in the hooch heist. "How did he survive?" asks the exasperated Nucky. "He's fat," says Eli. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" asks Nucky. "He's insulated," says Eli and shrugs.

Eli then demonstrates, for the second time in two weeks, his somewhat substandard bedside manner. Last week, he clumsily tried to intimidate Margaret into falsely ratting out her dead husband (which should have been easy, given the husband was a rat) and this week he clumsily tries to snuff out MacGuffin with a pillow. He botches this, too, after being interrupted by Van Alden — who whisks MacGuffin away with a bogus "writ of searchiori" (we're guessing at the spelling) and a bunch of local hobos posing as Feds.

All of this, though, is prelude to the week's main event: The Return of Omar. (Cue Mark Morrison.) Or, rather, the return to our Sunday nights of the talented actor Michael K. Williams, who here plays the well-dressed booze-diluting bootlegger Chalky White. A carriage hearse arrives to the tune of a funeral dirge, unloading a cargo of Canadian Club, and Nucky — having replaced the sniggering Mickey Doyle with Chalky — dickers over the cut. In a sly joke, Williams drops the series' first "motherfucker," after which Nucky asks his German manservant what the word is supposed to mean.

Does anyone remember the excruciating-to-watch Deadwood subplot about Al Swearingen passing his kidney stones? Well, Boardwalk Empire out-excruciates all that with a quick primer in sexual health, circa 1920: Lucky Luciano gets treated for gonorrhea in a rather, ahem, invasive manner. (Seriously, this scene was one baroque tool away from David Cronenberg, or Se7en.) The doctor proclaims all clear, though Luciano admits to some, er, man trouble down below. No such worries for Nucky who, in the next scene, is donating money to the preemie baby hospital (do you suspect, as we do, that premature babies play a major role in his backstory?), then receiving French-style pleasure from his moll, Lucy. Later, Lucy pays a visit to the dress shop where Margaret Schroeder now has a job (thanks to Nucky), thus supporting the heretofore unconfirmed rumor that Lucy does occasionally wear clothes.

Nucky is clearly having doubts about the viability of his relationship with Lucy — and if there's another actor on earth, other than Buscemi, who can so skillfully convey numbing ennui while being orally pleasured, we've not yet seen it. This point is driven home, hammer-style, a few scenes later, when Nucky and some fat cats are serenaded by a vaudevillian singing "The Dumber They Come, the Better I Like It."

Which brings us back to the rapidly expiring Mr. MacGuffin. After shanghaiing the witness from the hospital, Van Alden decides to take him on a bumpy road trip in a Model T to New York. (This is questionable judgment.) Naturally, MacGuffin doesn't fare well, so Van Alden crashes a dentist's office to interrogate the witness — by sticking his hand into the festering shotgun wound. The witness expires (after croaking out a single, incriminating "Jimmy" — thank you, Mr. MacGuffin, your work here is done), and Van Alden launches into a grim speech about how "any man who worships the Beast, he shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God." And, apparently, have Van Alden twisting his fist in your open gut.

With Jimmy thus fingered, Rothstein dispatches limp-dick Luciano to snuff him, and Nucky dispatches Jimmy to anyplace but Atlantic City. Jimmy eventually winds up on the titular Broadway Limited, heading toward Chicago (and Capone — remember him? This week's episode could have used a dose of his madcap violence). Jimmy thinks fondly of the little son that apparently isn't his (damn those philandering photographers!) and reads Free Air, by Sinclair Lewis, the second lit reference in two weeks. English majors — any hints on the significance?

Meanwhile, Giggly Mickey cuts a deal with his Italian backers (all named, amusingly, after Popes) to try to run Chalky out of town. But clearly he's never seen The Wire, because OMAR DON'T SCARE.

Doyle's dirty deed: lynching a young man in Chalky's employ. Chalky's payback: thwarted for now. With an election looming, Nucky won't let Chalky start a race-based war, and in a powerful scene, Eli plugs two bullets into the lynched man's corpse to facilitate a cooked-up lie about a cuckold's revenge. The episode ends with the same dirge we heard as the hooch carriage arrived at Chalky's, so the foreshadowing becomes clear: Death was headed to Atlantic City, riding shotgun in that hearse full of booze.

Is it any wonder we, and Nucky, notice the dirty tracks he leaves as he strides across the pristine hotel lobby? Remember how easy this was all supposed to be? Smuggle the booze? Sell the booze? Get rich? Or, apparently, die trying. Now how long before Chalky exacts some measure of payback? Or Nucky folds under the twinned weight of Eli's clumsy fumbles and Van Alden's unwavering stares?

Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO