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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Pranksters of a Violent Sort

We open in Illinois! How about that? The thing is, this is the episode where the Chicago axis starts to feel like a proper part of season four. And it’s our poor ol’ foul-smelling, big-hearted lug Jake Guzik absolutely trudging up the stairs, in order to make collections for Capone & Co. He just barely chokes out his name audibly enough for the money-owing sap to know to come to the door. The guy says, “you can set your watch by the Capones,” as though it were possible not to take note of Jake’s rather obvious cardiovascular distress. He hands over a twenty.

“The … vig,” Jake gets out, with much labor. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the guy says, so 25 bucks — and starts to talk about what kind of bill Jake might be able to make change from. Again with the trying to make a man’s possible last breath be about small talk! This is very odd behavior? Even if you don’t much like paying your debts? In any case, Jake makes good on the long-telegraphed tumble down half the stairs. Whether he’s croaked fully or not, it looks like there might be an opening at Capone’s doings in the near future. Is there a character in or around Chicago who might be undertasked?

That’ll have to wait — because next we whip around to Washington, D.C., where it’s taken Agent Knox (unseen last week) a bit of time to put together a right-nice map of these United States for J. Edgar Hoover. There are little pictures of Nucky and Eli next to the dots of cities and everything. Knox goes on about a bunch of stuff it seemed pretty clear they knew a couple of weeks ago. It’s probably important for Hoover and Knox to repeat everything for the new gumshoes in the room, though. (That’s incipient Big Brother for you, isn’t it? Bureaucracy up the wazoo.)

Hoover wants to know whether the Thompson brothers are just crooks unto themselves, or part of a conspiracy. And then Knox starts to hypothesize about the Thompsons’ doings with a variety of other regional no-good-niks, like Torrio in Illinois, or Waxey Gordon in Philadelphia. “Until you can prove conspiracy, you have nothing,” Hoover notes. Knox promises to get proof by finding the weakest link in Nucky’s chain of command, and breaking it.

Cut to Atlantic City, where Nucky is handing his hat to Eddie, and saying that he’ll take a ham sandwich and a beer (even though Eddie stopped taking meal orders last week). Eddie sensibly says he’ll have Tom do it when Tom punches in for his lickspittle shift, but that in the meantime, he’s got to head off and make deposits. Nucky looks faintly as though he’s wishing Eddie would do him a solid sandwich run, just for old times' sake, but accepts this and says he doesn’t even need to check Eddie’s math. (Apparently, Tom also needs to get milk and cake for Rothstein’s forthcoming visit; Nucky wants him receptive to a proposal.)

Nucky tells Eddie to take 10,000 bucks out of the Chelsea branch and meet a train later that day. Eddie asks what for, and Nucky jokes that Eddie should hop aboard the train and “see the world,” but really he’s just got to hand off the money to someone who uses the password-identity “Mr. Brown.”

Downstairs, near the Onyx club’s rehearsal piano, Daughter Maitland is rehearsing with a pianist, and Chalky White — not given all that much to do in this episode except idle and not figure out that Dunn is lying to him — reprises a bit of the last episode’s stare-at-the-hot-singer-while-she’s-singing act. They have a bit of patter about whether she’s good enough — but it feels a bit forced. Over at the bar, Dunn says, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” and then unloads a lot of bull about his mom being gravely ill. Chalky looks at some booze bottles and mumbles half-condolences. Dunn asks for some time off, and Chalky says: You gotta do what you gotta do.

So: I realize these guys are not real-deal pals — and we need to set up the Dunn-defection story line — but I do not understand Chalky’s long-term freeze-out strategy. Chalky is usually smarter than this. And Dr. Narcisse hasn’t turned out to be such a bad partner (yet); he’s got Maitland singing in his club. What’s the problem? For whatever reason, though, Chalky simply cannot bring himself to show even a little kindness to Dunn, who probably exits the room more resolved than ever to show up his boss.

Cut to Illinois and ex-Agent Van Alden (now George Mueller). Chicago boss/florist O’Banion is shooting up flower pots with a double-barrel, while Mueller and another flunky look on. O’Banion is having a big ol' time, and then makes like he wants to share the fun with the other flunky, by handing over another firearm. But uh-oh! It’s loaded with dirt, not shells. Which kicks up a violent and dangerous explosive charge in the man’s face. O’Banion laughs to beat the band, and Mueller’s perma-scowl deepens a bit (with a mix of sympathy and fear).

The poor schmo thinks he might have gone blind, so O’Banion naturally says, "Hey, don’t spoil my fun." If it weren’t clear already: Mueller might like to find his way out of this particular gang. But it might be out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the only place to run seems to be toward Capone (now with extra cocaine sniffing). Regarding that crew in Cicero: St the end of this scene, O’Banion unwittingly (if conveniently for the writers) points Mueller in that general direction.

Over in Atlantic City, Eli does a surprisingly good fatherly turn by talking to Willie about his general down-in-the-dumps quality, following last week’s make-out interruptus. Willie won’t spill on the details, but Eli nevertheless bucks his son up with skill. “You’re a Thompson, who are they?” Philadelphia and New York is Willie’s answer — there aren’t even any other kids from the neighborhood at Temple. “You’re the only boy from Atlantic City anybody needs to know, remember that,” Eli replies. “You’re there to make something of yourself.” Then he tells Willie that he’ll have to do whatever he feels like he needs to do: the ultimate gangster code for unthinking behavior. Which Willie will take to pretty well, later on in the episode.

When next we see him at Temple, Willie and his sidekick are making plans for Booze Party No. 2, and also hatching a plan to spike Evil Lout Henry’s drink. They whip up their own explosive variant on a laxative, subsequently worry about not giving Henry a big-enough dose, and then give him so much that the guy literally dies overnight from internal bleeding in the bathroom. (That’s taking care of business, Willie!) So here’s the second horribly violent prank of the episode. Maybe Willie should look for employment with O’Banion?

Over in Illinois, Al Capone and Handsome Brother Capone are tending to Jake in the hospital. They make some jokes about nurses and sponge-baths, and Jacob’s girth. The brothers share a bit of nostalgia for the first time they made pickups together; the idea is that they’ll finish Jake’s collections. Enter Mueller with the crappy flowers O’Banion sent as a token of (dis)respect. Anyway, it’s convenient that Mueller is back with the Capones in time for new-collection duties.

They go to an apartment building and throw a guy out a window. (When the cool, tilt-up exterior shot happened, I was hoping the defenestration would occur in that one continuous take, but no dice.) Mueller isn’t really a Capone by nature, but at least with this crew, the violence is mostly directed outward at the people they’re terrorizing. That’s a nice bonus for the reluctant criminal to consider, when choosing between murderous clans. Finally, the trio comes across some of O’Banion’s bread trucks. They steal ‘em and belatedly discover that the dirt-in-the-shotgun-schmo is sleeping in one of them. He recognizes Mueller, which means that Mueller has to be “All In” (title of the episode). He shoots at the shadow of the poor schmo, but — irony! — this time Mueller’s gun jams. Capone finishes the schmo off with a splatter-spray of machine-gun fire.

In between those scenes, we zip back to the Onyx club, where Nucky and Eli are laying out the Florida real-estate deal for Rothstein and his deputy, Lansky. The idea is to bring rum up, and send whiskey back. Rothstein likes the deal, but seems eager to leave Nucky in suspense: He all but demands a game of poker, later that evening. “I find you don’t really know a man until you play cards with him.” (Though it’s intended as a bit of censure in Nucky’s general direction — what with Nucky’s crazy new plans in Florida after announcing himself satisfied with Atlantic City during the season premiere — this maxim ends up applying more to Rothstein, later on.)

In Harlem, Dunn is praising Dr. Narcisse’s environs, inside the Marcus Garvey–founded Universal Negro Improvement Association. (Narcisse disses his own digs as “ostentatious.” Is there anything he’s not above!) Dunn then hands the money for last week’s heroin sales to the Doctor, despite having been instructed to wait for a handover in Atlantic City. “This is not that; this is something else,” Narcisse replies — obviously touchy about mixing his less justifiable business with the more noble aims in his life.

Still, he pockets the money anyway, after showing Dunn the door quite coldly. Later that evening, Dunn waits to buttonhole Narcisse outside the UNIA offices and winds up following the man to a salon-in-progress on 127th Street. The elite brownstone’s entryway is haunted by a no-account that the Doctor calls a “duppy.” The Doctor suggests that Dunn take out the man, and he does. So now Narcisse knows he can control Dunn easily enough. Here’s hoping that the Doctor gets challenged on his obviously in-conflict sense of morality before too long — though Dunn may not be the character to do it. (Get smart, Chalky!)

At the train station, we see that it’s Capone’s Less Handsome Brother (Ralph) who’s going to pick up Nucky’s ten-grand, courtesy of Eddie (who insists on going through the “Mr. Brown” patter, to the letter). “Take out an ad, why don’t you?” Ralph says to Eddie, in a bit of foreshadowing. Brother Capone wants to know where to get a steak; after a bit of back-and-forth about how Eddie isn’t a chauffeur any longer, he decides to take the guy to the Knife and Fork anyway. Eddie and Ralph talk a bit about the former’s infrequently referred to family in the old country. He and the Capone Brother bond over food, go to a proper beer hall, sing German beer hall songs. And when they arrive back at the train station in the early morning, Agent Knox pinches Eddie — apparently the weakest link in the Nucky operation, by the feds’ estimation. (Is that actually true, though? Eddie’s pretty loyal, and also proud of his new position, to boot.)

While Rothstein is entertaining himself at the Onyx, Nucky asks Eli if he can run things around Atlantic City, in the event that Nuck has to move on down to Florida to oversee the Tampa deal. Eli is flabbergasted, but Nucky tells him he’s got nothing holding him here. (He could just say: "Look, I gotta go see Patricia Arquette," but he doesn’t.) Eli says sure, I can run things — after which Chalky enters, with apologies, to convey Rothstein’s request for Nucky’s presence at the poker tables downstairs.

What follows is a multi-scene sequence in which Rothstein winds up Nucky endlessly (to the boredom of the other players, and perhaps some viewers), while progressively losing his shirt and every other piece of metaphorical clothing. He goes “All In,” you see. But after Rothstein loses several hundred thousand in a single hand, it takes Lansky’s intervention to impress upon Rothstein that he might have a bit of a problem and need to back away from the table.

Nucky had wanted a partner with a level head, so this was the worst possible moment for Rothstein to lose his composure to a compulsive seizure of gambling addiction. But it’s just the right moment for Lansky to nominate himself as the superior partner; he seals the deal with a story about how he wouldn’t let no one bully him around in his schooldays. (Also: It was Luciano who tried to bully him. Aw! Memories.) So Nuck makes the deal with Lansky. And the latter rewards himself by taking revenge on a guy who was mouthing off to Rothstein at the poker table.

Despite not being terribly suspenseful — a lot of the events that occurred in this episode were things we expected to happen — this episode worked pretty well. It managed to move between all of the axes of action (save Florida) without feeling madly all over the place. It would seem that the introduction of J. Edgar Hoover is being used as a way to bring the Chicago and Brooklyn story lines into stronger alliance with the Atlantic City arcs. If it feels a bit convenient for Agent Knox to just happen onto an active conspiracy the moment he starts looking for one, that’s just the price of dramatic unity. Still: no Margaret in this season! And no Gillian in this episode, either. Did the Piggly Wiggly merger with A&P happen, or what?

Photo: Macall Polay/HBO