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Boardwalk Empire Recap: The Libyan Man

Well, we’ve finally got ourselves a new season, seeing as how our official protagonist-of-record (Nucky) and our actual one (Chalky) were set up with proper antagonists this week. That’s the bother with hitting the reset button on a show’s secondary-character universe every year! What new figures can the writers’ room come up with? And how long will it take to invest those brand-new souls with the authority necessary to box with the series regulars, who are secure in their wardrobes and mannerisms?

In Nucky’s case, his new sparring partner emerges at the distant horizon of the episode, far enough away that Nucky doesn’t even know he exists yet (even if he suspects something’s a bit off with regard to Agent Knox). But the character is a classic in the Boardwalk tradition anyway; it’s a slight surprise at first when you hear that the professional handle of the fresh-faced chap running the undercover (!) Agent Knox is “Acting Director Hoover.”

Then, after that minor flash of recognition, you go: Oh, right, this show likes historical figures, generally. After the first screw is put to him, the hard-boiled dude who runs the corrupt prohibition agents — Treasury Department Official Elliott — has a funny tough-guy line about being harder to take down than a “Bolshevik under the bed,” but Lil’ J. Edgar’s instinct to run his sting operation without every single constitutional nicety in place (“no lawyers, Mr. Elliott”) and the simple weight of his surname suggests that there might soon be a drop in the total number of Jersey Sours being poured at the Onyx club.

Agent Knox — if that is his last name — may be cold-blooded and cunning (as we saw last week), but he comes by at least some of his just-folks shtick honestly, when he gee-golly muses about why criminals don’t just fold immediately when first challenged. Young Hoover replies, like a criminology sage-in-training, that “the moral dimension” is lacking in the law-breaker’s makeup. Well played all around.

But let’s stop mopping up around the developmental margins of this episode. Jeffrey Wright’s new character — the mysterious, Trinidad-born, late-of–New York power broker Dr. Valentin Narcisse — is the best thing that's happened to this show in some time.

It’s not just that Wright brings a relish and brio to the character (he does). What did any of us expect, but exactly that? (Wright is synonymous with quality in a scene, down to the minute micro-gestures in between each and every line. The way he toys with Chalky, especially when in Nucky’s presence, has Emmy Nomination written all over it.)

But characters can come and go, on this show. Who knows how long we’ll have Wright around! (At least most of this season, presumably.) But no matter the length of this antagonist’s arc, what feels immediately satisfying about the introduction of Narcisse into the Boardwalk universe is how, at a thematic level, this new character actually refocuses our attention on some of the best work the writers have been up to in recent years.

Witness how, in this episode, we first meet Chalky in what he’d probably like to describe as his element: basking in the set-design finery of the Onyx club in daytime repose, which he’s showing off to his daughter’s intended — remember Dr. Samuel? — and thereby playing up his class bona fides.

The young man’s father, Oliver, seems like he’s sniffing at the new money. (Whether owing to its newness, or else because of its presumably ill-gotten status, we don’t know.) But Chalky can’t be put off so easily by these trifling airs — he steps to the elegant Oliver with his Highest Texan accent and all but demands that the after-wedding event be thrown “right tch-eea-uh” as a gift to the newlyweds, after their ceremony at Shiloh Baptist. Samuel and Maybelle help defuse the tension, but Doctor’s Daddy doesn’t really seem to be hungry for a scrap with Chalky in any case.

Purnsley then “sidewinds” in from offstage to let Chalky know that they haven’t found the in-the-winds wife of the racist-voyeur who moved Dunn around like a pawn last week (until Dunn murdered the dude, that is). Chalky, still feeling the power of pushing his weight around in his family life, lets Dunn know that he’s not out of the doghouse yet. Chalky’s feeling his authority in the first act of the episode.

Later in the same evening, when last week’s tap-dancing duo approaches Chalky backstage in order to ask where that dude who manages them might be found, the Official Owner of the Onyx Club just peels a couple bills off of the roll in his pocket and tells the entertainers that he’ll be dealing with the (dead) man directly. Chalky is slappin dancer asses like Capone in a cathouse, without a care in the world — advising his employees to “step high,” and offering exhortations about the “cash money” being paid by customers out on the floor.

With the evening crowd in full swing, Chalky emerges into the Onyx main floor again, and we’re primed to see him enjoying it once more. But wait a second: Who’s that staring back at him from the second-floor redoubt?

Finding out will have to wait — since then the alienating back-end of the whole running-a-club deal comes to the fore, in the person of a white business associate with whom Chalky must play nice. The guy is a basically a roly-poly version of Mickey Doyle — all obvious zingers; a humor so self-satisfied that everyone around him wants to blow their own head off just to put a stop to the dialogue. (For example: How are things with the man? Chalky asks. “Peaches” he replies, and then, by way of transition, moves to introduce his svelte lady companion like so: “and this is Cream!” Ugghhhh.)

But the situational humiliation doesn’t end there. The Boring White Business Associate then engages Chalky in some obviously tired-ass sparring, during which Chalky compliments the man’s, er, obvious athleticism (“I don’t have the sand to cross you”). Just to really top it off, the man won’t let Chalky move on with his night without asking for just one chance to … rub his scalp like a good luck charm. The man is too busy laughing up a storm and looking forward to his next free drink that he doesn’t notice Chalky’s skull of hard resentment under the skin that he’s pushing around with racist abandon. But that’s capitalism for you! Sometimes doing business doesn’t feel so good.

All of which is the primer for Chalky’s mood when he finally gets upstairs to his office to find … this elegant Dr. Narcisse character tending to the widow of Dunn’s murder victim. Convergence!

So, everything about this next scene is great. The plot-forwarding issue of dispute is clear enough: Narcisse wants to confirm the murder of his talent-agent (Chalky doesn’t credit that a murder has taken place); Narcisse lets Chalky understand that the name of the murderer is known (“you called him Dunn”); Narcisse also instructs Chalky to understand that he is not owned by any business associate (after a reference to a New York heavy, the Doctor makes clear that he and that off-stage figure are equals). Presumably, Narcisse wants recompense for the lost blood and treasure, but as long as Chalky is playing for time, the issue cannot be resolved.

But despite the clarity of all this basic let’s-keep-things-moving stuff, there’s room for lots of verbal filigree and thematic development. Dr. Narcisse’s own personal patois privileges the notion of the “Libyan man,” as a proto-black nationalist construction regarding “the mother continent, where all things begin.” When Chalky asks why Narcisse is in a restricted area, the man sensibly takes note of the segregated reality of the club: “What choice am I offered? The Libyan performs in your club; the Libyan serves in your club; but the Libyan may not attend your club.”

“I’m from Texas,” Chalky interjects, with some humor. But the hook here is set for status issues between the criminal classes, still yet to develop in full.

The affectation of Dr. Narcisse’s threatening-bible-quotations is probably the least interesting thing about him (as we’ve seen that tick many times before). But it’s the subtler way that Narcisse can control a room he’s not even supposed to be in — asking “may I sit,” and then immediately suggesting that Chalky sit as well, with the dangling phrase “I only ask” — that feels truly suggestive of his strange power. He is an operator on another level, one who enunciates as he pleases, who plays country-hick for no one. Chalky knows enough to respect this status — even perhaps wish it for his own son (who, you’ll recall, is supposed to play elegant Debussy on the piano and not the “devil’s music” from the club world).

Acknowledging a temporary stalemate, Narcisse withdraws, complimenting the room, from which one can see many secret things. Specifically, Narcisse notes, he saw downstairs just now a “servant pretending to be a king” (when Chalky was enduring his patter with the Boring White Associate). This is the kind of comment that will successfully cut Chalky — and we see Narcisse return to the “you’re not a king” insult in the later scene where Nucky negotiates Narcisse’s new 10 percent ownership of the Onyx (much to Chalky’s discontent — which feels like it’s about more than just money).

So now Chalky is confronted by an exemplar of African-American capitalistic achievement who cannot be backed off as easily as Samuel’s father was. That helps make this run of scenes feel so right for Boardwalk (over and above the obvious excellence of Wright’s inhabiting of Dr. Narcisse). The show, in rebooting for season four, has found a way to plug back into a part of its past that hasn’t been jettisoned already, as part of its high subplot burn-off rate.

Speaking of things that can apparently be dispensed with, however—there is the question of the widowed Mrs. Pastor. Now that he has agreed with Nucky and Chalky that her story about Dunn (or rather, her lie) will not be told to the police, Narcisse must figure out what to do with her. Parroting a line of questioning that Nucky sensibly raised (but did not pursue doggedly), Narcisse asks her: How did the late Mr. Pastor seem to know at which rundown hotel Dunn would be having sex with his wife, ahead of time?

By this point, viewers don’t need any extra hints — or sideline glances from the driver to Narcisse, via the car’s rearview mirror — to know that Mrs. Pastor is about to exit the narrative. But this inevitability is still handled with some interesting spin: When Narcisse says that the story of the animalistic black aggressor is one he’s “heard one time too many,” there’s the suggestion of an inner tension, or a psychological space where the limits of his business practicality bump up against the Doctor’s larger critique of racist society. (That should be an interesting zone to keep an eye on, as the season and Narcisse develop apace.)

In a neat, threads-go-together development, Narcisse’s crew also dumps Mrs. Pastor’s body at the new broken-ground development site being run by Mayor Bader — as an added hint to Nucky (not that he needed it), that Narcisse & Co. can hurt his operation.

Stray thoughts for stray plot strands:

• Bader tried to keep Nucky out of the profit-sharing deal on this land development deal through the diocese, but how do you think that went? Not well! But the way it didn’t go well was sort of a surprise: Nucky asked Chauffer Eddie what he thought, and he gave this impromptu weird speech: “Mr. Thompson is part of everything. He is in the sky and sea. He’s in the dreams of children at night. He is all that there is, forever.” This fervor, in conjunction with Eddie’s more constricted range of motion, sees him angling for a promotion above the station of loyal footman. He gets it — and you feel sort of good for the guy. Except that being part of Nucky’s directly illegal doings might be taxing for the old chap before too long.

• Richard Harrow’s mysterious arc continues. We learn that he was hired to kill the guys he killed, last episode. But he stops just short of finishing his hitman trilogy, while also leaving behind the book that his sister (preggers!) gave him earlier. That volume somewhat obliquely contained evidence of her underwater mortgage, in bookmark form. Why did Richard leave it behind? In any case, the next fellow to come along and kill the final anonymous business target seems to have scoured that information for all it was worth, calling the Harrow Family home to ask for the money immediately (in the guise of a bank official). Will this rekindle Harrow’s thirst for violence, which he forswore this week, when not being able to put his old dog Samson down? Harrow’s sis says she’ll never forgive him if he takes off again, but they may need some money. Harrow definitely needs some more stuff to do.

• George Mueller (Ex-Agent Van Alden) has a great Banner-into-Hulk moment at the Capone Anti-Democratic Beatings Convention in Illinois, after getting hit with a chair. He goes from timorous weakling to smashy rage-bot in about half a second, and it’s a great transition. All on its own, this makes the Capone maneuverings feel worth it this week (otherwise, these scenes mostly feel like stage business used to cover Dr. Narcisse’s entrances and exits in Atlantic City).

• Gillian is not in this episode. And Margaret has still not appeared in the season at all. Reader poll: Do you miss those stories?

Photo: Macall Polay/HBO