Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Boardwalk Empire Recap: Call to Account

Three men walk down a dark hallway. On this show, it could always be three men we’ve never met, who are about to die and then never be heard from again. But on this episode, our opening scene turns out to be Nucky-plus-entourage. Our man is entering a crisp room with tropical-paradise-style artwork adorning the walls. He tosses his hat on the bed like he owns the place. A triptych of hotel-room windows frames Nucky between a series of blue-sky rectangles. Welcome to Florida, where we’ll find out more about this plan hatched by the (until recently imprisoned) booze-world associate McCoy.

In the next scene, McCoy himself is seen, happily chopping a coconut in half. “Welcome to Tampa, the land of money, honey, and where it’s always sunny,” he tells a not-that-impressed Nucky. In fact, Nucky’s pallor doesn’t quite take to all this sunshine. McCoy whinges a bit about being imprisoned for eight months, says the sun’s awful nice to feel after that. And Nucky — dear sweet man — seems totally bored. “Onward and upward,” he says, eager to get back to the plot.

There’s a prospectus for a land deal, basically. A group buys some land, uses it as a new port for booze-entry; Nucky helps bankroll the deal and gets some more product. McCoy has arranged for a meeting between principals to occur at a “suite called Sally’s off the inlet” later tonight. The local mug running the deal is eager to meet Nucky, he says. “Most people are, until they do,” Nucky replies. Which I think is supposed to be charming? But the I’m-a-pretty-wet-blanket statement feels oddly on the money.

Cut to Richard Harrow in the Midwest! He’s looking at a gun that he’s burying, presumably near the corpse of the old dog his sister had to shoot last week. Maybe don’t bury your guns too deep in the ground, guy.

Cut to Harlem! Dr. Narcisse is lecturing — presumably from the seat of his influence — to a coterie of well-dressed young African-American men. “Like all races, the Libyan race will be saved by its exceptional men,” he says. “Education and work are the levers to uplift out people. But work must be guided by intelligence. And education must teach life. The new Negro must be tutored in thought and culture,” he concludes.

But the new Harlem player must also be attentive to the exigencies of power. So when a secretarial figure darkens a doorway and gives “the Arnold Rothstein is waiting outside” signal, Narcisse quickly dismisses class and hustles the men out of the room, with assurances that “no man who continues to add to the material intellectual and moral well being of the place he lives is left long without proper reward.” Just so everyone’s clear.

Okay, so booze-world associate Mr. Madden walks in, and Rothstein follows. I really enjoy the Über-courtly way Jeffrey Wright’s Narcisse sits down as the way of kicking off every new meeting. It happens in every sitdown scene with him. Check it out. There’s like a yogi’s strict, thoughtful control of muscle groups going on.

Anyway, Narcisse, Madden, and Rothstein don’t waste much time cutting to the chase. The Doctor wants heroin; Rothstein wants to know that Narcisse knows what it costs. Madden, as broker, is eager for everyone to get along and rest easy about everyone else’s general sanity and capability. “I do expect to expand to other Libyan markets,” Narcisse allows, regarding his plans for distribution. (“Libyan?” Rothstein parries. “What he calls the coloreds,” Madden explains.”)

When Rothstein clarifies that he will need the 80,000 bucks (for 20 pounds of heroin) in large bills, Narcisse bristles at the assumption that because he runs numbers in a black community, “therefore I transact my business like a schoolboy, dealing in pennies, nickels, and dimes.”

Madden is putting his hands up a bit like, whoa whoa: no need to get personal here. He has decent reason to do so, because on Boardwalk, most criminals are hotheads. Come within a mile of insulting Capone, and you’ll learn how short a fuse can be.

But I think he’s misjudging Narcisse’s purpose here. The man is not out of control at all. Rothstein quickly says, “it’s not my intention to offend you,” and sounds believable enough. But Narcisse isn’t quite ready to let this go: slightly patting the couch cushion, as though having just been told a good joke, Narcisse responds: “Nonetheless, you succeeded despite yourself!”

And then, with a quick pivot of mood: “To whom do I dispatch payment?” As with his elegant, considered act of sitting down, Narcisse’s intention feels clear at every beat. He wants to show a modicum of anger, but it’s always steadily controlled. Some people will find this performance maddeningly mannered: so far, for me, it’s working as a portrait of an unusually focused individual, a criminal who keeps track of his own lies, or at least attempts to justify them, as we’ll see shortly. (This is, after all, someone lecturing on lifting up his community while also preparing to sell a potent poison within its city limits.)

Next, Narcisse adds that he has other business with Mr. Madden, implying that Rothstein should excuse himself. Just after they shake good-bye, and after the latter is out of view, Narcisse actually takes out a handkerchief to wipe his hand, as though it were sullied. (This puts the lie to Narcisse’s opening statement regarding what an honor it was to meet Rothstein.)

The “other business” with Madden involves a singer at “his” Cotton Club — an interesting flick at the period reality of white-ownership of African-American cultural institutions — a certain “Daughter Maitland” (fictional, I think). In strict “jerk dude” mode, Madden observes first and foremost that she’s a “nice piece of tail,” but that he’s fine to let Ms. Maitland move her act over the Onyx in New Jersey. He says let Dickey Pastor find a replacement, which means Narcisse has to acknowledge that Mr. Pastor won’t be doing much of anything anymore. (Madden looks sort of shaken, if not fully ashen.)

Cut to the Midwest! Harrow’s sister’s brother-in-law is in the middle of some never-ending patter about his gravel business. He’s making plans to come back and help clear out the garage — yes, we’re down to “clearing out the garage” as a plot point in this story strand — but Emmy says maybe he should call first next time, and that Richard has excellent garage-cleaning skills. But the big lug-in-law isn’t taking the hint, or doesn’t want to, and it’s clear he’d like to step in for his dead brother and have Emmy come along for a lifelong hitch in the gravel business.

After he shuffles off, the siblings make fun of him. (Has Richard ever gone for as much shtick as when he impersonates this guy? “That’s a nice bit of rock, Emmy.”) Next, they dispense with the weird house-payments business. Richard tries to give Emmy money for the back taxes, but she says she paid them already. (But she kept the assessor’s notice in the book she gave Harrow last week, for some reason? Which he sloppily left behind at the scene of the murder-for-hire that he failed to commit. Again, for some reason?)

Cut to Florida, where Nucky overhears a real-estate hustler doing his best sales-bit in the ground-floor bar of the Tampa hotel. Sure seems like a lot of development happening in these parts? Maybe not so great for a secret criminal enterprise.

Cut to Temple University, where Eli Jr. and a bunch of other students are listening to Russell Conwell’s (actual real life) legendary spiel, via gramophone, about the “duty” of men to get rich. (This speech by the real-world co-founder of Temple, known as “Acres of Diamonds,” gives this episode its title.) “The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. That is why they are rich,” Conwell says via crackling-audio. (Oh, history! You were so naïve.)

Practically none of the boys are listening, though, since they’re busy intimidating each other for smokes and checking out girls. The alpha of the group is trying to get a girl named Doris (and her plus one) to chill with them later that evening. They have some Paul Whiteman records and are going to “dust off that Victrola.” Sigh. (Even a thoroughgoing racist like Dickey Pastor was wise enough to cite Fletcher Henderson by the nickname “Smack” in a prior episode, so these kids clearly have no excuse for their taste.)

Anyway, the girls aren’t into it because there’s no booze on offer. And so Willie (we will start calling him by his own name now) steps up to the plate and says he knows how to get booze. The alpha doesn’t totally dig this, but will allow it on the basis of booze-necessity. Doris says it’s a “date.” Now all Willie has to do is get slapped around by Mickey Doyle at the warehouse, after trying to sneak off with a crate. But then Mickey takes pity, and makes maybe his first friend on the show. (This is probably how Willie finds a way into the action that Uncle Nucky would prefer he stay out of.)

At the pursuant Temple Basement dance, the dumb alpha tries to grope Doris without her permission. On cue, Willie steps in, assumes the alpha role under cover of chivalry, and then gets his reward when Doris pulls him into the library to look up the definition of making out. But Willie’s not totally a man yet! When the spurned former alpha leads a chorus of looky-loos into the library to ruin the moment, Willie successfully knocks the kid down. But then he loses his gumption when his boner is pointed out to the crowd. Instead of owning it, he flees.

Mixed in with all this is Narcisse’s reentry to the Onyx (of which he now owns a piece). He brings Daughter Maitland with him, and Chalky is impressed to meet a recording artist; the show is telling us that the fictional (so far as I can tell) Ms. Maitland recorded with King Oliver (who is real, obviously). Narcisse is glad to see Chalky knows his business, and also notes with interest Chalky’s continuing abuse of Dunn. Not a smart play, Chalky.

Also in the middle part of the episode, we catch the return of Gillian (not seen in the last episode). She’s still helping the guy from Office Space check out rooms to let in Atlantic City! That plot hasn’t moved along AT ALL since we last left it. Anyway, he needs plausible arm-candy for a date that evening. The whole Piggly Wiggly / A&P merger rests on it, apparently, and he hasn’t dealt with it yet. Gillian plays hard to get for a bit, but as we know, she’s got no other offers, and is glad to be thought of as indispensable to a man. All she has to do is pretend to be his wife, since the merger guy can’t know that Roy (Office Space) is getting a divorce. The A&P guy is very traditional, you see — which means they’re taking him to the Onyx club.

I mean, it’s nice to have Gillian’s arc brought in sync with something else on Boardwalk, but that decision doesn’t really scan. The Onyx is a place for law-breaking and exoticism. But we go with it, because here’s also the fictional-awesome singer Daughter Maitland making her Onyx debut, singing a song about how she wants to flirt with Chalky, with whom the performance goes over crazy well. “White folks seem to like her,” he says to Narcisse, who does a classic finish-the-line-after-the-other-guy-leaves-the-room thing when he says, “Yes, that would be very important [Chalky exits] … TO YOU.”

Thinking about Narcisse here: I suspect he would probably approach Dunn later in the episode, with the idea of running the Doctor’s heroin and getting out from under Chalky’s insulting shadow, no matter what. But he actually seems to authentically dislike Chalky’s ability to tolerate white criminal-associates (without wiping his hands afterwards, say), and he seems also to appreciate something about Dunn’s own integrity.

The meeting between Narcisse and Dunn comes later that night, after the club is closed, and is set to a modern reading of boogie-woogie master Pete Johnson’s immortal solo feature “Pete’s Blues 2.” The kids at Temple should be making out to this music, but they don’t know how to find it, probably. (Though you can, and should, find Johnson’s own late-thirties recording on some compilation or another.)

Dunn, suspicious and quick to unearth a switchblade, tells Narcisse that Chalky isn’t around. “Why should he be when he has you to do the slave labor?” Narcisse adds, while adding the lie that Chalky was eager to offer up Dunn as recompense in the Pastor affair. (Chalky actually played dumb about the murder, you’ll recall, and was loath to give Narcisse anything, purely as a matter of ego, if not loyalty to Dunn.) But the lie plays expertly on Dunn’s troubled past with Chalky. (Remember that they met in a jailhouse beatdown.) “Chalky White ain’t never been my friend,” he says, and the hook is set for Dunn to become Narcisse’s heroin dealer.

Meantime … Richard Harrow is clearing out his sister’s garage. He looks up at the sun that is filtering in through a missing part of the ceiling. He takes off his mask and absorbs the Vitamin D for a minute. Then a gruff voice asks if the trophy Harrow was just fondling was for something “actually accomplished.” Hey. It’s the guy who hired Harrow to kill people! Dude is upset that he had to finish the assignment himself, last week. And now, sensing that Harrow is a loose end, he wants to take him out. (As with Conwell above, the idea is that you can only trust a man who is trying to make money. Every other motivation is suspect.)

“You don’t have any kind of a code,” Carl Billings tells Harrow, just after his backup man searches Harrow for a gun. “You kill. For hire.” Noticing that Harrow hasn’t spent any of his blood money, he adds: “And this just makes you stupid. And how to d’you trust a stupid man?” Some birds fly away somewhere, distracting the backup dude. So Harrow pulls a knife and guts the man, after a short struggle. But Billings gets to the loose gun first. “Jesus I’m doing you a favor,” he says to a struggling Harrow. But then: an offscreen weapon goes blammo. Emmy has the double-barreled shotgun, and collapses in misery just outside the barn. She heard Carl Billings talk about what Harrow’s been up to. Sadder than listening to her brother-in-law.

Whew, Harrow needs to get out of here! Which he does, magically, soon after, when we see him preparing to take a train. (Where? Who knows! Godspeed!) The brother-in-law is driving him to the train station, but not before Emmy whispers into his ear that Richard needs to call himself to account.

Cut to Florida! And Sally’s tavern … which is run by Patricia Arquette. Which is good, because otherwise this whole Florida detour was looking like nothing special. Arquette’s reedy voice and generally excellent screen presence gives Nucky a reason to stick around Florida. He’s no longer impressed with McCoy’s brokered deal, since there’s so much land development going around. He says he’s out, enraging the local guy. But he returns to Sally’s later in the evening to muse about his “boy” Teddy, who we learn is about to turn 10 in Brooklyn. (Margaret alert.) Sally says some smart stuff about Nucky’s convenient way of managing his personal affairs. As he’s leaving the hotel the next morning, he receives a toy gator from Sally, to give to Teddy. (Double-Margaret alert.) It’s enough to make Nucky reconsider his forget-Florida plans. So he calls McCoy to say he’s in. Thing is, McCoy already killed the local business dude with his coconut-chopper, last night, after the guy came at him raging about Nucky pulling out of the deal.

End of episode.

Not seen: Al Capone, George Mueller, that whole deal in D.C. with J. Edgar Hoover closing in on a Treasury Department associate of Nucky’s. Margaret (though it seems we’re getting closer to reintroducing her to the story).

Not particularly cared about: when Roger, a ghost of last season, is recalled to Gillian’s face by someone in a bar. (Roy asks Gillian what it’s all about, and she says nothing, and he seems to take this at face value, despite having first hand evidence that she’s pretty good at lying.)

Photo: Macall Polay/HBO