Boardwalk Empire Recap: Sing It Again, for Me

Boardwalk Empire
Episode Title
The Old Ship of Zion
Editor’s Rating

What to make of the fact that the most dramatically straightforward episode of Boardwalk Empire this season is its most satisfying one yet? There’s none of the Illinois arc, nor any of New York’s in this episode, while even the Floridians and DC lawmen in the Boardwalk universe do us the favor of traveling to Atlantic City at various points. Our colleague Matt Zoller Seitz relates, over here, a high level of satisfaction with this season’s unhurried, and highly distractible, narrative momentum. (And he’s got big hopes for the run-up-to-the-finale, as do we all.) But as far as individual hours of successful television go, this one was achieved though more or less traditional ends: We watched a core group of characters, unified in time and space, going through changes.

And a pretty good cast of characters! I like Richard Harrow as much as the next guy, but I did not miss him in this hour, thanks in part to Patricia Arquette’s Sally (who made the drive up from Florida with Nucky’s contraband) — by turns flirty, pushy, and motherly. Also interesting was a twist on the presentation of Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Narcisse. It’s pretty great that the first big ding his character takes is as a failed playwright. (He may mouth along soulfully to every line of his Dogme ’25 black-nationalist scenario, but the intended audience isn’t moved.) Minutes after that failure, Chalky is calling him out to the street — more about that in a bit.

It’s also worth noting that Daughter Maitland’s character emerged as more than a trope, in this episode — possibly because she had more scenes than usual, and more to do in each one than merely stand behind Dr. Narcisse, or simply say one or two erotically leading things to Chalky on either side of a musical performance. She had four scenes this time!

Count 'em: a hymn-performance at the Deacon’s funeral (where even Chalky’s doctor-marrying daughter gets hip to Chalky’s civic problems before he does), a blues feature at the Onyx (in which Nucky has to interrupt and ask Chalky to please wise up already), and then a creepy instructional scene in which Maitland takes orders from Dr. Narcisse about how she could help him murder Chalky. By the time Chalky arrives at her pad and requests a postcoital reprise of the opening hymn (“with the old words”), it was possible to see Maitland’s movement (and actual concern) for Chalky. Good arc, well played — even if it’s still kind of unbelievable how slow it’s been, this Chalky-awakening line.

The only bad thing about it is that (once again), the show has killed off a strong character in Dunn Purnsley, who took a knife to the back (from Daughter) after taking a piece of window frame through the lip and cheek (courtesy of Chalky, during their room-to-room scrap) at the end of the episode.* Let’s hear it for actor Erik LaRay Harvey, who always played Dunn with a lot of charm and the right amount of menace. (The moment at his “undercover” insurgent barbershop-HQ, where he moves from bossing around the heroin underlings to faux-genuflection in Chalky’s direction, was a great pivot.) The sequence of shots that presaged the fight with Chalky — with each man featured in wide shots, leading to medium shots, leading to knife-to-the-face close-ups—was pretty exciting, too.

At episode’s open, Dunn also gets a nice close-up, while striding toward a heroin den: He’s sweet with the woman who owns the house, but mean with the floor-manager dude whose job description entails cutting the pure product down sufficiently. When Dunn asks if the recent receipts should be kept in an unlocked drawer, the den’s floor manager shows the mini-shotgun that he keeps under a desk. Later, when trying to cover up his involvement in the operation, as Chalky dispenses beatings in the next room, Dunn kills the floor manager and poses the gun so that it looks as though he acted in self-defense. But Chalky fishes out the notice for the Doctor’s upcoming play — and so that’s where Chalky goes to call out his rival, the newly failed playwright. (Narcisse’s retort to Chalky’s superior theatrics in the street — “it’s your performance, sir” — is a nice touch from the writers.)

On the comic relief side: Was this Mickey Doyle’s best few minutes ever, or what? His rambling story about accidentally trying to make time with the sister of the woman he’d been dating for a month was pure hilarity, even if neither one of the brooding brothers Thompson was in a mood to hear it. And Doyle’s patter made perfect sense next to Sally’s playfulness, too, upon her first arrival at the booze warehouse. Perhaps Sally was just using Mickey’s ever-eager mouth as a way to draw Nucky out of his laconic, cold fish self. But I think the two of them had an authentic spark, at least before Nucky beat Mickey down at the Onyx (and with Eddie’s purloined cane, no less). In any case, it’s great to see someone who can own a scene like this one, in which Sally strides through the warehouse and makes Nucky pay for every lazy word that comes out of his mouth:

Sally: “All the bootleg come through here?”
Nucky: “Mostly.”
Mostly as in 'mind your own business'?”
“As in … it’s always good to leave something to talk about for later … ”
“We’re talkin’ later?”
“I can’t promise exactly … ”
“So we’re not talkin' later?”
“I just need some time to … "
“What’s his problem?”
“He’s my brother.”
“No wonder he looks so miserable.”

Heh! Sally is just … everything to every man she meets in this episode, isn’t she? There’s some business between Nucky and Willie about whether the grocery delivery was placed or not, and it sounds like a proxy discussion for their underlying tug of war about how to make Willie a man Nucky can count on. But all it takes is a breakfast with Sally to get Willie onboard with being clear. So I’d say Sally’s more than earned her place in any episode of the season. (Willie’s hanging out in Eddie’s old room, which is nice and bird-filled if a little close to Nucky’s boudoir, as we hear after he finally convinces Sally to stay at the hotel.) Everyone decides Willie will go to work in Mayor Bader’s office.

Eddie also haunts the Eli story line, as Agent Knox reveals himself as Tolliver from the Bureau, and indicates that he’s remembered Eli’s fatherly tears, back in Eddie’s room. Now that Willie’s old roommate has started talking (for the price of three packs of Chesterfield cigs), Knox/Tolliver can threaten to arrest Willie. So Eli’s in a bad place: feeling pushed out at home, he’s given an invitation to do in his brother (shades of seasons’ past), and it looks like he’s ready to turn on Nucky (again). That’s a turn of luck for Knox/Tolliver — since, in a stray D.C. scene, we see his investigators are mostly gabbing about Rothstein’s gambling habits.

Tolliver fumes: “I ask you to make connections. All you bring me are anecdotes. This operation is costing time and money.” As he rolls off all the towns where Boardwalk has subplots in action — New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Florida — Tolliver’s observation could double as a preview for the last five episodes of the season. In this way, the show has put down a marker: It’s going to make these anecdotes (and characters unseen this week, from Van Alden/George Mueller to Margaret to Harrow to Capone, etc.) coalesce into connections, or else feel like it underperformed for its budget.

* This recap originally stated that Dunn took a knife to the cheek when, in fact, it was a piece of window frame.