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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Vague Feelings of Unease

Pop quiz: You’re writing a show about Prohibition-era gangsters, and you didn’t have time to include Al Capone in the last episode. How do you reintroduce him? The correct answer is: have him walk up to a Chicago cop (it’s best if the latter is idly reading a newspaper story about infamous 1924 murderers Leopold and Loeb), and have Capone plug the guy at point-blank range. Remember him now?

So, Capone’s back this episode, avenging the weeks-ago death of his brother and very steadily progressing to the point that he takes over Torrio’s operation. (Torrio gets briefly pinched after buying a brewery from the ever-extraneous O’Bainion; his reaction is basically “I’m too old for this,” and we see Capone nodding in excited agreement.) No Van Alden/George Mueller this episode, despite the Illinois angle — and no Richard Harrow, either! — but basically everyone else is up in this hour.

Gillian? Going off heroin, cold-turkey style, with an assist from the Piggly Wiggly man (who maybe wasn’t really no-longer-married when he first met Gillian, though he swears the papers have now been filed). Margaret? Working at an investment house for chumps in New York, where her boss has her acting up a storm, the better to convince suckers to take high-risk gambles. (And who should she meet there but Arnold Rothstein, also operating under an assumed name, while indulging his taste for bad ideas? He slips her $100 and calls her after, just to make sure no one else hears about this bit of plot happenstance.)

We even see good old George Remus this episode. And yes: He still refers to himself in the third person, even as an stoolie singing in front of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover, thankfully, tells him to knock it off. (Can’t wait until he grills Mickey Doyle and tells him to stop laughing at his own jokes!) Remus confirms the story that Agent Knox (real last name: Tolliver) has been telling, about a nationwide conspiracy connected to Nucky Thompson and all that, but Hoover still seems gun-shy. Esther Randolph (told you everyone was in this episode!) advises Hoover, on the sidelines, to get onboard with the idea, since the new attorney general is into it.

Speaking of Agent Knox/Tolliver: The Thompson-Brothers brain trust is still chewing over the details of the “JMT”-monogrammed hanky that “Mr. Knox” gave Eli in the last episode. “I’m not saying it’s somethin’,” Eli says to an oddly untroubled Nucky. Then Eli gets the idea to call Knox’s boss, Fred Elliott. When Eddie’s replacement rings him down at the Treasury Department, he reports to Nucky that Elliott seems to have taken early retirement (with no forwarding address). The Thompson brothers share a suspicious look, but then … do not all that much to follow up. Gaston Means, when he shows up to the Onyx Club, later in the episode, has a pretty thin file on Knox to show Nucky. (As we see later, Means is controlled by Knox/Tolliver. After Hoover glory-hogs about his discovery of “organized crime” at a government gathering, Knox/Tolliver whines to Means at a speakeasy. Heh: irony!)

“Do you ever wake up and have a vague feeling of unease?” Nucky asks Means at the Onyx. “Like you know something’s wrong but you can’t put your finger on it yet.” This is slightly unsatisfying. I mean: This actually doesn’t seem so hard to put together. Something is “going on” at the Treasury Department, and Eli has every right to be concerned. This seems like some slower-than-average Nucky.

Speaking of main characters on a steady diet of stupid pills: Chalky White remains rather comprehensively off his game. When he gives Dr. Narcisse his cut of the Onyx’s recent earnings, Dunn Purnsley is standing at the rear of the room. We haven’t seen Chalky and his deputy in the same room for, like, a month? Suffice it to say that Chalky does not turn around and ask Dunn: “Say, did your mother pass away? And how was the funeral? What have you been up to, of late? Haven’t seen you around!” What Chalky and Narcisse do talk about is setting up a new chapter of the Marcus Garvey association in Atlantic City. In return, Chalky gets to keep Daughter Maitland onstage (and in his bed) for another month.

So, it’s official: The show doesn’t want us to think too hard about the timeline of this shifting balance of power between Chalky and Dunn. Which is a shame, because I think it has something to do with why the balance of the Chalky-Dunn-Narcisse angle feels so perfunctory through the rest of the hour. When Dunn and Dr. Narcisse stand in front of a local congregation and promise to do something about the ever-strengthening scourge of heroin in Atlantic City, it’s hard not to wonder about how Chalky is faring in this civic context. (In prior seasons, he’s been something of a pillar of the local community.)

“Where’s Mr. White?” someone actually asks at the church meeting. (Someone else says Chalky’s been too busy hanging around with white people.) And then the Deacon says maybe he should have a talk with Chalky. Then Narcisse stands up, introduces himself, and promises to make everything better, to general murmurs of approval. (“Let’s listen to this new guy!” “Yes, he does not seem sinister at all!”) It still feels weird that absolutely none of this is getting back to Chalky already. Even if he’s distracted by Daughter Maitland, you’d think one of his many many employees might have heard something, and might have brought it up in the interests of the organization. Later, when Dunn goes back to the church to beg the deacon for forgiveness, the elder man says he’s already figured out that Dunn is the new heroin dealer in town — but he doesn’t get to tell Chalky, since Dunn stabs him.

So, Chalky is literally the last power broker in this part of town not to figure out what’s up, which makes him terrible at his job and a less compelling gangster to watch. Meantime, the new reveal regarding Narcisse — that he was the violent trick who killed Maitland’s prostitute mother — isn’t as interesting as his dual role as both a promoter of African-American improvement and also that of a vampire sucking the blood out of the community. But Narcisse’s lye-burn chest-scars and lurid Mother-Killer/Surrogate-Father-to-Maitland backstory have a sort of “whoa dude” grossness that all elite cable dramas need.

Speaking of lurid developments: Willie seems to have sealed the deal with Doris at Temple. Naturally, that means he wants to flee college life. The motivation in this mutually topless scene runs like so: since Doris is post-coitally reading a news account of the Leopold-Loeb case — and remembering the Nietzsche stuff she read in a class — Willie has to get all sensitive about the notion of killing a young kid. So he has to bolt from the room. When the kids go to a lecture on Poe’s spooky “William Wilson,” later in the episode, Willie likewise needs to run from the classroom under questioning, as though there’s some kind of tell-tale heart beating under the floorboard or something. And so now he’s done with college altogether.

Willie announces his dropout plans pretty poorly in front of Proud Papa Eli, causing a ruckus that also opens up a fissure between the Thompson brothers. Later, a drunken Eli wants Nucky to know that Willie is his son, godammit. But when Nucky goes home to the Albatross Hotel, there’s Willie, begging to be taken in. Like Daughter Maitland, Willie’s got a surrogate father now. Aside from that connection, beats me how any of this stuff goes together! But it’s a pretty zippy hour nonetheless, aside from nagging questions about why both Chalky and Nucky can’t perceive the pretty obvious moves being made against them. Previews suggest that, by next week, at least one of them gets clued in.

Odds and ends:

• Margaret’s fresh new start in New York sure seems to involve a lot of lying in order to make money. And she seems to enjoy it in a way that conflicts with her goody-two-shoes image? (“To think I considered waitressing,” she says with delight, after getting a tip for helping fleece some sap.)

• Luciano gets very minorly dressed down by Masseria for the Florida freelancing, last week. Lucky’s got plausible deniability, though, since he turned Nucky’s deal down. So it’s all good, and Masseria tells him to go back to Tampa and work with the new Italian guy we met in the last episode, the better to run some heroin. This, plus a bit of early-in-the-episode chatter between Nucky and Eli (in which the latter gives the former a hard time about Sally), is the sum of the Florida talk this episode.

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO