You didn’t really think Boardwalk Empire was going to kill off Chalky White, did you? So soon after they did away with Dunn Purnsley? The fans would have gone mad. But give everyone involved some credit: This antepenultimate episode of the season felt full of danger and risk, even for Chalky. And the show managed to build up a head of steam (even if, in the headlong rush, it may have fudged a point or two).
The search for intelligence is our theme, this hour. Sally gets wise to the secret heroin trade going on down Florida way and clues Nucky in. Willie becomes useful, by intuiting that Mayor Bader has turned on Nucky. And J. Edgar is still obsessing over Garvey-ite activity in Harlem more closely he’s paying mind to Agent Knox’s “organized crime” investigation. (And, in a pointed bit, late in the episode, we hear that the FBI has a plant, next to Garvey himself.)
But first, we open with Sad, Unshaven Eli looking into a cup of coffee, all 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her–style, while spilling the most inconsequential of Torrio’s beans (e.g., Jake Guzik) to Agent Tolliver (otherwise known as Knox). Eli’s bedraggled look shows that he’s not altogether pleased to be betraying his brother this time around — and his halting way of insisting that “Balanchuk” is “like, Torrio’s second” (when he’d have good reason to know that Capone is a bigger player), suggests that he’s playing for time.
Later on, after Tolliver/Knox chases down the reality that Balenchuk has been dead for a couple of years, he imposes on Willie and Eli’s wife, posing as an insurance salesman — a Mr. Balenchuk, wink wink — who’s sold Eli some policy or another. Unwisely, his metaphors about safety and danger are a bit on the nose, and Willie casts a stink-eye. He’s getting smarter every day! Even without seeing the Knox-Eli grapple-fest that takes place in private — Knox says he wants live information, and fast — Knox’s lack of nuance comes pretty close to tipping his hand.
Other spylike activity abounds in Manhattan. Margaret (or “Mrs. Rowan”) — still working at the crooked broker’s office — is looking for a new apartment when Arnold Rothstein (or “Abe Redstone”) drops by to ask about her finances. After understanding how cheaply she can be promoted, Rothstein lets on that he wants revenge on the broker Mr. Bennett. “He and his ilk are systematically driving down the price of Anaconda realty stock, in which I am invested. Soon no doubt they plan on buying it back. I need to know when this happens.”
Later in the hour, we see Bennett dropping casually anti-Semitic remarks, making it extra easy for Margaret to switch allegiances. After getting Bennett’s buy-order for some Anaconda stock, she makes a milk-date with Rothstein and extracts from him a five-year, rent-free lease in a better neighborhood, in exchange for advising when Bennett will next drop the stock.
Back in Atlantic City, Richard Harrow is … working in the kitchen at the Onyx! While tossing out the trash in the alley, he happens upon Chalky’s circling of the wagons. One of Chalky’s crew feels sufficiently empowered to tell Richard to scram — an interesting reversal of the segregated reality inside the club — but Chalky remembers how Harrow helped deliver some Klan members his way back in season two, so he pays the new kitchen help some respect in front of the other men.
Interesting stuff — but it feels like we missed a beat or two around this arc. Recall: Nucky needed guns, Harrow walked out of the woods asking for a job. So how did we get here? Maybe Richard said he’s done gun-slinging, right after the scene we saw the other week. But it’s also hard to imagine Nucky being convinced to let this sharpshooter move on over to trash duty. (One wonders whether Harrow is an intel-gathering plant — but would Nucky be able to trust him as an honest reporter anyway?)
Mickey Doyle’s still around, for what it’s worth — still reciting yarns and movie plots to people who don’t seem eager to hear his patter. Nucky interrupts Doyle’s shtick with the news from Sally, and then directs Eli & Co. to intercept the next Floridian convoy, using Knox and “some of his men” for backup. Eli, cool as a cucumber, notes that this “could get messy.”
Knox makes this look prophetic, by shooting an underling who refuses to let his agents inspect the heroin-padded convoy. Lansky, not used to seeing Knox unleashed, is naturally taken aback — though he does insist on playing dumb about the heroin a beat too long. Next morning, facing an already-dug grave, Lansky continues to do his anti-drug “boy scout routine” for Nucky. Lansky (in front of Knox) successfully avoids death by agreeing to lure Masseria to Nucky’s table for a consequential sitdown.
In Chicago, the Capone Brothers seem convinced that George Mueller killed Dean O’Banion last week. So now the dude’s in their inner circle, just in time for that group to become a target — perhaps of the irate Torrio. (The elder gangster gives all sorts of body language signs that he’s upset about Al’s clear ambitions, but Al is perhaps too coked up to be sensitive about this.) Later in the episode, Torrio makes a convenient exit right before a phalanx of machine guns go off, from across the street. Mueller tells Al to “get down” just in time, and the other Capone is safe, too.
That’s not even the most egregious escape from an assault in this episode, though. As was telegraphed in the earlier scene staged in the Onyx’s back alley, Chalky’s group boldly struts right up to the windowpane of Atlantic City’s chapter of the United Negro Improvement Association and blasts away at Dr. Narcisse (whose back is to the street) and his men. Narcisse hits the floor, and crawls away. Perhaps not wanting to cut their hands on the glass that’s partly been shot to pieces, not one of Chalky’s men actually enters the building to check and see if the top man on the kill list has been decisively hit.
Obviously the climactic Chalky-Narcisse confrontation (if there is to be one this season) would be held closer to the finale — but this is one of those times when the narrative escape-hatch used for prolonging the drama feels a little cheat-y. It’s hard to feature Chalky not wanting to confirm the kill, or else revel in the Doctor’s last breath, or the like. Anyway, Chalky gets news of his failure pretty quickly: After (stupidly) turning his back from the confrontation, the Doctor springs up, plugs one of Chalky’s men. Chalky … just starts running from Narcisse? And the Doctor plugs Chalky, too (though not so fatally that Richard Harrow can’t help nurse him back to a semblance of health in the near future). As Chalky’s car drives away, the Doctor is upright and blasting away, still. Worst ambush ever.
Narcisse, feeling his momentum, marches to the Onyx to demand that Nucky provide Chalky’s head on a platter. After last week, Nucky’s decided he’s had enough of taking direction from Narcisse and tells him to step off. But, strangely, he doesn’t act strongly on Chalky’s behalf either. (Narcisse notes this relative meekness, while fantasizing about his forthcoming attempt on Chalky’s life. “When I run him through, watch the light go out, I hope he knows what a friend he had in you.”)
Pianist De-Ernie brings Daughter Maitland to Chalky, who is recuperating in some random room at the Legion Hall. When Nucky comes to visit, Chalky asks what Narcisse offered. (“It doesn’t matter,” Nucky says, before he’s actually observed Narcisse’s full hand.) Chalky tries to feel out the extent of Nucky’s sympathies. Nucky recites Rothstein’s favorite Pascal quote — the “all of man’s problems come from not being able to sit in a room” bit — in order to suggest that Chalky should just stay put for the moment.
Soon after, when Masseria comes to the Onyx for his sitdown with Nucky, he brings his partner — surprise, it’s Narcisse! Again: It feels like we missed a beat or two here. Last we heard, Masseria wouldn’t do business with “the Libyan man.” Yet here they are in tandem, all prejudices put to one side (if not resolved). Might have been cool for us to see how Narcisse turned that trick — but in any case, time’s a-wastin’ before the finale, so here we are.
Narcisse doesn’t beat around the bush: He won’t claim to be friends with Nucky. But he thinks they all can be equitable partners in the heroin trade. (If I were Nucky, I’d be thinking: Yeah, but these are the guys who were going behind my back with the heroin running, until about five minutes ago.) In any case: Nucky asks for a rather modest third of all past and future proceeds, and agrees to serve up Chalky to Narcisse. Is he serious, or, like Eli, hedging his bets amid a bad set of options and playing for time?
Nucky’s intentions are soon clarified, even if it’s mostly too late for him to do anything positive with his pro-Chalky feelings. The audience sees it all coming, though: After staging a presser with Narcisse at the shattered UNIA offices, Mayor Bader unenthusiastically takes a call from Nucky. Soon after, with Bader’s police already driving Chalky and Daughter to a bad end, Willie brings his uncle news of an hour-plus meeting between Bader and “colored doctor from the Northside … with a beard.” Nucky leaps into action — but it’s up to Chalky to figure this one out on his own. Feigning sleep, he fights off Bader’s deputies just in time — shooting one in the face and choking the other — which is made possible via some backseat-driving help from Daughter. How will Chalky know that Nucky tried to help just as soon as he could? Unclear. (And if he gets wind of the Masseria-Narcisse meeting at the Onyx, he could easily decide to go after Nucky, too.)
As exciting as much of this episode is, the real stunner scene comes near the end, once Chalky’s children visit the Onyx, after-hours. While piano-paying sonny sits in on a jam session, Maybelle retires to the second-floor redoubt, thinking she’ll find some privacy. Naturally, Narcisse is seated in a chair, calm and collected in the dark. With his faux concern, the Doctor brings the big family news out of Maybelle—specifically that her wedding has been canceled (as of that afternoon).
“Why must it be the daughters who suffer,” Narcisse asks (with an obvious double meaning, relative to his own lost “daughter”). It’s clear he could extract some of his cherished Chalky-revenge by overpowering Maybelle in some gruesome fashion: the way he quickly stands as Maybelle exists, or holds her hand with concern, can be full of terrifying portent. Though he lets her leave, perhaps because he thinks Chalky’s already been killed by Bader’s police.
Will it be open season on the kids, once Narcisse discovers that Bader’s men couldn’t finish the job? And how will Eli come to terms with Knox’s threats and the fact that his son — the person he’s trying to protect with his squealing — is now firmly implicated in the Thompson business plan? “Let’s get it sorted out,” he says, before the show cuts to black.