Boardwalk Empire sometimes toggles back and forth between states of being quite obvious, and then very obscure. But the show is at its best when it figures out an artful way to mix these two paints, as it mostly does here, in the next-to-last-episode of the fourth season.
For starters: We knew Gillian was doomed for a while, and likewise long suspected that this end would come at the hands of “Roy Phillips.” To briefly, ah, recap: Recall how Phillips’s putative business associate claimed to be from the same Indiana town as season-three expendable Roger McAllister. Also, there was the man who bumped into Gillian, the better to remember Roger to her, during an initial date with Roy. Plus we had Roy generally being shady about his marriage, and obviously plotting against Gillian, on-screen, as of a couple episodes back.
And yet, for all this signal-flashing, the particular way Gillian falls has a surprising amount going for it. There were neat little plot-mechanical parts to it (a staged killing of “Huson” from the A&P chain, by “Roy Philips,” though both were really Pinkerton Agency detectives), as well as typically fine cinematography (check the Renaissance-painting-like framing from above, as a struggling Gillian is pinned by Pinkerton agents to the hardwoord floor of the old grand house).
Best of all, though, was the winning way that actor Ron Livingston inhabited Roy Phillips as a full character, once he was able to turn over all his cards. (This might have taken a bit too long to happen; it’s possible there wasn’t really enough plot in this arc to sustain it as a season-long progression, but it ends nicely.) Philips really does believe that Gillian is a brave woman — given all she’s had to survive in life — and sells it to an audience that’s mostly just seen Gillian behave badly as an adult. At their final dinner as “a couple” — before the shadowy garage scene in which Philips pretends to kill his business rival as a pretext for getting Gillian to spill, empathetically, about how easy it is to forget that you’ve killed a man for no good reason — all of his lines are really about his personal regret over Gillian’s soon-to-come downfall.
Less convincing/explicable is why wise old Leander Whitlock felt a need to entrap Gillian by engaging the Pinkertons to produce her confession over the killing of the otherwise irrelevant Roger McAllister. Leander says to Gillian, after the Pinkerton reveal, that he “owed Louis” — that is, The Commodore — something, and that’s he’s sure Gillian can understand that. But since Leander’s interior life is totally unknown to us — he’s only ever been seen as a lieutenant-of-practicality who encourages characters to scrounge about from one exigency to the next — it’s never been clear to the audience in which direction Leander’s fundamental loyalties might have been pledged, in the years since Jimmy Darmody killed The Commodore. (Earlier in the episode, Leander is encouraging Gillian to sell the big grand house for $37,000, the better to continue her custody battle over Junior Darmody. A guy as rich seeming as Leander isn’t doing this for that amount of money.)
Gillian ties up that little custody drama herself, before her arrest, by realizing (at long last) that she isn’t a fit mother for little Tommy. After being advised by Leander and another anonymous lawyer to drag out the custody battle for years, financed by the sale of the house, Gillian recognizes that this will ruin Tommy’s childhood. Being herself a woman rather too destined and formed by a bad adolescence, she sensibly decides to avoid passing that experience on to the next generation. She shows up unannounced at the Sagorsky-Harrow house, one last time, in order to give Tommy his father’s military dog tags, under the stern eye of Richard Harrow (who finally allows Gillian this last connection with the boy). She sees Harrow has a ring on his finger, makes him promise to raise Tommy well, and then walks off to her bad end.
She’s not the only character running out of road in this episode. Basically, that state applies to everyone on-screen in this hour, in something of a chain reaction. The slimy Gaston Means, facing a late-night house raid over his general perjury and criminality, places a panicked phone call to Nucky, in which he asks for steadily higher (and ridiculous) sums of money in order to reveal the identity of the “skunk” in Nucky’s cellar. It’s so late that Nucky can’t even recognize Means’s voice — and seriously, Nucky only knows one person who talks like that! — and he’s so annoyed with Means’s frantic negotiating tactics that he hangs up on the man.
But Nucky does remember to think about possible betrayals throughout the rest of the episode. This mental pivot comes just in time for Eli to have a massive breakdown at a big family gathering: He jumps all over (poor) June for making sport of his recourse to the “blue-eyed, baby-faced” insurance salesman, a couple episodes back. (The way Eli goes from telling June to shut her “goddamn trap,” with maximum volatility, to cheerily suggesting “enough with the teasing, that’s all” is a great enactment of what a thoroughly unconvincing, put-the-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube performance looks like.)
That salesman, of course, was really Agent Knox/Tolliver, as part of his putting-screws-to-Eli project. (And, boy, at a practical level, was it dumb to go to Eli’s house and be seen by all sorts of family members or what?) Nucky realizes that the “salesman” is the cherubic “prohi” whose name he thinks is Knox. And hey, that’s the guy that Eli thought was a “skunk,” previously! All of a sudden, Eli’s rush to get Nucky in a room with the Florida and New York mob players — the better to iron out everyone’s positions in the Dr. Narcisse era — becomes thuddingly obvious to Nucky.
Before Eli’s family leaves the Albatross Hotel, Nucky calls Eli over and says to set up the meeting. (There’s a little bit of symbolic back-and-forth about their brotherly past, with its jealousies and split loyalties, but because everyone — including June — has already been down this Thompson Brothers plot path, it’s not hugely captivating.) Eli doesn’t look totally comfortable, after his too revealing outburst, but what else can he do but continue to pretend that he’s looking out for Nucky by setting up the meeting? On the watchful margins of this exchange is Willie, who notes with interest the unguarded look of pure disdain on his uncle’s face, as Eli drives his brood away from the beachfront. Family problems, straight ahead!
The navigation of rough road is also the theme of Chalky White’s continuing story, which takes him, in this episode, to the Maryland town of Havre de Grace — or “haven of grace” as Daughter helpfully footnotes (in a bit of Obvious Boardwalk). While being driven by a couple of unidentified men who were dispatched to pick up Chalky and Daughter, after last week’s killing of Mayor Bader’s deputies, Chalky tells the story of Oscar Boneau, the man who pulled him up out of an early, nasty fight (in which Chalky probably got that razor-line facial scar), who then taught him everything he knows — standard mentor-type backstory, etc.
It’s to that man’s house that we’re traveling. And this Oscar turns out to be a nearly blind, though pretty wise, elderly grouch: He insults Daughter (refusing even to call her by that name), chides Chalky endlessly for having dealings with an “ofay” like “the Thompson boy,” muses that he does not miss The Commodore (whom the white power broker Oscar was compelled to deal with, during his criminal career), and also provides a service by giving the “everyone runs out of road” speech that neatly presents our episode’s theme.
Oscar’s pushback in the face of Chalky’s averring about new racial realities is good stuff, too, as it directs us to think of Marcus Garvey’s politics, and Narcisse’s similarly jaundiced way of viewing the necessity of doing business with white men. Finally, despite his blindness, it’s Oscar who recognizes that it’s one of his own crew who has tipped off Narcisse’s men as to Chalky’s location. He fires blindly into the darkest night, and is quickly killed — though not before his still-loyal henchmen fire back well enough to keep the Narcisse forces at bay, for now. (Did Narcisse send, like, three guys?) Oscar’s nephew, nicknamed “Scrapper,” seems all too eager to be part of Chalky’s new gang.
So this is a memorable performance, in a one-and-done arc. And, as ornery as Oscar may be, he is also correct about Daughter’s unsuitability for Chalky. Despite game performances from both actors, the Chalky-Daughter romance continues to feel a bit forced in this episode. (Daughter even knows it: She notes that Chalky’s strongest motivation is to go back to Atlantic City and kill some people — not to run away with her.) Chalky protests a bit unconvincingly, and Daughter eventually settles things herself, by running away on the same night that the Narcisse-Oscar shootout takes place.
As usual, with so many arcs afoot, it’s natural to have a few nagging thoughts about the part of the Boardwalk universe that we don’t see on screen this hour. What’s going on at the Onyx club? Nucky notes (correctly) that there’s no peace between his crew and the Masseria/Narcisse axis. So what’s Narcisse up to (besides getting tips from Maryland)? And what’s Harrow doing, when he’s not shooing Gillian away from Tommy? Still doing dishes at the Onyx, but now for Narcisse? Wouldn’t Nucky lean on Harrow for some intelligence on the Chalky situation?
At least now some narrative paths are made clear, and presumably Chalky can go back to Atlantic City and help along this season’s climax. We know Chalky feels sold out by Nucky. (And even if that’s not strictly true, it’s inarguable that Nucky was skimping on the help for Chalky this season.) It’s an open question whether, in his current dilapidated state, Chalky will make it back to Atlantic City before Nucky scoots away for good, the better to start a new life with Sally, to whom he places a late-night call. (He tells her, again, about how weary he is of not caring about anyone or anything, and that he “wants out.”) And so there may still be a little bit of road left to ride, for some characters, this season.