Boardwalk Empire Recap: Someday We’ll All Be Free

Photo: HBO
Boardwalk Empire
Episode Title
Devil You Know
Editor’s Rating

This is a recap of this week's Boardwalk Empire. By definition, there are spoilers, so steer clear unless you've seen the episode.

I might as well get this out of the way right now: RIP, Albert “Chalky" White and Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller.

Continuing in its tradition of offing the most fascinating characters first, Boardwalk Empire said good-bye to two more in “Devil You Know." Although Chalky and Van Alden couldn’t have been more polar opposites, they had a lot in common before they got offed. They were both fugitives from the law who lost their way, and both had fractured family lives they couldn’t go back to (or, in the case of Van Alden, didn’t really want to go back to).

It was also in their final moments that they both realized they couldn’t escape death any longer. Chalky and Van Alden have spilled some unnecessary blood in their time, and they knew their comeuppance would be inevitable. So they fell on their figurative swords, and each committed one last act of redemptive self-sacrifice. Although this episode had them coming face-to-face with the devils they knew would get them in the end — respectively, White had to deal with Narcisse, while Van Alden had both Capone and, ultimately, D’Angelo gunning for him — they also knew they were devils themselves.

Chalky’s sacrifice was the most profound and poetic, fitting for such a profound, poetic character. Chalky may have been an inner-city kingpin, but he also had the soul of a romantic poet. (Has there ever been a character in television history you just wanted to listen to more than Chalky?) He ultimately chose to briefly join up with Narcisse, who’s been preoccupied with Luciano’s strong-arm tactics, in exchange for Daughter Maitland’s freedom. This means no more scrubbing the white man’s toilets and having a singing career that could support her (and Chalky’s?) daughter. Although Narcisse proposed a “collaboration” between him and Chalky, we knew that would be short-lived, as Narcisse’s men lined up in the alley to execute Chalky the next morning. “It’s all a dream to begin with,” Chalky tells Narcisse before they part ways. “Ain’t nobody ever been free.” Jesus Christ, I'm gonna miss the hell out of that dude.

I hope I’m interpreting Van Alden going crazy on Capone as self-sacrifice and not just Van Alden finally losing it, practically a delayed response to Capone putting a gun in his mouth two episodes back. (It could also be him taking out his aggression on someone for Eli’s one-afternoon stand with his bitter-ass wife.) Whatever the case, Van Alden literally took one for the team, as D’Angelo plugged one in his head to stop him from attacking Capone. This prompted a jittery, stammering Eli to think fast, implicating Eliot Ness as the Fed who’s going after Capone’s ledgers instead of D’Angelo, who ended up walking out of Capone’s suite with both Eli and the ledgers, when Capone’s brother hands them over to him for safe keeping.  

Thanks to writer Howard Korder and director Jeremy Podeswa, both story lines were laid out as tightly coiled sequences of hermetically sealed, claustrophobic tension. They mostly took place in one room, with characters silently plotting out their next move when they weren’t also trying to figure out how to get the hell out of that space. While the Van Alden/Eli story line was peppered with moments of awkward comedy (Eli walking in on Capone’s brother and the maid, Eli and Van Alden feebly coming up with their alibi), the Chalky/Narcisse story was quiet yet nervy. It also reminded me how much I’m going to miss seeing Jeffrey Wright and Michael K. Williams act in the same scene together. (Can somebody on Broadway strike up a revival of True West or Topdog/Underdog, which Wright did on Broadway years ago, so these two can act together again, please?)

Nucky’s subplot was the weak link this time around, as he escaped the club and had a pity party for himself at a nearby bar. (Considering how Joel Harper stumbled across him later, the bar must’ve been next door to the club.) Coming down from both Luciano’s assassination attempt and the sad news about his beloved partner Sally, he downs rotgut along with a couple of broads (one of whom is a foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping, Sally doppelgänger), referring to himself as muscular silent-film star Francis X. Bushman, quoting Longfellow, and taking out his aggression by beating down a fellow barfly.

As he joined the ladies in the alley for some three-way action (Seriously, in the alley? The Ritz-Carlton was too far away, Nuck?), you just knew these gals were gonna knock him the hell out and run his pockets. The whole thing reminded me of the “Seven Twenty Three” episode of Mad Men, where Don Draper drunkenly picked up those two hitchhikers and hung out in a motel room for an evening of drinking and pill-popping, before one of them conked him on the head and stole his cash. (Considering how both Boardwalk and Mad were created by two former Sopranos scribes, is this something we’ll see in other shows helmed by Sopranos writers? Has this happened over at Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess’s Blue Bloods yet?)

That detour into self-pity is cut short, though, as Doyle assembles an army of gunmen to go up against Luciano’s men and Nucky gets back into general mode. But even though he’s got men and artillery now, the show keeps reminding us how Nucky’s time as king of the hill is already over. He may still have some fight left in him, but — to paraphrase some lyrics from a Morris Day & the Time song — what the hell is he fighting for? All the people he’s cared for are dead or have been driven away. Jesus, even his once-bouncing club is now frequented by lonely creeps.  

As we’ve been dipping back in his younger, happier days these past couple of episodes, when he had a wife and a baby on the way, trying to make a name for himself in this dirty old town, Nucky is starting to come to the sad realization that it’s all for naught. The man is stuck between a past he can’t go back to and a future where he’s not welcome. While Chalky and Van Alden broke away from their shackles by being sacrificial lambs, Nucky is still chained to his. Let’s see if he finds the key in the final two episodes.

Here we go again with the stray thoughts:

  • I have to say, for a show about dangerous, murderous, sociopathic criminals and kingpins, would you say the corrupt, rule-bending Feds have always been the true villains of the show? Between characters like Knox, D’Angelo (who proved how much of a douche he is by throwing that money at Eli and, you know, killing Van Alden), and a pre-fugitive Van Alden, the writers have certainly made them out to be more conniving, treacherous, opportunistic, and blatantly thuggish than any gangster. (Be honest — didn’t you start giving a damn about Van Alden more when he started working for the hoodlums?)
  • No Kelly Macdonald this week. Dammit.
  • No Gretchen Mol either, but we finally got to the bottom of the Nellie Bly mystery, as the flashbacks show Nucky and Eli apprehending a young thief (and future Commodore conquest) named Gillian Darmody. Among the goods she stole was a book by Nellie Bly, who Darmody first says she is. So, not only is Darmody living life like Nellie Bly in the asylum, but the name is probably an in-joke between them.
  • Now that Eli is probably on a bus outta Chicago, maybe he’ll go and have a long-overdue reunion with his son Willie, whom we haven’t seen since episode two. Let’s hope he catches his son with that African-American lady he exchanged small talk with back at that law office.
  • Of course, it would be Paul Muni and George Raft who show up to hang out with Al Capone. After all, they would appear a year later in Howard Hawks’s Capone-mirroring gangster classic Scarface.

Now it’s your turn.