It’s a B-story-packed episode of Boardwalk Empire, in which we connect with old friends like Nelson Van Alden (speaking his old name again), the Capones (briefly), and Gillian (still trying for custody of Tommy; still dating the Piggly Wiggly man). But there’s a thematic conceit that helps connect a lot of the subplot track-jumping. In a couple different time zones, characters seem tired of their secrets. And it’s cool to see that some of these less regularly attended to narrative arcs are capable of proving resonant with respect to the show’s deep history, especially compared with last week’s long-telegraphed Chalky-Dunn finale (which was exciting as it happened, but seems now quickly forgotten).
Gillian, for starters, does the most consequential walking down of various memory lanes (some of them pretty dark), while strolling on the boardwalk. After sunning herself and enjoying the surface-level delights of Atlantic City, Gillian also surprises herself (and likely her beau), by narrating her experience with the Commodore. Conscripted by a policeman after a seaside beauty pageant of some sort, she was instantly raped (“he ravaged me that night”) just six weeks shy of turning 13. And so we learn a few more specifics of how she wound up a mother to the departed James (whom she named after an innocent, presumably age-appropriate, under-the-Boardwalk romeo) — even if she stops short of telling her guy the full reality of the last few years.
Her Piggly Wiggly man attends to the revelation with sensitivity — though he has a slightly creepier moment, later in the episode, when speaking on the phone to an intimate. His wife, perhaps? The one he’s supposed to be divorcing? Anyway, whatever he’s planning won’t take “much longer,” he says. When Gillian strides into the room, he abruptly starts playing all official business, “I’ll take care of that right away, sir” style. He tells Gillian she ought to prepare for the court to decide against her in the case of Tommy’s custody — but the oft-given-to-optimism Gillian won’t hear of it.
Despite the distance this arc travels from the central tension in the show (at least at present), Gretchen Mol does a ton of work making these scenes come across. Her confession of the Commodore backstory carries greater heft than the Dr. Narcisse bit with Daughter, later in the episode. And Gillian’s fact-free hopefulness — sometimes a narrative drag to experience — feels fleshed out a good deal in this hour. It’s a strategy that now seems like the only rational response to a pretty ugly early going in life. (Just a little character development can go a long way, when it comes to making an essentially passive character interesting to watch.)
The squirelly Piggly Wiggly guy would be even more down on Gillian’s chances with regards to Tommy if he knew that Ms. Sagorsky was looking to press every last single legal advantage available. In a surprise move, she buttons up a not terribly affectionate discussion with Richard Harrow (he’s back!) by proposing marriage. This makes tactical sense, if not much of the emotional sort. She’s been peppering him with questions about her self-destructing father, and Richard’s subtext runs like: “sorry, can’t break the veterans’ bond.” Then she counters with: Well, that’s good enough for me, let’s get hitched! He almost botches the moment with his silence — but then he says yes. And they have some cute moments. Like when they cool their heels at the local government-marriage desk, and she asks: “Are you sure about this?” His reply: “It’s just a hunting license, isn’t it?” Aw, these two crazy kids might just work out after all!
But probably the bigger (structural) reveal is how, post-wedding, Harrow darkens Nucky’s door to ask for a job. Something like this really had to happen at some point; it’s hard to imagine Harrow existing on this show solely as a househusband. But something about this feels both predictable and underwhelming. We followed a lot of not so interesting dead ends — the aborted hit jobs, the dying childhood dog, the sister who “calls him to account” (and what of that morality push now?), Carl Billings — to get to a place where … Harrow just goes to work for Nucky? (And does he strictly need to? As Harrow even suggests to Lady Sagorsky earlier in the episode, she’s basically just one shopgirl’s promotion away from being able to do it all on her own, potentially.) This development doesn’t feel like a culmination of any of those distracted journeys. But anyway: Now Harrow’s back, and a show needs what a show needs.
In Harlem, Narcisse learns the bad news that Rothstein can’t help him in the heroin trade any longer. Owney Madden tells him Rothstein is “bust” — and later we see Rothstein asking questions of a serviceman (always a moment of weakness for a gangster), and, finally, asking Nucky for a handout. (Somewhat oddly, the proposed transaction is a half-million-payout life insurance policy on Mickey Doyle, which Rothstein will sell to Nucky for a hundred grand. Then Nucky gets rid of Doyle and collects the dough.) So hey, maybe Rothstein’s cameo in Margaret’s place of business wasn’t some long-game grand scheme, but just more random, bad, large-stakes wagering.
Meantime, Narcisse has other problems besides Masseria’s comparative unwillingness to do business with the Libyan race. (A meeting between the two is set, presumably for the next episode.) In the meantime, Narcisse rightly suspects Daughter of betraying his killing-Chalky strategy to Chalky — who wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. As part of his long-standing, creepy, and manipulative power-pact with Daughter (shades of the Commodore and Gillian), she apparently gets to sleep with whom she likes, as long as she keeps Narcisse first in her heart. She mouths some devotional platitudes to reassure him that their mutual agreement is still being enforced on her end. But the Doctor, having instructed her in the ways of the obviously insincere bromide, is ill-disposed to credit these as genuine. And so we see the first violent smack he dispenses, before the show cuts away. By the time Daughter’s visage is shown again — after the piano player rings Chalky at home — we see she’s acquired a nasty, full-face bruise.
As if he weren’t prepared to already, Chalky’s now totally hot to go after Narcisse—though he’s going to have to do it without the people closest to him. Still bearing facial wounds from his lethal battle with Dunn last week, has to make a lot of excuses for himself on a homefront devoted to his daughter’s wedding prep. His wife is pretty chilly when Chalky tries to help out (he cheerfully offers to take Dunn off the guest-list, in order to get a “lucky” even-number of guests; he sharpens the house’s finest knives, etc.)—and it’s pretty clear she feels hard done by. While stride piano-playing sonny doesn’t want to know what’s up between the ‘rents, the daughter does. (She finds Chalky later, tending to Daughter, and storms away.)
Of more concern to Chalky—since he at least raises his voice over it, and demands to know where he stands—are his faltering ties to Nucky. The Thompson-brothers brain trust is not big on helping Chalky in a war with Narcisse, as payback for the Dunn rebellion. Eli says some typically racist stuff when telling Nucky not to help Chalky. Then he probes for some fresh conspiracy material he can feed to Agent Tolliver (unseen this episode, but who pretty clearly put the fear of family into Eli in the last hour): “What else is goin on? Anything I should know?” He gets nothing, but we learn the family is glad to have Willie home again (aw).
In a tête-à-tête with Nucky at the Onyx, Chalky bridles at the lecture he’s being given and asks for clarification, when it’s intimated that Chalky is responsible for Chalky’s problems. “It means when I’m conducting business I mind it,” Nucky replies. “It and only it. Not some piece of ass with a sugary voice, not my pride. My business.” First: Asses have sugary voices? Also: This is not entirely factual self-reporting, as we see when Nucky calls Sally down in Florida, later in the episode. (Missing her, he proposes coming to see her, under the cover of “checking on the operation.” Commendably, she tells him to keep business about business — and to be clear with her about his desire, if that’s what he wants to talk about. Then, she goes back to sleep in her super-tight evening wear, while stroking a shotgun.)
In any case, Nucky soon stands by his promise to not lift a hand on Chalky’s behalf. Later, at the Onyx, while a Stepin Fetchit–reminiscent comic goes on at some length, Narcisse sits down at Nucky’s table — in grand disregard for the segregated norm — and advises Nucky that Chalky’s days are numbered. This seems potentially to be more flash than substance — or a diversionary tactic to delay Nucky’s recognition that, without Rothstein or Masseria (yet), Narcisse’s position has weakened, too. Then Chalky storms in, calling the (amused) Doctor out, while Nucky does his best to restrain “his friend.” Chalky settles for tipping over a table and rushing offscreen.
All of these stories are pretty elegantly balanced. The one arc that didn’t come across as strongly (or purposefully) was the Van Alden/Mueller business. The episode actually opens with him, in domestic hell, bleeding as he tries in vain to fix a sink for his taunting, unforgiving wife and consta-crying infant. At the flower shop, Dean O’Banion has a rush job on a mysterious wreath; while he’s readying to hand it over to Mueller, the Chicago boss starts to slowly put it together that Mueller disappeared with the Capones at an awfully convenient time: “That truck, sometimes I wonder if it’s bad voodoo … the one Stu was in, the day we found him.”
Mueller tries to divert the conversation to the new Buster Keaton movie opening, which makes O’Banion suspicious. As Mueller prepares to deliver the wreath (bearing the inscription “DOB R.I.P.” … hmmm!), we glimpse a man with a nasty facial scar grimacing near the flower-shop window. He’s dimly familiar. Oh yeah, could it be … the guy Van Alden assaulted with a heating iron, back when he worked for the Electric Iron Company? What follows shows that Van Alden is still a good for a few Banner/Hulk moments on the job (as well as for sarcastic laughs around his bitter home life) — but his being delayed from the killing of Dean O’Banion (for Al Capone) by the revenge-seeking ex–Iron Salesman buddies felt like a callback without much point. (Certainly the man suffers enough already, no?) It’s maybe worth it, just for his “I am relaxed” recitation, before he shoots all the Electric Iron boys.
And yes, he bares his soul a bit to O’Banion — if you were Van Alden/Meuller, would you believe in God anymore? — but this arc is so prat-fall-heavy, a moment like this doesn’t connect the same way Gillian’s engagement with the past does. And otherwise: Whatever explanation winds up being offered for the fact that Frankie Yale & Co. kill O’Banion in that late-night scene (rather than Van Alden), for now, it feels more like a nagging mystery than an intriguing one. Until the next episode, at least Van Alden can enjoy throwing crazy money (from O’Bainion’s till) in the air, and suggesting to his wife that things are going to be a-okay from now on.