Havre De Grace
“One generation passeth away and another generation cometh but the earth abideth forever…”
After bringing the conflicts of the season to a near boil last week, the penultimate episode of Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season is in some ways an intentional deflation, a weary, soul-sick sigh of heart-rending pathos and pitch black comedy that poses the question: what do you do when you run out of road? The title of the episode translates as “haven of grace,” and in a season that has repeatedly shown our heroes gazing longingly at the exit, here one character makes a break for it only to find in the haven a cruel trap and smaller cage, while others go through the motions, wearily mouthing the words “peace” and “escape” even as they continue to operate in thrall to the demons that have always driven them.
It is a very Hemingwayesque episode in its examination of the virtues and limits of grace under pressure, and perhaps no figure better illustrates this than Oscar Boneau, played by the fantastic Louis Gosset Jr. Although often mentioned in previous episodes, this is the first we see of him, and together with his nephew Winston (alias “Scrapper” for reasons he pretends not to understand) and Chalky, who comes to them for help, we get perhaps the clearest tableaux yet of the tangle of themes that has obsessed this season: legacy, loyalty, ambition and the inchoate rage that drives it. Chalky tells Daughter of his first meeting with Oscar, of how different he was then (“Just ragin’ all the time”) and even aged and mostly blind he is as imposing and impressive as the dilapidated plantation house he inhabits: it is not difficult to believe that a young Chalky (at the moment he received his distinctive facial scar, we learn in a beautiful touch) would have been so taken with him. Nevertheless, Chalky sees in him now a vision of his own future no less clearly than he sees in Scrapper (with his refrain “I’m not afraid of nothin’” rendered melancholy by the wisdom and experience Chalky has gained through the years) an apparition of his youthful self. Taught to channel his rage to fruitful purpose by Oscar (as Nucky advised Willie to do in episode 5), he now sees that rage still animating his mentor after the avenues of power have been closed, a restless wraith running small time moonshine and numbers operations and lashing out at phantoms that this time happen to be real: how many times, we wonder, has he brandished his shotgun in the yard and demanded his enemies reveal themselves, only to be answered by his own shadow and the wind in the trees?
Still, he dies an undeniably heroic death, answering the threat of Narcisse’s men that they will take Chalky with one last rack of his shotgun and the beautifully defiant final words “You might try it.” Scrapper, meanwhile, gets the opportunity to prove that there is more to him than empty bluster, and Chalky gets both a pair of able gunmen to help him in his quest and a higher calling than mere personal vengeance to guide him to his fate, whatever that may be.
If Chalky’s story this week was full of muted melancholy, Gillian’s was almost painful in its pathos. She is a character as driven by rage as any of the male members of the cast, and like them has been driven by it to do unspeakable things. After several seasons of emphasizing her worst attributes, this season has reminded us that Gillian is as victim as predator, and with a chance at escape in view, she began to rehabilitate herself. The last step came this week, with a final meeting with Tommy in which she finally lets the boy go for his own good that almost accomplishes the impossible of getting the audience to side with one of Boardwalk’s most despised characters against fan favorite Richard (and a tip of the hat to director Allen Coulter here; we have gotten so used to cheering Richard on that it’s easy to forget how menacing a presence he must be, but in his confrontation with Gillian this intimidation factor came across in spades.)
And then, of course, Roy Phillips finally shows his hand. From the beginning he seemed a bit too good to be true, and after managing to propose to Gillian without actually proposing (in a nice demonstration of how sick of lying to this poor woman Roy is) and a staged murder, he is revealed to be a detective from the Pinkertons, hired by Leander to draw out a confession for the murder of Roger last year. There is no escape, “no goddamn peace” as Nucky put it in another scene, and the gallant Roy, for all his evidently genuine feeling for her, is just the last and most painful of the men who have used her. The scene that follows, of a hysterical Gillian bouncing from man to man in her frenzy to escape before being held down in a cruciform pose, is among the most painful in the history of this series.
And then there is Nucky and Eli, Eli and Nucky. As June put it to Eli upon their arrival at Nucky’s hotel for Sunday dinner, “Honestly, the two of you.” Doomed to play out the same betrayals over and over in a downward spiral that seems to be approaching its bitter end. Nucky as much as anyone has spent this season gazing longingly toward the exit, but Eli doesn’t buy it—as he tells Knox, “It’s just talk. He doesn’t want peace; he never has…when you grew up in our house…you don’t forget.” For his part, Eli’s resentments resurfaced (along, tellingly, with his drinking) in episode 7, before Knox got the dirt on Willie and forced his hand, implying that the repaired relationship between the two brothers was doomed from the start, with Knox as mere facilitator (although Eli’s defense of Nucky to Knox in the diner demonstrates that the resentment is at war with genuine love.) The dynamic between the two brothers is played out in a couple of beautifully layered conversations, divided by the dinner table meltdown in which Eli, by protesting too much, gives the game away. As Eli and his family leave, Nucky calls his brother back for a dialogue that serves as test, confession, and final, silent offer of reconciliation, but it is not to be. Like so many conversations in this episode (and indeed this series,) it is a delicate dance between hustle and heartfelt, mainly occupying the gray area in between. Nucky recites from memory the love poem Eli composed to 8th grade crush Mary Ann Nolan, on the surface to see if Eli was really reacting to teasing as he claimed during his dinner meltdown, then admits that he has always been as jealous of Eli as Eli is of him: true, but also bait to give Eli one last chance to tell him the truth. No dice. His brother has betrayed him, again. Chalky is either dead or alive and under the impression that Nucky betrayed him. His enemies have joined forces, and Mayor Bader is behind them. As Eli noted, he “just squeaked by” last time he went to war.
Is it any wonder that when Sally asks what’s on his mind, his only response is baffled silence followed by “I want out?” But as this episode shows, when your ambition is a bottomless pit and your fuel age-old rage, there is no escape.
Odds and Sods
-Like Eli re: Nucky, Daughter doesn’t believe Chalky really wants out: “You want them dead: the one who’s your enemy, and the one you called a friend.”
-Oscar perfectly encapsulates the tragedy of Chalky: “You’re too smart to be that dumb.”
-One of Oscar’s henchmen (the one I believe sold Chalky out on pretenses of going to Baltimore) repeated the theme of this episode like a mantra: “Natural fact.”
-Another character doing what he does, sinking into self-parody as the walls close in: Gaston Means, whose demands grow more expensive and his language more flowery as the inevitable approaches, as if they were a talisman against his enemies.
-Oscar punctures Chalky’s understandable rage at Nucky’s seeming betrayal to get to the truth: “Told you not to trust no browns, either.”
-“Maybe I changed.” “That rarely occurs.”
-So sad that all Gillian has to bond over with Tommy is their shared tragedy: “I don’t either. Isn’t it terrible?”
-“All lit up and faster, but it ain’t no different.”
-Pitch black comedy with the Thompson children playing on the beach under the watchful eyes of Nucky’s gunmen.
-Daughter can’t escape either, and I suspect she returned to Narcisse.
-“Old man and a baby…different and the same.” “Baby ain’t got to pay to suck on no titty.”
-Pretty brave how they played Roy and Daughter as intentionally unconvincing, but it all made sense in the end.
-“Don’t worry, we’ll both go down together.” Ominous.
-“I was thinking.” “The later it gets, the worse that is.”
See you all next week, for what looks to be an epic finale! - Trailer attached!
TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Influx TV Writer