The North Star

Hello everyone! My name is Chad Nicholson, and I’ll be your guide to the boardwalk starting this week. As I’m joining you halfway through the fourth season, I think it may be helpful to give you my thoughts on the series as a whole.

I’m of the opinion that this is one of, if not the, best shows on television, a dark, beautiful, hilarious, and stylized epic creation myth of modern American organized crime, set at the mysterious place where history bleeds in to folklore and performed by one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. It is a show allergic to the status quo, never shying away from the implications of its characters actions, whether on themselves, others, or the universe of Boardwalk Empire, and the way each new season sets about rebuilding that universe on the wreckage of the previous one, seemingly from the ground up but always to a plan that feels like an inevitable reaction to the previous year’s events, is a lovely thing to behold. This season so far has seen the characters grappling with the decisions made during and after season three, as well as the unforeseen consequences to those decisions that this series always sends boomeranging back home to our heroes like one of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme gizmos.

Boardwalk Empire
Directed by
Allen Coulter
Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Shea Whigham, Gretchen Mol, Michael K. Williams, Stephen Graham
Release Date
13 October 2013
Chad’s Grade: A

The Ghost and Messrs. Thompson

After last week’s elegant gut-punch of an episode, the midpoint of season four finds Nucky and the gang at sea without a compass, flailing about for some indication of the direction of the shore at least, and this gives the women in their lives the opportunity to take charge. In the scene that gives the episode its name, Julia Sagorsky, stargazing with Tommy and the prodigal Richard Harrow,  explains to the formers astral interests to the latter:

“He’s become very preoccupied with being able to navigate his way back home should he get lost…it’s not so easy, is it?” In “The North Star,” several characters find themselves shaken to their respective cores, and, after being brought face to face with their selves, reaching out instinctively for human contact with consequences that in at least one case and possibly more will likely prove disastrous.

Three of the characters–Nucky, Eli, and Chalky–are haunted by the ghost of Eddie Kessler. We meet Nucky at a train station, with three hours to fill before he boards the train for Tampa, watching as the rumbling tracks make his coffee cup vibrate in a call back to Eddie’s shaking hands serving Nucky his coffee is episode 2, also directed by the great Alan Coulter. It’s clear Nucky is devastated, and equally clear he has no idea how to deal with it. His scene with the returning Margaret is epically uncomfortable, as he reached out to her in his distress out of pure instinct and now finds himself unable to even put into words the trauma that  set this attempted reunion in motion.

Margaret for her part is having none of it, despite seeming none to happy herself, and it appears the last vestiges of the connection between the two vanished with the appearance of a dead Owen Sleater in a box last season (referenced, with pitch black humor, by the stuffed baby alligator Nucky is taking the opportunity to send stepson Teddy as a belated birthday present.) For all the awkward silences and rebukes, the real sting comes in Margaret’s parting words: “I really am sorry to hear…no one knew who to take care of you like Mr. Kessler.”

It is apparent that Eli doesn’t know any better how to process this tragedy than does his brother. Charged in Nucky’s absence with clearing out the safety deposit boxes Eddie procured, he searches Eddie’s room for the key, with Mickey Doyle in tow. If Nucky is a provider, Eli is a nurturer: he feeds Eddie’s caged birds, stares at the photograph of Eddie’s sons, and tosses and turns all night thinking about Eddie’s undelivered letter, conflating it with his concerns for his own son Willie. The next day sees Eli still unable to find closure; he sits in Doyle’s warehouse, eerily empty and closed for business due to what Eli describes to the terrified Agent Knox as “a death in the family,” trying to live up to the responsibilities Nucky left him with but shaken by Eddie’s suicide and his failure to gain access to the latter’s safety deposit box (the banker’s curt “We could go to jail…you wouldn’t want that again, would you?” pushing the same button in Eli that Margaret’s parting barb pushed in Nucky).

In his hurt desperation and shame at no longer having the exact form of power that Nucky needs him to have to accomplish this particular mission, he falls back on habit: ordering around people with badges, and in so doing inadvertently falls right into the flailing Agent Knox’s hands, giving new life to his troubled investigation. Feeling trumps thinking.

Chalky, meanwhile, is visibly depressed by Eddie’s death, and this only exacerbates his feelings of alienation–his ambition and self-loathing have led him to build a home in which he is a stranger, unwilling to sully his respectable family with outside affairs, and his self-confidence has undermined by Dr. Narcisse’s psychological tactics. Obviously smitten with Daughter Maitland, he is smart enough to smell some sort of trap in a woman brought to his club by Narcisse, but powerless to resist after her hypnotic rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” shakes him to his core. One last futile effort at asserting his authority later, effortlessly swatted away with her words “I saw you watching me…I know what you are,” and he’s in her arms.

Feeling trumps thinking.

As much as any character on this show, Nucky prides himself on thinking with his head rather than his heart, on operating based on a cold, objective analysis of the facts at hand, but the series has shown us the extent to which this is just another form of emotional self-protection. At his core, Nucky is a character who wants to be liked–he used to be a politician, after all–but is terrified of being taken for a sucker. It was obvious the death of his factotum would affect him more than any other cast member, and though he manages to pull himself together to get his business in Tampa dealt with, his after hours scene with Sally shows that he has in no sense recovered.

Nucky being Nucky, even while epically drunk, he tries to maintain his edge, pumping Sally for information about new investor Vincenzo Petrocelli before finally dissolving into anesthetized guilt and self-pity. It’s a remarkable performance by Buscemi, as the cerebral Nucky navigates his conflicting feelings of sorrow, paranoia, and self-loathing, and just as he nears the center of the labyrinth, making his way from “I think…” to “I feel…”, Sally punches him right in the kisser, shocking him out of his solipsism and, like Daughter with Chalky, luring him into her arms.

The question is, is Nucky (and Gillian, absent this week but in a similar situation last week with the mysterious Roy Phillips) luckier and/or more discerning in his choice of confidant (if choice even enters into this, and the characters aren’t cornered animals lashing out on instinct like the alligators at the underground fight club) than Chalky or his brother? The end of the first half of season 4 finds the characters in a dangerous mood, trying to find their respective ways back to a home that may be more illusion than reality, as the cumulative weight of their decisions in the course of the shows’ run bares down on them.

Odds and Sods

Nucky’s inability to honestly face the situation at hand in his scene with Margaret was reminiscent of Gillian last week.

-Although resolute in her decision to leave Nucky behind, Margaret didn’t strike me as very happy in her new circumstances. Interesting to see where her character goes from here.

-I like how the show is exploring J. Edgar Hoover’s much discussed reluctance to pursue vice syndicates like the mafia or Nucky’s gang. It seems to come down to a combination of his Fascist tendencies (he is more concerned with “agitators” like Marcus Garvey) and good old-fashioned fear (an attribute his old nemesis Alvin “Creepy” Karpis would appreciate the show emphasizing.)

-Nice how Knox’s knees knocking under the table echoed the coffee cup in the opening scene.

-This show is both unashamedly pulpy and unashamedly arty, and I like the combination.

-Paul Sagorsky continued the episode’s trend of characters butting up against their limitations and lying to themselves about those limitations. “These are from working!”

-I love watching Tim Van Patten and Alan Coulter trying to out-direct each other from week to week. Great image of Paul waking up after his fall to an image of St. Richard–one of several breathtaking shots this week.

-Eli’s nervous Chuck Jones smile as he tries to con the banker into opening the safety deposit box was hilarious.

-“I am who I am”–less a statement of acceptance than a howl of despair for these characters.

-McCoy touched on Nucky’s guilty conscience when he misidentified whom Nucky had lost. “Eddie. EDDIE.”

-Speaking of McCoy, his stint in prison between seasons really did a number on him. He’s become a desperate parody of himself, and he knows it, and so does Nucky.

-This show has always been a gangsterphile’s dream, and for those intrigued by the redneck mobsters who were intimidating McCoy in that great Western-style scene, look up the Ashley Gang, a crew of Jazz Age bootleggers and bank robbers led by the notorious John Ashley, the so-called King of the Everglades. The fellas aren’t them, but I’d be willing to bed they were inspired by them.

-Great suspense in the scene where Knox goes to the warehouse to meet Eli and Mickey, with the hammer beating in the distance. It’s easy to forget amidst his goofiness, but scenes like this remind us that most of us would be terrified to be stuck in a room even with someone as comparably harmless as Mickey: “Only the last few feet.”

-Despite hooking up with Masseria, Lucky still views himself first and foremost as a New Yorker and an American: “I already live where I want.”

-Eli definitely is suspicious after getting the handkerchief with Knox’s real initials, JT. Will he put the pieces together, and if so, what then?

-Meyer seemed to be the only character not at sea this episode, and is firmly self-confident with who he is: “You don’t know what I have.”

-“Standing there tellin’ folks life ain’t worth livin.”

See you all next week, with the return of Remus!


TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Contributing Writer

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