White Horse Pike
I wrote a few weeks ago that one of the unique pleasures of Boardwalk Empire is the joy it takes in its chess playing, both in relation to Winter and company’s designs on the audience and the designs the various pawns and puppet masters that make up the cast have on one another. By that criterion (and many others) White Horse Pike, the tenth episode of the fourth season, is among the most effective in the show’s run. It is a succession of gambits, overplayed hands and bluffs called and otherwise, with one scene after another landing like a slap in the face, and as in previous seasons, story arcs and conflicts that were already compelling in isolation are brought together in scenes of exquisitely layered tension as the pieces of the season’s puzzle begin to fall into place.
After a showcase for Chalky in episode eight and one for Van Alden last week, White Horse Pike brings the season into the home stretch with standout scenes for everyone from Margaret and AR to Chalky and Narcisse to Meyer Lansky and, of course, Nucky. After spending the larger part of the season trying to live up to Arnold Rothstein’s ideal of being able to “sit quietly in a room alone” and fighting the forces—be they friends and allies, family obligations, or his own boredom and loneliness—that repeatedly threaten to pull him down from his lofty perch, all the arcs and conflicts that have been streaming in eddies around Nucky at last come together this week to form a mighty river that threatens to wash him away in the current—and he has yet to discover that the cruelest flood of all is yet to be loosed, his brother’s treachery for now remaining hidden behind the levy of Eli’s uncertainty and attempts at stalling and misdirection. It’s probably a good thing; given all the other threats that confront him this episode, the withholding of the one that is arguably most dangerous and certainly the most emotionally devastating seems paradoxically like both a mercy and a dangerous weapon held in reserve by Winter and company.
I’ve believed since early on that Chalky’s arc this season is a deliberate mirror image of Nucky’s arc from last season, and in this episode the circle is almost made complete. After a failed hit on Narcisse that ends disastrously, with Chalky weakened both physically and politically, we finally get to see whether, when the chips are down, Nucky will stand by Chalky as Chalky stood by him in a similar situation last season. The answer turns out to be an affirmative, but circumstances conspire to ensure that Chalky quite possibly misinterprets events to indicate that Nucky not only sold him out but personally helped set him up to be murdered. It’s next to impossible to resist the urge to yell at the screen in a vain attempt to inform Chalky that events are not as they seem, so painful is the possibility of this miscommunication and potentially disastrous its outcome. Worse yet, Nucky’s demeanor in his meeting with Chalky is so self-consciously magnanimous (a result, no doubt, of Nucky’s pleasure in regaining the face he lost when it was he who was hat-in-hand before Chalky last season, and taking the opportunity to re-establish what he surely views as the proper balance in their relationship) that, after the series of unfortunate events and missed connections that leads to the appearance of Nucky’s betrayal, Chalky probably thinks back on the meeting and believes Nucky was playing him for a chump.
As if Narcisse wasn’t trouble enough, Nucky also gets confronted this episode with evidence that his partner in the Tampa deal, Meyer Lansky, has been roped into a scheme by Masseria and Luciano to piggyback heroin on his rum shipments. This storyline plays out in a series of very strong scenes beginning with hardboiled Sally getting the scoop through a bit of risky eavesdropping and encompassing Nucky giving Eli the potentially disastrous instructions to bring Knox into their investigation while Mickey Doyle munches on a sandwich and discusses The Thief of Bagdad before apparently climaxing with an extraordinary sequence involving the Thompson brothers, Knox, Meyer Lansky and a freshly dug unmarked grave that demonstrates again the show’s bravura ability to wring gallons of suspense out of the predicaments of characters we know are protected by what some call “historical armor.” The scene is a sterling example of this show firing on all cylinders and working on several layers at once: despite my knowledge of Meyer Lansky’s biography, the writing and Anatol Yusef’s typically top-notch performance got every ounce of drama available out of this ruthlessly clever young gangster-hall-of-famer on his knees begging for his life as he stares into his possible final resting place, while Nucky is so firmly in control of the situation and so chillingly credible in his threats that it is a marvel to think that a few seasons ago it would be impossible to imagine him in this situation. In fact, one of the other levels the scene works on is as a callback (in a season that seems almost overflowing with callbacks) to the tenth episode of the first season, when we saw a much greener Lansky on his knees begging for his life before a very different Nucky, one who was visibly uncomfortable in the situation (which was an improvisation by Chalky on the mission Nucky had charged him with.) Finally, the presence of Knox in the background, a silent sentinel exchanging loaded half-glances with Eli, is a grim reminder that as resourceful in a tight spot and quick on his feet as Nucky is, he still faces at least one major threat of which he’s still not remotely aware, and in that ignorance he may have handed Knox the very rope needed to hang him.
Odds and Sods
-The opening close up of Eli’s coffee cup was a clear callback to a similar shot of a coffee cup shaking in Eddie’s trembling grasp in episode 2, as well as the opening shot of Nucky’s cup vibrating in the train station as he thinks about Eddie in episode 6.
-More ominous is the coffee Eli spills on the tablecloth in his tussle with Knox in Eli’s dining room—a subtle call back to Eddie spilling the coffee on Nucky’s breakfast table in episode 2. The parallel probably doesn’t indicate a good outcome for Eli, but interestingly Eddie—who committed suicide to protect Nucky from himself—insisted on cleaning up the spilled beverage, whereas Eli lets the stain spread unchecked. Is this a clue that Eli won’t be able to contain the damage he does as Eddie did?
-One possibly hopeful sign: Eli apparently fantasizes about escaping to sea to get out of his predicament, which indicates that despite looking like he is hitting the bottle hard, he has not yet succumbed to the resentment and self-pity inside himself and is in no way a willing cooperator for Knox.
-Nucky, he of the transactional relationships, tells Sally “I owe you one” for her tip-off, and the shot of Luciano stalking around the warehouse with a gun looking for the hypothetical eaves dropper that was in fact her makes me a bit nervous about possible repercussions she may face. Good thing she sleeps with a shotgun.
-If Narcisse benefited this week from Nucky and Chalky both drastically underestimating him, in his rage for revenge he may have overplayed his hand and planted the seeds of his own defeat. While I definitely can see Joe the Boss teaming up with Narcisse to put the screws on Nucky, humiliate him, and pressure him into acquiescence in the heroin deal, the terms Narcisse described as “non-negotiable”—namely Nucky personally betraying Chalky into the Dr.’s hands, went unfulfilled. If Narcisse continues his temper tantrum and pursues this, I cannot see the clannish Masseria blowing up this big money deal he just struck to back a black man he probably only agreed to partner with in the first place because he wanted to see the look on Nucky’s face when he realized he’d been outmaneuvered. Keep an eye on the Joe the Boss/Narcisse dynamic—this could be key to the season’s endgame.
-Images don’t come much more loaded—or iconic—than a viscera-splattered Chalky White strangling a policeman with the tattered American flag he spent most of the episode draped in.
-A completely in character moment: the argument Meyer makes that finally earns him a reprieve from Nucky was “The way I saw it it’s the same life I’m risking either way and there’s a fortune to be made. Tell me, Mr. Thompson, what you would have done differently?” In a way it’s another callback to season 1, when Nucky told Margaret he never held being an opportunist against anyone—in fact it’s a trait he admires.
-Of all horrible people on this show, Margaret’s hypocritical, anti-Semitic boss Bennett is particularly unpleasant, and I look forward to seeing him deeply humbled by the resurgent Rothstein.
-The machine gun attack on Capone was another marvel of suspense and excitement involving a character with historical armor. One very effective technique Winter et al have used in the Chicago scenes this season is putting us into the character’s limited perspectives, particularly to coke-fueled paranoid megalomania of Al Capone. I predict the show will follow history and ultimately we will learn it is the Northside Mob under Hymie Weiss seeking vengeance for O’Banion behind the attack, but in the untrustworthy environment of the underworld, you can never be sure it’s not your friend, mentor or protégé arranging your demise.
-Purnsley was feeling mistreated by Chalky and so defected to Narcisse, who offered him validation. Willie felt no validation from his father, only pressure, and so reached out to Uncle Nucky, who validated his rage and ambition. With Hoover casually dismissing Knox, will the fascist psychopath be ripe for recruitment by Nucky and/or Eli? This could be a way out for our beleaguered former Sheriff.
-The look on Eli’s face when Willie asked him “Pop, isn’t this what we do?” contained so many different emotions I couldn’t begin to pick just one. Superlative performance. I’ve seen the line from Eli that follows, “Let’s sort this out,” interpreted a couple of different ways—as him washing his hands of his wayward son (which I find doubtful) to him resolving to return to the home team and look for a way out from under Knox’s thumb. It was probably meant to be ambiguous, and we’ll have to wait and see.
-Jeffrey Wright is awesome whenever he appears on this show, but the way he let Narcisse’s Caribbean accent grow much more pronounced in his post-gun battle rage was wonderful. “Mistah Thompson—he not ready for dis.”
See you all next week, when we finally meet Chalky’s oft-mentioned but never before seen mentor, Oscar Boneau!
This week’s episode finally brings the character full circle, as the meek George Mueller façade falls away to reveal a reborn and even more dangerous Nelson Van Alden, and the confident patience Winter displayed in getting to this point only makes the reveal that much more cathartic and satisfying. In addition to his hulking size, what made Van Alden so frightening in season 1 was his fanatical conviction, full of passionate intensity. With that conviction slowly chipped away at by a series of Job-like tribulations and sent into retreat by the government he once served, the terrifying Van Alden was forced into hibernation under the façade of George the schmuck, unlikeliest of salesmen in an arc that played like something out of a Coen Brothers film. The Darwinian universe of Boardwalk Empire has now given him a new purpose, and one that may render him more dangerous now than even his previous incarnation as Holy Warrior: brute animal self- assertion. Bad enough to be stuck in between two troglodyte gangsters like Dean O’Banion and Al Capone; throw in the banal, high school bully cruelty of the returning iron salesmen and a wife who constantly reminds him of his masculine failures under the Randian standards of the day and you have the perfect pressure cooker to force Van Alden to embrace the law of the jungle, red in tooth and claw, finally finding the replacement for the puritanical code he at last admits he has discarded and discovering in the process a new purpose, chillingly expressed in three lines in three separate scenes:
“I am calm.”
“I used to believe in God. Now I don’t believe in anything at all.”
“Who’s holding $1000 in his hand? Take off your nightgown.”
Elsewhere this week, we saw Nucky adhering to the law of the jungle and revealing the staggering hypocrisy necessary to fulfill it and still call oneself human. Halfheartedly searching for a reason to back Chalky in his play against Narcisse to soothe what’s left of his conscience, he finds his escape hatch in a series of excuses that deliberately (on the show’s part, not Nucky’s) echo Rothstein’s words to him last season when it was he who needed the help:
“I tried to warn him, couldn’t have been clearer.”
“When I mind my business I do just that, not some piece of ass with a sugary voice.”
On the other hand, he admits he has a bond with Chalky, and Narcisse did himself no favors when he sat next to Nucky in the club, drawing menacing stares from patrons and reminding once again of what a messy moral universe this show inhabits: this episode in particular reminded viewers of just how loathsome the Doctor is (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen more a more horrifically bruised face than the one he leaves Daughter with) yet when he insists on sitting down by saying
“There are no niggers where I come from, and I refuse to be treated as one”
it’s difficult for this reviewer not to sympathize with him.
Odds and Sods
-“He had a wife and kids!…maybe he didn’t have a kid, but still.”
-It seems nearly every week a different actor gives an Emmy caliber performance: Erik LaRay Harvey, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Stuhlbarg, Anthony Laciura, Stephen Graham, Michael K. Williams, and now Michael Shannon. They ought to create a new category—Best Supporting Actor on Boardwalk Empire. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this may be the best ensemble ever.
-We finally get a couple of foreboding moments that indicate Roy Phillips is in fact too good to be true: his ominous shadow on Gillian’s sunbathed face and suddenly changing the nature of his telephone conversation when Gillian enters the room. Interested to see his true nature revealed.
-Lots of origin stories this week: Gillian almost coming clean to Roy; Narcisse reminding Daughter of the nature of their relationship; and Van Alden revealing himself to O’Banion.
-“The Jew, like the Libyan, must remain pliable if he is to survive.”
-Difficult to watch the daily fictions under which the White family operates fall apart. I’ve thought for a while that Chalky’s arc this season is a mirror image of Nucky’s last season, and I won’t be surprised if Chalky ends up losing his family as well.
-As befits an episode entitled “Marriage and Hunting,” lots of marriages, common law marriages, and possible future marriages this week: Richard and Julia, Van Alden and Sigrid, The Rothsteins, Chalky and Lenore, Maybelle and Samuel, Nucky and Sally, and Narcisse kneeling down to Daughter like he’s going to propose before he brutally attacks her.
-Nucky still doesn’t completely trust Eli, and it’s a good thing: when the latter fishes for information, the former’s guard comes up visibly and he changes the subject to Willie.
-“This is truth?” “This is sarcasm.”
-“When he wakes up from nightmares—and he does wake up, your honor—“ Poor Tommy. I really hope the kid gets a happy ending.
-Notice how the previous judge recused himself after Gillian’s offer?
-“So plot your revenge.” “That takes cash.”
-Is this the end of Mickey Doyle? Winter has turned his continued survival into a running joke, so I expect he’ll find a way out of this spot, but I’m not sure how.
-Speaking of which, Mickey’s life insurance policy from way back in season 1 is another example of how this show “remembers everything.”
-Yet another example of this show playing the long game: Maybelle’s curiousness about Chalky’s life outside the home, which was first explored in one episode last season.
-I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted an onscreen couple to be together and happy more than Richard and Julia. “It’d be better if I was married.” “To who?” “You’d do in a pinch.”
-Another running theme this episode (and really throughout the show): the distinction between what sociologists call Onstage and Backstage behavior, literalized and brought into focus with a racial angle at the Onyx Club/
-Notice how everyone waits for the train before engaging in violence at O’Banion’s flower shop? One of the perks of the location.
-Richard:”I got married…I need a job.” A brief scene, but filled with import: as an example of the show playing the long game (fans have been waiting for this scene for two seasons), another illustration of the title of the episode and reflection of Van Alden’s arc (like Nelson, Richard is driven back to the gangster life by the need to provide for a wife) and, with Richard fading into the darkness at the end of the first scene of the season and reemerging from the darkness here.
-Richard also has a new suit, with a proper hat rather than what the man in Guzik’s synagogue told Al Capone was “the cap of a boy” back in season 1.
-“Make a promise to you, break another to myself.”
-I wonder if Maybelle thinks Chalky and Daughter gave each other those bruises?
-Patricia Arquette has enormous breasts.
-“It’s foggy here.” “Don’t get lost in the fog now.”
See you next week as Chalky makes his move on Narcisse!
TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Contributing Writer
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