“ She knew who I was.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way upfront – how is Mickey Doyle still alive? Men this annoying typically don’t last too long in a world full of Gyp Rosettis. So many savvy, ruthless characters have been lost along the way, from Manny Horvitz to Richard Harrow, and yet a man so irritating that he was literally launched from a theater balcony is still alive after the seven year time jump. Of course, it’s not that Mickey is a poorly written or acted character. Quite the opposite, in fact. He is such an effective sniveling weasel that I’m (not so secretly) hoping Winter brought him back just to have him killed in spectacular fashion before the end of the series. The club formerly known as Babette’s/The Onyx is now under Mickey’s leadership, and it is unsurprisingly worse for the wear. At one point, Mickey even pours a glass of unwanted booze back into the bottle as if it were liquid gold.
In this week’s episode “What Jesus Said,” Nucky acts more like Mickey than himself, especially in his scenes with Joe Kennedy. Thankfully, it’s become clear that the show is not so much positioning Kennedy as another adversary for Nucky, but is actually using him more as a foil. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Nucky so self-consciously adopt another man’s habits in this supplicating manner. Even when Nucky shows up to a meeting as the underdog, he always acts as if he is the glue that can hold any operation together. But in Kennedy’s presence, he’s like a different person. When Kennedy mentions that he eschews drinking in order to dispel the “drunken Irishman” image, Nucky seems embarrassed that he would even consider drinking during a business meeting. He rejects alcohol throughout the rest of the episode, barking at anyone who makes the mistake of offering it to him. Nucky wants to be a man like Kennedy, able to spin his shady roots into legitimacy. Kennedy, who will go on to establish one of the most powerful financial and political dynasties in the history of the country, represents the many things Nucky will likely not achieve by the end of the series.
Up in Harlem, we are finally given our first glimpse of Dr. Narcisse, the last player from previous seasons to show up this year. Luciano and Bugsy Seigel visit Narcisse, who seems to have carved out quite a foothold in the area. Unsurprisingly, Luciano and Bugsy give Narcisse the professional courtesy of letting him know that they (under the “leadership” of Maranzano) will be moving in on his territory. Of course, he can either comply or suffer the consequences. Narcisse meets this offer of “protection” with a trademark sneer, and he pays with a cathouse full of bodies by the end of the hour. I’m glad to see Narcisse, though geographically separated from a lot of the action, being brought into the larger mob conflict of the season, as Luciano gains power among the Sicilians.
Also in New York, the law is catching up with Margaret, who is still taking advantage of her illicit partnership with Rothstein long after his death. Since she was the one who signed off on the fraudulent transactions between Bennett and Rothstein, she is the one who must answer for the embezzlement. After her meeting with the investigators, she meets with Rothstein’s widow Carolyn. Her attempts to play dumb and smooth things over with the former Mrs. Rothstein blow up in her face. Carolyn, who harbors no illusions about her late husband’s character, tells Margaret to drop the act. She threatens to sue Margaret herself, since she is still legally married to Nucky. Carolyn is under the assumption that Nucky still has as much money as he did on the night of the lavish New Year’s party featured several seasons ago. Kudos to the show for allowing Rothstein to remain a significant presence on the show in spirit. I still miss Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance and the Rothstein/Nucky showdown we never got, but the show has deftly jumped over his death without forgetting how important he was in this world.
It was unclear going into this season whether Margaret and Nucky would find themselves in each others’ orbits again, but Carolyn Rothstein’s threats send Margaret back to Nucky’s doorstep. So much time and history has passed since these two last spoke (not to mention the whole adolescence of their children, who have yet to appear this season) that I’m interested to see how their dynamic has changed. Margaret’s arc for the series has possibly been the most radical, but she is usually able to maintain the buttoned-down, demure exterior that was the most true to her nature at the beginning of the series. She was a true believer and a truly good person and, although she probably suspected Nucky’s involvement in her husband’s death, saw him more as a savior from her abusive husband than an enticing invite into the criminal world. But Margaret is a schemer in her own right now, since Nucky’s world quickly corrupted her when they began their affair, and I’m curious how this will affect her interactions with Nucky, especially now that she needs his immediate legal help. Their relationship was always, at least partially, about economic status, but he doesn’t even have the resources she needs at this point.
While Nucky, Narcisse, and Margaret all deal with new challenges in this episode, Chalky is treading familiar territory. Unfortunately, this storyline feels like it could have fit almost any other time in the series. Aside from the few mentions of Chalky’s daughter Maybelle who was accidentally killed by Richard Harrow (sob) at the end of last season, you could replace Chalky’s new companion Buck with Purnsley (also killed last season) and have pretty much the same interaction. Chalky has often been paired with other characters that have been abused by the systems in place and, once they escape their literal or figurative chains, have more than a few screws loose. Chalky has always shown compassion for innocents, and although he denies that he is different from Buck to the two women whose house they are robbing, he keeps his cool while Buck works himself into a murderous rage. As with Purnsley, Chalky stops Buck from going too far with a well-placed hammer in the neck, which even echoes the way that Purnsley died. Not to sound like a broken record, but I am still concerned that the show won’t have enough time to devote to emotional catharsis for Chalky. He occupies a good amount of real estate in this episode’s runtime, but most of it felt familiar for the character. Even with the brief mentions of Maybelle, Chalky still isn’t really working out his feelings about the death of his daughter and his flight from moderate success at The Onyx in Atlantic City.
The show returned to a tighter focus this week after last week’s sprawling catch-up, and is once again stronger for it. On Sunday we’re half-way through the season, and I assume the noose will tighten on the characters around the margins. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what kind of retaliation Narcisse cooks up against Maranzano (perhaps Luciano and Bugsy will get him to do their dirty work for them), and I haven’t lost hope that Chalky will find his way back to the gangsters that built him up and tore him down.