“Ain’t nobody ever been free.”
Rest in peace to both the calmest and craziest faces on television. BOARDWALK EMPIRE’s antepenultimate episode finally starts dropping some major characters, and manages to efficiently tie off significant corners of the show, opening up the final episodes to refocus on the major concerns from the first two seasons, when it was more of an Oedipal drama set in the criminal world of early Prohibition rather than a straight-forward gangster show.
The show has been teasing in infamous tax evasion arrest of Capone all season, and this week D’Angelo sends Mueller and Eli into the lion’s den to retrieve the ledgers that they need to nail him to the wall. As Mueller aptly notes before they knock on the door to Capone’s suite, “This has not been thought through.” Mueller and Eli arrive under the pretenses of dropping off a late collection, but instead catch Ralph Capone with a woman in the money room. Ralph immediately dumps the newspaper shreds used to stuff Mueller bag of “cash,” and conveniently tasks D’Angelo with disposing of Mueller and Eli. Ralph doesn’t buy it when Mueller insists that they’re there to steal from him. In the final banter between Mueller and Eli, Mueller tells Ralph that he’s “having trouble at home.” Eli interjects, “I can vouch for that.”
But before Mike can get them out the door, Capone enters with two Hollywood types who are “researching” what will eventually become the original SCARFACE. Ralph, who didn’t want to bother his brother with this “problem,” is forced to explain the situation. Knowing that he’s not going to make it out of the room, Mueller gets in Capone’s face and verifies that Luciano was right. He is a Fed and a man of God, goddammit! As wonderfully heartbreaking as Michael K. Williams is in this episode (more on that later) Michael Shannon absolutely bursts forth from this scene with the fire and brimstone hellfire that defined his character in the first few seasons. Nelson (Kaspar!) Van Alden is an extremist in everything he does, and it was very satisfying to see him finally acknowledge his true self while trying to strangle the world’s most famous gangster before getting his brains blown out. Amidst Capone’s screams of “get him off me!” Eli confesses that a Fed named Ness sent them on this errand. He tells Capone that Ness wants the ledgers, and Ralph slips them to D’Angelo for safekeeping before he takes Eli away. In a throwaway line that I missed on first viewing, when Ralph asks Al what to do about Nucky, Al tells him that “Luciano is taking care of him.” Looks like Al is in on Luciano’s plans. While this week could have been a perfectly fitting end for Capone, I doubt the series will close out without showing his arrest, especially with the relatively high-profile casting of Ness himself. It also possible that Capone will play a part in whatever form the inevitable climactic battle between Nucky and Lucky takes.
In my opinion, Nucky himself has by far the weakest storyline in the episode. Perhaps I’ve just seen this scene too many times before: tortured anti-hero attempts to drown his sorrows before coming to some profound realization, followed by a dramatic call to action. While Buscemi offers up some exemplary drunk acting, he spends most of the episode cavorting with two women in a dive bar as he mourns Sally’s death. Unsurprisingly, the women end up robbing him while he is distracted by the promise of a three-way, and he is found by one of Mickey Doyle’s lackeys.
At this point, I have to mention the theory that’s been floating around the internet since this episode aired. Apparently, some fans believe that the boy that Mickey sends to fetch Nucky is Tommy Darmody, Jimmy’s son who was last seen with Richard Harrow’s girlfriend fleeing Atlantic City. I have to admit, I didn’t pick up on this on my first viewing, but it was all I could think about on a second watch. The actor playing this young man is styled in a very similar manner to Michael Pitt, and has a similar face and voice. He also uses a literary pseudonym, as Gillian did when Nucky and Eli caught her under the boardwalk (conveniently featured in the flashbacks in this episode). On the other hand, it’s a bit late in the game for a character of this magnitude to resurface. Some of the signifiers of this possible relationship could also just be thematic tie-ins and mirroring. For example, this boy displays a lot of the rags-to-riches ambitions that Nucky used to get ahead in his day (refusing money from rich men in order to gain their trust for one), and the character could be present merely as an example of the cyclical nature of a life of crime and to help shed light on young Nucky vs. present Nucky, who is literally passed out in a gutter. Nucky’s flashbacks in this episode are largely transitional – we know what happened with Maybel and her pregnancy, and we also know the fate of Gillian once she meets Nucky, and the flashbacks in this episode move the chess pieces into place for these tragic events.
The emotional fulcrum of this episode, of course, is the demise of Chalky White. This episode picks up right where the last left off, with Chalky discovering Daughter and her little girl Althea. (Side note: It’s clear when she wakes up that she is much older than I originally estimated, and is probably Chalky’s daughter. Daughter insists, however, that she is “only mine.”) Narcisse has blacklisted Daughter all across the country, and she is forced to scrub toilets instead of pursuing her singing career. Although I do find it awfully convenient for the plot that Daughter and Chalky show up to confront Narcisse at the exact same time after 7 years, the emotional resonance of their interaction more than makes up for the contrivance, and Chalky’s conversation with Daughter and Althea is heartbreaking. He confesses that he cannot even remember what Daughter’s beautiful voice sounds like, and he kisses Althea on the cheek and warns her to stay away from men like him.
When Narcisse arrives, taking advantage of the fact that Chalky will not open fire on him with Althea in the room, he offers up a pretty transparent offer of employment to Chalky. Of course, the best lies are partially true, and with Narcisse’s frustration with Luciano, it would make sense for these two men to join forces. However, Chalky insists that Narcisse put Daughter’s self-financed record on, and he spends a beautifully still moment reveling in her voice. Half in shadow, Michael K. Williams’ motionlessness completely conveys all he has suffered in the last seven years. He decides in this moment to sacrifice himself for Daughter and Althea, and accepts Narcisse’s offer, under the condition that Narcisse allow Daughter to start performing again.
The four are greeted by a veritable army of Narcisse employees waiting for them just outside the door. Narcisse takes them out to the alley behind the building and has his last stand with Chalky. Whether or not Chalky initially believed in the offer of employment, he knows that he cannot trust that Narcisse will let Daughter out from under his thumb. Narcisse, cruel bastard that he is, doesn’t even allow Chalky to die with his illusions, and asks him how he knows he’ll keep his promise. Of course, Chalky cannot know, but he is finally able to recall the sound of Daughter’s voice from the new record. His ever-present frown twists into almost a smile as Narcisse’s firing squad marches down the alley, guns pointed at him. The scene cuts to black with the gunshots, abruptly cutting off the music playing in Chalky’s head. In the end, a man who was always searching for a place and a purpose, he chose to believe that he died for something.
Only two episodes left! I’m glad that Van Alden and Chalky, two of the most entertaining side characters the show has to offer, got their moments in the spotlight before the climax of the series. It was clear that neither character was ultimately going to affect Nucky’s story, but both deserved emotional resolution. While Van Alden, who had ultimately grown into the show’s main source of humor, did get his due, I still feel as though Chalky’s end was too abbreviated. Chalky had many wonderful and sad moments in this episode, but I felt like the show had to bend over backwards to get all of this accomplished in one episode. The unspoken exchanges and bargains between Narcisse and Chalky especially felt rushed, and pretty much could have filled their own section in another episode. By having Chalky confront all of his complex feelings about Daughter, find out that their union had produced a child, AND negotiate for his and/or Daughter and Althea’s lives with Narcisse put the character through episodes worth of emotional arcs in the span of a few minutes.
While Chalky’s story ends with a bang, Nucky’s ends with the promise of one. He wakes up at the club to find that Mickey Doyle has amassed an army of supporters to take on Luciano. Whether or not Capone’s possible involvement will be a factor, I’m sure that the show will not go out without a giant shootout. Whether or not that will happen next week, the show still has to address the fates of Eli, Margaret, Willie (who we haven’t seen in weeks) and Gillian. I think we’re also going to get an ample amount of flashbacks in the coming weeks as young Nucky’s tragedy grows ever closer.