“It is your duty to get rich. ... The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community.”
Russell Conwell’s questionably inspirational speech about the glories of riches appears early this week, filtering through the halls of Temple, where Will Thompson stands with his fellows in a wood-paneled hall, promising a pretty girl and the class bully that he knows where to get enough booze to make a party.
This week, Boardwalk Empire covers a considerable swath of geography, leaping up and down the East Coast and taking a detour into Wisconsin. But for an episode that covers so much ground, the claustrophobia is palpable, both in its story and in its framing. Almost everywhere, the characters are trapped in low, close places. The Onyx Club in Atlantic City, Narcisse’s Harlem headquarters, the Harrow’s barn in Wisconsin, a university library in Pennsylvania, a speakeasy in Florida—this week features a lot of ceilings, crowded furniture, dim lights, and places that feel as though they’ve happened as a result of the collapse of something grander. Even when Nucky stands in his grand Tampa hotel suite, everything around him is low and square; the sunshine through the windows feels like an interloper, false and bright and almost offensive.
And there’s a reason the atmosphere is stifling: This week, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, everyone’s trying to trade up. (When you can’t trade up, you have to be honest; always be willing to trade up.)
Nucky, in particular, is hemmed in by circumstances. He’s down in disgustingly-sunny Tampa to meet with stalwart Bill McCoy, who offers a prime deal on an import spot and several thousand acres of buffer space. But Nucky’s hesitant, both because he feels he’s due a better quality crook than McCoy’s partner Tucker and because he gets information that the area in question is being developed all around them, creating a boom market of witnesses they can’t risk. McCoy tries to call on their friendship, but that’s always a dicey proposition when it comes to Nucky, who’s happy to remind others of their emotional debts but will almost always find a way to slither out of having any. (“If you needed money, why didn’t you just ask me?” asks Nucky, who has honestly never met a relationship he couldn’t try to quantify in dollar amounts, moments before he tells McCoy that McCoy should have approached him more like a friend.) Nucky still ends up sealing the deal, but not before McCoy has to put a machete through Tucker’s skull, which should be an interesting twist on the business.
Weirdly, this level of self-delusion exists inside Nucky with a sharp awareness of his shortcomings; part of his tragedy is that he’s just smart enough to know how much of him is rotten. Tampa hostess Sally Wheet, who’s different from most of Nucky’s infatuations because she’s old enough that he couldn’t be her dad and similar to Margaret in that she challenges him, which is something he usually finds stimulating until he’s actually in the relationship, gets to handle this bout of honesty. When she asks if he’s alive, he admits, “I recall that I was once.” “What happened?” she asks, to which he responds wryly, “Prohibition,” and says that before that he was content to be a petty crook. It spirals into self-pity as amateur sport, but it’s always interesting to watch Nucky halfheartedly nail himself to the wall when he thinks he can get away with it sounding romantically melancholy.
Dr. Narcisse, who has no time for melancholy, is trying to get glory and riches by extending his influence with a little piece of the heroin trade. Conveniently, Rothstein is always interested in extending his influence everywhere, all at once, and the two meet briefly to discuss the deal. It’s short but great; Narcisse and Chalky are diametric opposites in demeanor and approach, but the meeting between Narcisse and Rothstein is a study in similarity: two men tightly in control, carefully taking the other’s measure. (Rothstein still manages to insult Narcisse, following it up with a bone-dry “No offense.” Narcisse brushes his pant leg, which carries the same level of menace as most people brandishing a gun.)
But drugs are only as good as the ways they can be leveraged to disturb the ranks of one’s enemies, and Narcisse’s most immediate interest in the drug trade is to make the newly-demoted Dunn one of his distributors. Chalky, who under other circumstances would be keenly aware of the potential for trouble that a resentful Dunn represents, is distracted by the arrival of chanteuse Daughter Maitland, whose greatest appeal, according to a clearly intrigued Chalky, is that the white folks like her. “Yes, that would be very important,” Narcisse agrees, and waits until Chalky leaves before making the poisonous addendum, “to you.”
The stakes are much smaller so far for Will Thompson, whose cringingly awkward attempt to sweet-talk some liquor out of Dad’s distribution hub actually pays off, but it’s not for nothing that in an episode featuring speeches about self-determination and everyone making grabs for power, old Willy seems markedly comfortable leveraging his dad’s illegal business to make friends, influence people, and get the girl. It falls out slightly like an after-school special on the dangers of the demon drink (you’ll be caught kissing! Everyone will laugh! Drunkenness!), but his enthusiasm for the family business and this knee-jerk instinct to prove himself will probably be ground down into powder by the bootlegging life soon enough.
Gillian, no stranger to being trapped or ground down by powers outside her control, spends the episode doing seemingly pleasant things in a series of rooms that are too small, things that might be considered trading up if she wasn’t struggling so hard just to stay afloat. Roy Phillips asks her to playact as his wife, and though she’s thrilled at the prospect of being someone else, it involves apartments to let, smoky nightclubs full of tinny small talk, taking respites that offer no solitude, and having dessert in a cramped diner. But there’s no leaving the past behind on this show; a stranger approaches her and reminds her of the young friend he had with him when they met: the one she named Jimmy, romanced, and drowned. (Gillian has some shadows that have nothing to do with the architecture.) It comes to nothing (this week), and Phillips is still infatuated with her socially-polished savvy, but at this point, she’s less the glittering starlet than she is a strung-out actress just used to her part.
And for Richard, one of the show’s oddly honest men, his borrowed time in the calm eddy of his sister’s acceptance is over. It was inevitable; plots were bound to call him back to where the action is, and even though his arc so far this season has been an interesting character study (more in Emma than in him, honestly), there was an air of inevitability about his attempts to give up the killing life. He left an open name on the contract Carl Billings gave him, as much to see if he could as out of any belated sense of mercy.
It would be too bad to leave Emma behind for too long: She’s something of a salt-of-the-earth harbor on paper, but in execution their relationship carries some dry humor (a gravel joke features Richard’s first real smile since Margaret appointed Richard her Tin Woodsman), and her calm assessment of Richard’s mistake still gives her no qualms about killing to protect him when Billings comes to settle accounts. It seems less and less surprising that Richard claims she was the one who taught him to hunt; their steel is the same, and only their reasons are different. It’s no wonder she staggers Richard with nothing more than a fond farewell embrace and a whispered, “You need to call yourself to account.” Of course, that’s what he came home to do, but sometimes, there’s just not a deep enough grave for your gun.
“Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.”
- Just because the episode was filmed through murk doesn’t mean there still aren’t evocative shots. Most pointedly, the episode opens with Nucky walking down a hall in silhouette, two bodyguards melting out of the shadows behind him and pretty much putting an end to the idea that he’s ever been half a gangster.
- Though Billings doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on, he has Richard’s number when he points out the futile nobility of Richard’s not spending his advance cash for the deaths of three men: “You don't have any kind of code. You kill for hire.” Richard is more than that. He’s one of the few people on the show who’s demonstrated abiding loyalty without apparent reward. But if you wanted to make Richard doubt himself, that’s the sentiment that would do it.
- Hey, the show remembered Teddy exists! In the imaginary dimension where Margaret lives, I hope she’s taking aviation lessons.
- Hats off to the young blonde student who drunk-danced her very hardest during the Temple basement party.