There are a lot of guns in this episode that aren’t fired.
Chalky, Al Capone, Dean O’Banion, Sally Wheet, and Nucky’s bodyguard all reach for or brandish sidearms that never go off. Even the gun that is fired this episode (Van Alden’s) doesn’t kill the man it’s meant to kill. “Marriage and Hunting” operates in much the same way as an hour of television; this is an episode that doesn’t quite explode, but we’re close enough to season’s end that there’s a coil of energy through it that’s heating up.
At this point last year (in an episode also directed by Ed Bianchi), Nucky was hiding out with the family he’d soon lose, reeling from the attack that nearly killed him and desperate for allies, of which he’d soon find Chalky at the top of a very short list. This episode pivots on the moment when Chalky calls in the favor by asking for a death sentence on Narcisse.
Much has been said about Steve Buscemi being an ensemble actor who some think hasn’t risen to the leading-man status the show sometimes requires of him. But a large part of why Nucky works is exactly because he doesn’t have any greater vision or purpose or inner resources than anyone else. It’s literally just that Nucky doesn’t want to go to the trouble on Chalky’s behalf. When he runs though his high-handed list of reasons he doesn’t feel obligated to step in (from condemning Chalky’s “distracting” affair to naming the club as payment in full for saving his life), it’s almost magnificently hypocritical. And Chalky knows it all when he shoots down the falsity of Nucky’s entire “I mind my business” argument in a single sentence: “Heard a lot of ‘we’ last year, when you was in trouble.” Not that it shames Nucky, because what could?
Of course, Nucky’s as racist as anyone else on the show, and part of avoiding Chalky’s request is merely because he considers it a step down. (After he summons Eli to consult, he transparently presents the situation as, “There might be a problem with Chalky.”) Even Eli, who shows up only long enough this episode to look suspicious, dismisses Chalky’s problems outright. If Nucky is going to have a problem with Narcisse, it’s that Narcisse joined him at his table in the whites-only front of house at Chalky’s club. And when Nucky stops Chalky from declaring war on Daughter’s behalf in front of the customers, it’s positioned as both a strategic move and an aversion to making a scene. The next few episodes should force Nucky to deal with some of this; it will be interesting to see if his non-interference policy holds for long.
It might not have to. This week, we see the full, unsettling depth of Narcisse’s fixation with Daughter, to whom we’re told he granted sexual freedom so long as she loved only him—a covenant she’s broken. (In its own deeply unsettling way, theirs is the dynamic of marriage and hunting.) Daughter, who views him with a surreal religious devotion, delivers her cover story fatalistically, knowing she’s doomed for letting Chalky escape death. It’s a hair-raisingly tense scene from Jeffrey Wright and Margot Bingham: Daughter perched in a little chair in the center of the room as Narcisse examines the apartment for evidence we know he’ll find even before he delivers the chilling, “Mr. White is alive, and you have crushed me utterly.” The first physical strike happens late but feels so inevitable that Narcisse might as well have had his hand raised from moment one. (Bingham’s makeup when we see her next is one of the most beaten faces I can remember on a woman on TV.) Daughter’s still a weapon, just being used at a different angle. But one way or the other, Narcisse will face a reckoning soon. He’s out to replace the heroin Chalky burned last week, to the point of going to Masseria; if that doesn’t kill him, Chalky’s going to die trying.
Nucky’s one’s-own-business-minding certainly isn’t across the board, to no one’s surprise; Rothstein rides into town, and Nucky’s happy to buy Mickey Doyle’s life insurance policy for 20 cents on the dollar, rather than let Mickey get killed (two favors—three if you count the loss Mickey would be to the viewing public). He’s little more than a cameo to remind us his gambling addiction means money woes, but in his short scene at home, it’s clear Rothstein’s concerned, ashamed, and somehow honestly baffled by this point of faulty self-control. Even the camera judges him at a remove, Rothstein so foreshortened he seems nearly childlike within the frame, debts looming.
Some people don’t have the luxury of seeing their problems coming. Gillian, her face turned toward the sun, is starting over, and confides her whole history to Roy Phillips with a frankness we’ve never seen from her except when she’s at the end of her rope. (Given how her life has gone, honesty doesn’t buy you much.) Roy urges her on with greasy pleasantness and sits at her hearing for custody of Tommy, being so blandly supportive it’s honestly a relief when we watch him whispering down the phone to someone that it “won’t be long now.” His motives have been too simplistically sweet to be real; now, the only mystery is whom he’s really working for, and how badly it will blindside Gillian.
Gillian also runs into Richard in this episode, thanks to his appearance at the custody hearing, which sounds like it might actually go Gillian’s way. Bad news for Tommy, if it happens: Gillian can be a compelling character and is in many ways a tragic and sympathetic figure, but her motherhood is a loaded gun of its own, and probably doomed to be toxic. Since Julia’s no fool, she knows that as an unmarried woman with a dying father, her chances aren’t good unless she marries. Richard, though he looks terrified at the prospect, accepts her proposal, and they awkward their way down to the courthouse to seal the deal. (Though it’s possible Julia’s pragmatism could foreshadow some eventual involvement, I think it’s not a coincidence that so many of the show’s other tertiary wives exist this week—Mrs. Rothstein, Mrs. White, and Mrs. Mueller are mentioned or appear.)
But of the guns being loaded this week, none is so transformative as Van Alden himself. The charade of a normal life had a nightmare tinge to it, a repressed-schlub act under which his eyes were getting flatter and his body language more painfully bound with every Sears & Roebuck problem. When Al Capone threatens to kill him, it takes Van Alden one second flat to suggest killing O’Banion himself. It’s the dream of control in a situation in which he has none, and Van Alden positively blooms with the opportunity. (You forget it’s possible for him to look at ease until he smoothly puts bullets through the heads of his vengeful friends from the iron company.) And though Capone is suspicious of Van Alden’s reasons, because it’s Michael Shannon, he only needs one line of hidden meaning to come alive from the inside out as Capone suggests he’s a coward: “Ask Frank.”
Of course, Van Alden is the poltergeist of history even in the comfortable alternate universe Boardwalk Empire inhabits; Frank died before he could bear witness to Van Alden trying to kill Al, and O’Banion will be similarly dispatched. It’s a close thing; Van Alden confides everything to O’Banion at gunpoint, and O’Banion getting shot without Van Alden having to do it is a gift. For a guy who claims not to believe in God, someone is certainly clearing the path before him. As Van Alden walks around the corpse of the man he didn’t even have to kill for himself, it looks like maybe he knows.
But though it’s subsumed amid the significant drama around it, one of the most portentious moments in the episode is one of its smallest. As Nucky comes home for the night from a day of having to deal with the world, Richard Harrow steps silently out from the misty dark outside the hotel.
Richard was the first cast member we saw this season; at the time, I noted that characters who appear first tend to be significant in the season’s endgame, often as antagonists. Richard hasn’t been positioned as a villain yet, but his arc for nearly two seasons has been trying to escape the Boardwalk. Julia was the impossible dream; Emma was his last chance. His return, with all its potential, is in some ways his failure to erase himself. He’s come to Nucky to ask for a job, which should be straightforward—just another not-Chalky person for whom Nucky’s willing to do a favor. Nucky doesn’t answer, though one assumes he won’t turn such an effective free agent away.
But the scene takes on a heavier quality than the dialogue would suggest, the pier lights outlining Richard from behind and the rolling-in fog weighing the shot down with dread: Richard makes his entrance as Nucky’s outlining plans to protect himself from war, which can’t be coincidence, and it rings of significance that when Nucky asks, “What do you want?” Richard replies, “I came to see you.”
- In honor of dead Dean O’Banion, let’s all just appreciate the smarmtacular delivery of, “Guy had a wife, kid. Maybe he didn’t have a kid, but still.”
- Gillian tells Roy that her first kiss was with a boy named James, just before she met the Commodore, and her son was named in his memory. I’m inclined to think this is the truth, if for no other reason than this show has never spared Gillian much of anything, and it will make her even more miserable to have confided such a sad secret when Roy Phillips’ skin splits and peels away, revealing he’s one of the lizard monsters of Ragnar. At which point I hope she stabs him to death.
- I enjoy Maybelle’s ongoing connection with her father, and all the friction it brings. Compared to the rest of the Whites, she’s appeared in contexts closer to the truth of what he does, and her brushes with the realities of his life increasingly hit home for Chalky. I am interested to see if this stays an unsettling grace note in Chalky’s life, or if we’re building to something. (Happy with the former, curious about the latter.)
- One connection I do not enjoy right now is Nucky and Sally Wheet. Aside from a general sense of level-headedness, her main role so far is to provide him a temptation to go to Florida, and a reminder that life there is different from life in New Jersey, and we’re getting down to the wire on the season, where space is at a premium. Margaret hasn’t been seen for dust in weeks, and Sally gets a booty call?
- Chester Mueller, on loan from Fractious Child Central Casting.
- Sigrid’s complaint about the Sears Roebuck house is one of the neatest possible versions of the common criticism leveled at Boardwalk: “Months and months, and nothing fits together.”
- Nelson Van Alden has yet to meet a sexual situation he couldn’t immediately make a bizarre and uncomfortable power play. Everyone has a gift, I guess.