Boardwalk Empire: "The Old Ship Of Zion"
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Boardwalk Empire: "The Old Ship Of Zion"

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Boardwalk Empire

"The Old Ship Of Zion"

Season 4, Episode 8

“...I don't consider him a model boy. But there were some good points about him nevertheless. He was above doing anything mean or dishonorable. He would not steal, or cheat, or impose upon younger boys, but was frank and straight-forward, manly and self-reliant. His nature was a noble one, and had saved him from all mean faults.”

—Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick

In the most electric scene in “The Old Ship of Zion,” Dr. Narcisse is summoned from a meeting of his Negro Improvement Association by Chalky White banging on a garbage can lid like it’s the shield of a gladiator; he prepares to set fire to Narcisse’s latest heroin shipment in the middle of the street as a crowd gathers. When someone asks what it is and Chalky suggests the good Doctor would know, Narcisse, a showman who knows when he’s been upstaged, replies only, “It’s your performance, sir.”

Is it ever.

One of the reasons this show has stayed so engaging (on a scene-by-scene basis, if not always in brisk pacing or sterling character arcs) is that it assembles a cast of actors that can almost universally elevate their material—which means that when they’re handed something to sing about, they bring the rafters down. (Even its bit parts are well-cast, as seen in the as-yet-nameless federal agent who delivered the pitch-perfect, “Of course, it’s just an anecdote,” to the mid-guilt-trip Knox.) And when an actor like Michael K. Williams, who’s spent several seasons as a scene-stealing supporting act, finally gets room to stretch, we get “The Old Ship of Zion,” a reminder of what this show can do at its best.

Chalky’s determination to prove himself to a community that he feels estranged from has shaped much of his character (his scene in the cellblock in “Ourselves Alone” reveals both the depth of his influence and the ways his exercise of that power differs from, say, Rothstein and Nucky). It also means that he’s tied to the expectations of his community in a way Nucky isn’t. When sussing out Purnsley’s involvement with the murder of the Deacon, Chalky’s first concern isn’t that Purnsley’s become erratically violent, but that people in church were “eying [him] all hainty.”

His ongoing fight against his own perceived inadequacy hasn’t been helped by the tendency of other organization leaders to dismiss his concerns, to shut him out of deals, to use him only as muscle; he’s vented his anger and leveraged some fears against his own family to make sure his children lead a different life from his own. His hold on his power, for all his work, is always tenuous; it’s why Dr. Narcisse first smelled blood in the water, after all.

But to underestimate Chalky is to make a mistake.

Dr. Narcisse’s big scene this week, literally and figuratively, is Ominira (the Yoruba word for “independence” or “freedom”), a play in which a prostitute hands her “born-in-sin” baby to the virtuous Africanus, then commits suicide to rid the world of her sinfulness as he carries the baby to the homeland (Dr. Narcisse’s subtlety with threats doesn’t translate to the stage, I guess). The community reception is decidedly cool, even before Chalky calls Narcisse to open battle, lighting his heroin on fire and firmly pinning the existence of the Baltic Avenue opium den on Narcisse’s supply. (Chalky’s raid on the place was one of many sudden bursts of violence in the episode, but this one, against unarmed junkies, was most clearly a manifestation of Chalky’s own mounting frustrations.)

And Narcisse underestimates everyone when he asks Daughter to detain Chalky long enough to let Purnsley in to finish the problem. Given the chance to drop his guard, Chalky’s sorrows have started to seep in around the edges; his sympathy toward Daughter’s mother, while novel for her, reflected a man who respects survival above all else. When he asks her to sing “The Old Ship of Zion” for him, explaining it was the song sung over his father’s grave and the moment he knew he’d leave his family behind, Michael K. Williams and Margot Bingham give the short scene all the weight of years. Purnsley’s attempt on his life (which Chalky expected—why Purnsley should be surprised is a mystery, since he’d know better than anyone not to underestimate Chalky White) is violent as much for the scene of halting connection that it interrupts as for the visceral fight that follows.

This storm has been brewing since early in the season, and Narcisse had used gentility, subtlety, subterfuge, false camaraderie, and veiled threats as his weapons to get the upper hand on his dynamic with Chalky. Now it’s open war, and that’s something Chalky knows but good.

This storyline was so self-contained and so compelling that the rest of the episode feels more like threatening creaks coming from another room, but even here, the episode tightens the pins beautifully.

Nucky and Eli’s brotherhood has always been more a series of negotiations than a functioning relationship, but the reason they’ve managed to look over things like plotting one another’s downfalls is largely because their dynamic is no less honest when the two are in league together than when Eli’s chafing under Nucky’s dismissal. They know each other well enough, by now. But that, too, can be toxic: At this point, while Eli still approaches family with a sort of bullheaded determination (if he holds on tight to his family, everything else will be forgiven), it’s a dynamic Nucky has learned to play as he would anyone else’s weakness. In what might be one of the best summations of their current relationship so far, a tense paternal-influence discussion about Will holing up with Nucky gets settled when Nucky peeves, “Do you think I like it?” Eli, greatly mollified: “No.” Well, just so long as nobody’s happy!

And so Agent Tolliver, who knows a thing or two about feeling passed over, has his chance. Tolliver has been one of this season's snakes in the grass, but it’s been a smart decision to avoid a single overarching villain this season in favor of several players working at messy cross-purposes (a slightly slower but more satisfying build). So Tolliver is still trying to prove himself to a room of men who don’t take him seriously, and while he’s as ruthless and loathsome as anyone else, this week he sits down opposite Clayton, gifting him with a lung-cancer’s worth of cigarettes in exchange for all the dirt there is on Will Thompson.

The outcome, of course, isn’t in question: Eli didn’t spend an episode contemplating Eddie’s effects for nothing. Will, who’s gone from standup son to Jimmy Darmody, Jr. since this time last season—who spends the episode honing his victim complex and getting earth-mother advice from a visiting Sally Wheet—is going to be the thin end of the wedge between the brothers. Tolliver gets his inside man. (And though Nucky has more screen time, the always reliable Shea Whigham is the star of this subplot: his mostly silent work at the table with Tolliver does the work of pages of dialogue.)

But Nucky, as ever, has his moments, too, all marinated in irony. When Sally suggests he was slumming it in Tampa, he says people “expect more” in Atlantic City; he gifts Will a copy of Ragged Dick, a Horatio Alger boy-makes-good story of a bootblack who rises through the world because of his strong moral center and tireless work ethic. (It’s perhaps the kind of thing one gives a boy before he pins manslaughter on his roommate, but Uncle Nucky isn’t great with presents.) “We all have to move forward, Will,” he says, which fits in neatly with Will’s seeming reconciliation and highlights just how much Nucky’s treading water right now, a man in search of a cause.

But he’s not without honesty, either: When he visits Chalky for what’s supposed to be a patronizing status check, it’s a mixture of unconscious projection and genuine concern as he warns Chalky, “Don’t let your life get out of hand.”

And though it sounds like advice that comes too late, Chalky ends the episode next to the corpse of his mutinous lieutenant, gasping in the arms of a woman set up to betray him. He’s desperate and alive.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Stray observations:

  • Even with such amazing lead performances, this episode was a veritable playground of scene-stealing.
  • Not sure the line, “You must try harder, because it upsets me,” could be much creepier than Jeffrey Wright makes it. Not sure the combination of mayoral stinkface and congregant back-patting can be much funnier than Jeffrey Wright makes it.
  • Paul Sparks makes Mickey someone you’d loathe in real life, but his ability to smarm out the mood of a room is as uncanny as ever (“He came, he saw...” “He conked her?”), he can sell the hell out of a throwaway bit (“Turns out, this is her sister!” Eli: “Twin sister?” “No, that’s the peculiar aspect!”), and still manage to make you sympathize with him when a jealous Nucky takes Eddie Kessler’s cane in hand and cracks Mickey across the temple in front of Sally; Mickey manages more dignity with a head injury than Nucky does all week.
  • Owen Campbell as Clayton has exactly one line this week, but he makes a meal of the moment before he looks Tolliver in the eye.
  • The way Ben Rosenfield looks at Eddie’s caged songbirds is a five-second highlights reel: You can hand that kid all the Alger you want, and it won’t do a lick of good.
  • And Margot Bingham, whose role as honeytrap could have been flat on paper, manages to infuse Daughter Maitland with wells of melancholy and awakening dread that could position her as a major player in the season’s back four, though it’s hard to imagine this ending well for her: Her changing allegiance is the reason Chalky’s alive, and it won’t go unanswered.
  • In an episode studded with great moments, one of my favorites is the reluctant Ominira stagehand dragging the backdrop to one side to reveal a flatly-painted Eden.
  • The standoff between Purnsley and Chalky, more tense in its own way than the violent fight that follows it, is shot with the soft-focus dread of a silent film: The close-ups tell the story; the words, at that point, hardly matter.
  • We’ll pin this here for later: Tolliver’s theory of law enforcement. “Get the crooks. Then we’ll find the law.”
  • Of all the ominous musical cues over which this show has cut to black, “Does the Spearmint Lose its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” might be the scariest.