“A servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who dispatched him.”
With such pointed scriptural citation does Jeffrey Wright bring his mesmerizing presence to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire Season 4, playing Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a new rival to Nucky Thompson and Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) on the Atlantic City stage and a man who uses many words to cut to the chase. And he is a key foil in the ongoing power gymnastics of who answers to whom in perfectly corrupt, institutionally racist Prohibition America.
The question drives these Roaring ’20s, of course, as the infiltration of organized crime into the Harding/Coolidge administrations themselves, greased by fortunes made off the nearly impotent Volstead Act, makes for power spheres largely absent moral compasses. Steadfast throughout Nucky’s troubled reign in Atlantic City has been Eddie (Anthony Laciura), his German Man Friday, severely wounded in the recent war, but his injuries have left him physically addled and unable to perform his duties as a smoothly as before and increasingly fitful for different, more managerial responsibilities in the organization.
An odd reversal primacy has occurred for Van Alden (Michael Shannon), the murderous pious onetime-Treasury-agent-on-the-lam, who has now donned an awkward, semi-comic role as a doofus enforcer/bagman in the Dean O’Bannion’s Chicago mob. That role gets complicated even further when, per O’Bannion’s uneasy truce with the Torrio/Capone outfit sees him loaned out to Capone’s charge to help violently discourage Democratic voters.
The biggest wildcard remains the babyfaced killer T-man Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty). The Iowa-born agent with the dorky aw-shucks carriage proved to be Machiavellian little weasel in the premiere as he orchestrated the murder of his corrupt mentor agent and cooly capped the bootleg complicit farmer to frame him for it, and now is introduced to Nucky’s organization by a Treasury bigwig, who lays out his expected resumption of duties as a corrupt T-man and pads his pocket. This turns out to be a mistake, as the bigwig finds himself in a tense meeting with the new Bureau of Investigation acting director, a fastidious, snide little moralist named John Edgar Hoover. Hoover reveals that Nucky’s man is under investigation and invites in his own agent, Knox, to bring to the table the payoff he just received.
Narcisse is less of a wildcard than a new and ominous cloud making things murky for Nucky and, moreover, Chalky.
Narcisse turns up at Chalky’s swank new club to wrap up the dangerous thread from the season premiere, the distaff half of a showbiz broker couple who played a depraved violent sex game with Chalky’s right-hand man Dunn, right before Dunn paid them back by murdering the male half. She’s gone missing, carrying knowledge of two crimes worse than murder in the 1920s, a black man murdering a white man and having sex with a white woman. But it turns out that the couple, in fact, worked for Narcisse, who has cornered the market somehow on African-American live-show talent on the Atlantic Corridor. But he’s not just a talent broker.
The club, of course, represents the rare nudge of racial progress, given Chalky in return for his and his men’s invaluable assistance in saving Nucky from the advances of the Joe Masseria army. The low-born Chalky sees himself becoming a legitimate businessman, but Narcisse’s advent on the scene is soon to caste that into doubt. When he demands recompense for his man’s murder, compounded by the threat of his wife telling a tearful lie about Dunn raping her, Chalky gives him the high hat, until Narcisse withdraws his musicians and performers from the club accompanied by the above quote from the Book of John.
Getting the message, Nucky joins Chalky in a parley with Narcisse, where the latter drips disdain for Chalky’s aspirations to legit and even some insinuated black-on-black racism. Indicating the dreadful price that might be paid for the rape of a white woman by a black man, Chalky demands, “Say how much and let’s end it?”
To Nucky, Narcisse says, “See why I wish to deal with you?
“I don’t think I do,” Nucky says.
“Only kings understand each other,” Narcisse says.
“I’m just here to help a friend in a delicate situation,” Nucky says.
“This man is your friend?” Narcisse queries.
“What’s wrong with that?” Chalky demands.
“Nothing is wrong if you see nothing wrong in it,” Narcisse says.
Thoroughly dissed, Chalky unleashes on Narcisse, prepared to diss, until Nucky bears out his preumption. He offers Narcisse 10% of the club for his silence and keep the talent flowing into the club. However humiliating to an already-on-edge Chalky, Nucky declares, “It’s a fair price. You’re going to pay it. That’s my judgment.”
On the ride back to New York, Narcisse intimates something ominous as per her tastes for swarthier sex partners: “A thing mixed is a thing weakened . . . with each dilution, the spirit slips away.”
On a lonely stretch of road, he has his men dispatch her with cold efficiency. Between the loathsome Hoover, his babyface Iowa assassin and Wright’s mellifluous Machiavellianism, the air again on the boardwalk again thickens.