Upon his introduction last week in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Jeffrey Wright’s erudite, scheming and not-a-little-Satan-y Trinidadian Harlem strongman Dr. Narcisse dropped a few sulfurous hints of something ugly and untoward about his racial attitudes. With last night’s episode, we began to see his Machiavellian character and motivation coalesce, even wrapped in the finest suits and Biblical citations.
After a depraved incident involving his Caucasian wrangler of talent for his entertainment racket, now dead, his wife, now dead, and chief enforcer of newly legit AC nightclub operator Chalky White, Dunn (Eric LaRay Harvey), still alive, Narcisse with both savoir faire and bullying menace muscled his way into 10% of Chalky and Nucky’s business. Narcisse’s disdain for both Chalky (Michael K. Williams) and Dunn as unworthy members of his “Libyan race” seemed obvious. Seeing him amid what would otherwise seem a distinguished audience of young African-American citizens, holding forth on how to uplift the race, juxtaposes starkly with his immediate meeting thereafter with downtown crime boss Arnold Rothstein looking to negotiate a regular supply of heroin. We discover in this meeting Narcisse is the BSD in Harlem.
The grand sweeping brilliance of Boardwalk has been its recreation (allegorically and historically) of a many-textured tapestry of violent social upheaval and corruption so vulgar it went all the way to the White House. America’s odious history of race relations has obviously been part of that. Chalky’s arc as has seen him rise from Nucky’s ward boss and crony to the ally who saved is ass in last season’s war with the New York Mafia and warranted at least the semblance of “partnership” with Nucky in the Onyx Club. Narcisse understands Nucky is still the boss and gleefully plays all sides against each other as they suit him while introducing a new dynamic, that is, a kind of mirror racist structure that saw antipathy between educated and urban African-Americans and those they considered “country,” nationalist bootstrap-pulling self-made men and those considered stereotype houseboys, and, of course, light-skinned (Narcisse) and dark (Chalky).
Narcisse combines all the former elements with not only his religious blather but that talent that has made so many great businessman and criminals, an eye for anything to exploit. To ice their partnership, he brings in a famous (and light-skinned) female singer from the white-patrons-only Cotton Club to the whites-only Onyx Club. As her performance rivets the audience, Chalky observes, “White folks seem to like her.”
“Yes,” Narcisse says. “That would be important.”
Nucky (Steve Buscemi), meanwhile, has journeyed to Tampa at the invite of Capt. McCoy (Pearce Bunting), one of his stalwart middlemen who did time after being nabbed with three boatloads of booze off the Jersey coast. Now out and seeking to re-establish himself, he introduces Nucky to August Tucker, a scion of moonshiners and would-be yokel godfather with a plan to establish the import trade on the adjacent coastline. They meet at a roadhouse run by sultry plainspoken Sally, who promises to play a bigger role since she is played by Patricia Arquette. But Nucky, having gotten wind of a raft of real estate developments in the area, rejects the deal, suggesting the area will soon be too busy to ride truck caravans of hooch through.
This proves problematic for McCoy, who confesses to Nucky he is deeply in debt to the surly hillbilly. Nucky, even more gun shy since the Masseria war, is risk-averse and eerily cold to his plight, and the affronted Tucker pays McCoy a visit that night and violence ensues.
Richard’s idyllic return to his rural Midwest roots went to hell last night. His heart has softened by his return home, where his sister Emmy (I initially thought she was his wife) remains his last connection to a simpler, less kill-y time and is pregnant by a dead husband. Richard made one last trip on a multiple hit contract for a crooked businessman, Billings, he met on a train, but asked his intended victim about his family and ended up letting him live. Billings comes to the farm to collect with a gunsel in tow. After Richard dispatches the gunsel, Billings picks up his gun and is about to do the same to Richard, until Emmy shoots him. Pregnant, alone, she is now complicit in his dark life, and he leaves, back into the world that only values his wetwork. Before he does, she hugs him and whispers, “You need to call yourself to account.”
Meanwhile, Nucky’s eldest nephew, William (Kevin Csolak), seemed headed back to the family business on a road paved by some adolescent embarrassment at college, and murderous whore and gal-on-the-make Gillian ups her play for roving supermarket exec Roy Phillips, who helps by convincing her to play his wife to impress a joyless prospective partner in Indiana. She her web in coquettish fashion, down to a giggly ice-cream-shop capper on the evening, until one of her previous victim’s friends remembers her from her initial solicitation on the boardwalk and she does a bathroom dash for a heroin fix.
Nucky returns to the roadhouse to visit Sally and get the 411 on Tucker and the free-booting Tampa market. Perhaps as intrigued by her – who the hell wouldn’t be, it’s Patricia Freaking Arquette – he changes his mind and, on his way out of town, gives McCoy a call to tell him he will do the deal. McCoy acknowledges it woodenly, then sits down next to Tucker’s bloody corpse.
More ominous than anything, though, is Narcisse’s careful observation of a new thing to exploit, notably that Chalky has been on Dunn’s ass since the incident. They meet, and Narcisse, revealing the vile nature of all notions of caste ascendancy, shows Dunn a package of heroin. “It is freedom, power, control over men that are lesser than you,” Narcisse says. “Chalky White is one of those men.”
I am scared of Jeffrey Wright.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire air Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO