It could be seen as ominous last night on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire when Eddie (Anthony Laciura) repaired with new business associate/friend Ralph Capone (Domenick Lombardozzi) to a beerhall populated with fellow German expatriates and spilled a little too proudly of his elevated status within his organization. The organization, of course, is the Atlantic City-based bootlegging empire of Nucky Thompson. After taking a dose of lead in the war with mafia don Joe Masseria, Eddie picked up a limp but also a promotion from Nucky’s Man Friday to administrative capo, hence his making the drop of a payoff to the Capone organization and a new friendship with the brother of up-and-coming Chicago capo and Thompson ally Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
But getting a little too loose with both drink and one’s tongue in a business where most everything is on the down-low tends to make the viewer flinch and knock wood. Anybody could be listening, particularly with the earnest, babyfaced, murderous all-American G-man Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) on the case. Early in the episode Knox runs down for the new martinet head of the Bureau of Investigation, Edgar Hoover, how the U.S.’s major cities have become a commercially interlocking set of fiefdoms: Nucky’s (Steve Buscemi), Capone boss Johnny Torrio’s, Downtown New York kingpin Arnold Rothstein’s (Michael Stuhlbarg), Harlem rackets maestro Dr. Narcisse’s (Jeffrey Wright). But last night’s show was really about aspirants, subordinates whose discomfiture, insecurities and yens people like Knox – or Narcisse – seek out as a weak link in the chain leading to their bosses.
As fitful as any has been William (Kevin Csolak), Nucky’s nephew who has been bridling at social stratification at Rutgers and attempting to ingratiate himself with fellow students by supplying filched hooch from dad Eli Thompson’s (Shea Whigham) supply chain. In spite of Eli’s insistence he make something of himself using his brain, William’s inevitable, likely tragic slide back to the family business just hit its fait accompli. Looking for some revenge for humiliation at the hands of WASPy bully Henry, he spikes the latter’s drink with a dose of homemade stool-loosener at a party. Henry’s humiliation happens, it just doesn’t stop there, as he is found in the dorm bathroom appearing to have vomited blood and super-dead.
In Chicago, disgraced on-the-lam Treasury agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) has struck an uneasy balance as a bagman/florist for mob boss Dean O’Bannion and occasional loan-out muscle to Capone via O’Bannion’s grudging truce with Torrio. An intense, joyless puritan, Van Alden was the series’ initial heel, so it’s funny to see him awkward and cowed by the felonious joie de vivre of Al and Frank (Morgan Spector) Capone as they shanghai him off to help make their collection rounds. But when they come across a disguised O’Bannion booze delivery truck and steal it on a lark, things take a dark turn when the driver turns out to be sleeping in the back. When he recognizes Van Alden, the latter has no choice but to kill the man, lest his cahoots with Capone be revealed to O’Bannion, and when Al himself delivers the coup de grace with his Thompson, we see Van Alden’s lot cast with the eventual Capone machine.
Meanwhile, Dunn (Eric LaRay Harvey), right-hand man of AC African-American ward boss and new high-toned club owner Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), has taken up heroin distribution on behalf of Narcisse, who, it seems, may have an eye on more than a piece of the action. Initially offending Narcisse by bringing his money to the latter’s office at the “Universal Negro Improvement Association,” Dunn makes good later that evening, whereupon Narcisse reveals still more of his fascinating amalgam of intraracial racism, self-empowerment and super-villainy. He refers to Atlantic City as “a plantation run by Nordics who throw you scraps enough to keep you from starving but not enough to make your belly full. … In Harlem we should give no more tribute to Nucky Thompson or any Nordic than we would a bottle fly. … The downfall of the Libyan is what we used to call a duppy in the islands … a vampire who sucks the blood from his people and lays them low.”
Indicating a local no-account dandy to be the “duppy” in immediate question, it becomes clear that Narcisse has just given Dunn a small test, to beat the man bloody. He does. His new boss may have also just hinted he is next in line to attempt to take over AC wholesale, and the heroin might just be his Trojan Horse — as it were.
Nucky is proceeding with his attempts to extend his barony to Tampa and hopes to convince Rothstein to come in on the deal. Rothstein is cool to it, owing to their contentious, occasionally hostile relationship of recent, and wonders what kind of partner Nucky might be after his recent trials. He lures Nucky into a high-stakes game of poker, which Nucky wins, prompting Rothstein to continue a losing streak deep into the morning until his streetwise associate Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) convinces him to call it quits. But Rothstein has revealed too much of his own weakness, the love of the game, no matter the cost. In private conversation, Nucky tells Lansky that the deal is off the table and he will seek another partner. Lansky, brainiac seeker of the main chance, volunteers himself and Charlie Luciano.
After Eddie’s big night out, he escorts his new friend Capone back to the train station, where he is accosted by the babyfaced killer, Agent Knox, who with another joyless Bureau of Investigation prig — they all were basically just that, Hoover insisted — escorts him away to see just how weak a link he is.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire air Sunday nights at 10/9 CT on HBO.