Sex can be two strangely opposite things: an act of furious life-affirmation and ultimate trust, on one hand, and, on another, a weapon wielded in acts of betrayal and weakness. Our two favorite Atlantic City gangsters Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) staked out both ends of the spectrum in last night’s Boardwalk Empire on HBO.
Kelly Macdonald returned, making her first appearance last night as Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret. She agrees to an awkward meeting at Penn Station while Nucky waits for a train to Tampa. She is hesitant to share much about her life for obvious reasons, but he conveys the news of his longtime assistant Eddie, who committed suicide in lieu of continuing to betray his boss to the ruthless blue-eyed Fed, Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty). Nucky has been distant and unsure of himself all season and this reminder of losing the two people closest to him, doesn’t help.
Chalky, too, finds his discomfiture growing at the Onyx Club, and at home, at a seeming proportionate rate to his staring down the new featured act, the sultry Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), foist upon him by his minor partner and creeping nemesis, Harlem racketeer and preening black-on-black racist Dr. Narcisse.
We also saw a curious dovetailing of plot threads. With the Eddie lead gone south, Knox finds himself forced to justify himself to Hoover (Eric Laden). True to historical reality, Hoover is “dubious” of the notion of organized crime – historical accounts suggest he was, in fact, compromised by the mob in some fashion – and more interested in focusing the Bureau on more “undesirable” elements, Reds and “uppity” black people. Convincing Hoover to give him one more shot, Knox goes back into his guise as the aw-shucks on-the-take Treasury agent, looking for his payoff from Nucky’s brother and chief enforcer Eli (Shea Whigham). Eli has been tasked with tracking down the accounts Eddie opened in his name on Nucky’s behalf, but the bank manager, once a crony, is reticent to open the accounts “absent proper legal authorization.” Knox’s arrival, however, spurs an idea.
Eli puts fake-bad-Knox to work, bullying the bank guy with a phony story that Eddie was involved with anarchists and demanding access to his lock-box on the suspicion it contains incriminating evidence. Fake-bad-Knox delivers it to Eli, who seems too readily to open up to his new asset and gives in to a moment of weepy empathy for Eddie. We might fear Eli is about to become the new weak link for Knox to exploit until the latter offers him his handkerchief and Eli notices the monogram on it, “JTM.” “Knox” is in trouble.
Errant vet/hitman Richard, meanwhile, returns to AC, where he runs into Paul (Mark Borkowski), the surly father of his love-interest from last season, Julia (Wrenn Schmidt). Richard wiped out a whorehouseful of Massaria soldiers in efforts to rescue Tommy, son of his fallen WWI-vet comrade Jimmy, from his madame-grandmother Gillian, left the kid with Paul and Julia and bolted for fear of explaining all the blood. Paul now reveals he’s dying of cirrhosis, and both he and Julia seem tentatively willing to overlook Richard’s past, particularly given the responsibility for Tommy – and that Julia will soon be left to tend to him alone.
Back at the roadhouse of his unofficial Tampa counsel Sally (Patricia Arquette), Nucky meets McCoy (Pearce Bunting), who has brokered land/import deal with moonshine kingpin August Tucker but now reveals Tucker has disappeared (actually, machete-to-the-head-killed in self-defense by McCoy). This has put McCoy on thin ice with the local-yokel mafia, who move to start something with Nucky’s men until Sally pulls a rifle from behind the bar and evens the odds. McCoy smooths things by putting forward a mysterious new partner from up north. When Nucky, Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Luciano (Vincent Piazza), meet him, he turns out to be an Italian dandy, Petrocelli. All seems well except, after their initial meeting, Petrocelli speaks to Luciano in Italian. Petrocelli turns out to be Masseria’s cousin, which Luciano sweats because the Florida venture is a side-deal and Masseria won’t be happy when he hears of it. Luciano insists that the only thing he can do is murder Petrocelli before word gets back to New York.
Lansky demands that, instead, he bow out of the deal. He will cover Luciano’s end, he tells Nucky and McCoy, they close the deal, and Nucky, curiously, puts Sally in charge of his “interests” in Tampa. Later, he and Sally get drunk enough for him to loose some second-guessing. “I’m trying to build something here, and I don’t know why. And I wonder if I did nothing, nothing at all, I wouldn’t be happier. But I can’t stop, I tried…”
In the middle of his ruminations, she slugs him, then apologizes, then slugs him again, precipitating a full-on brawl, which of course turns out to be only violent foreplay.
Chalky and Daughter come to loggerheads as she makes herself the elegant proxy of Narcisse’s quiet war on those he considers dragging the race down. Chalky has married a middle-class African-American woman and, as he has climbed in Nucky’s organization, has given her and their family a proper bourgeois household, yet has increasingly felt out of sorts in its mannered environs. Daughter puts her finger on the wound as their club/talent relationship strains, saying she wants to try new music because she is bored. When she asks if doesn’t get bored, he says when he does he keeps it to himself. To which she responds, with a steely let’s-have-sex gaze, “That doesn’t stop you from feelin it.”
We’ve know this, too, is foreplay, and we’re already hoping against it before they struggle into their own torrid sexual coupling in Chalky’s office. Because we’ve already figured out Daughter is Narcisse’s Trojan Horse, and however these moments assuage Chalky’s mounting disquiet, we also know he just became the weak link into the organization all the heels have been looking for.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire air Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO.