Running underneath the surface of Terence Winter’s sprawling HBO series Boardwalk Empire for three and a half seasons has been a distinctly Marxian, heretical and all-too-true appraisal of 1920s America, boiling down to this: everything is a grift. It’s not just booze and its absurd illegality, nor the politics fueled by racketeers’ receipts, nor the graft that stretches all the way to the presidency – even the “proper” job Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) has found after bolting Atlantic City crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) conscripts her into chicanery.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this milieu yielded the 1929 Crash because it is the same gossamer economics based on cronyism and confabulated value of fake things that informed our more recent meltdown. Margaret has landed a “respectable” job in the office pool of a Wall Street brokerage, where she has assumed a new name and taken on the role of shill to a swaggering salesguy. She interrupts his meeting with a client, plays the sweet wife who discouraged her husband’s taking her boss’s advice on a sketchy recommended stock buy, and expresses regret that she cost her family good money.
“It’s a woman’s place to tend to the home,” Margaret tells the mark. “It’s a man’s to tend to the future.”
Swaggering salesguy closes the rube on a product he later admits is crap as he palms a cut of the sale into her hand, and a bit of the proto-feminist conscience that propelled her out of AC dies.
Everything is a grift. Nucky and his head of operations, once-wayward Eli (Shea Whigham), should be far warier this as Eli raises the notion that their local-branch on-the-take T-man Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) lent Eli a handkerchief monogrammed “JMT.” They check in with their higher-up on-the-take guy at Treasury, only to find he has left the job. Nucky tries his DC-corrupt-circles-gadabout Gaston Means (Stephen Root), who finds little to discover about Knox. This is possibly because Knox is actually Agent James Tolliver, Bureau of Investigation agent, who has been attempting to sell an investigation into a “nationwide network of organized crime” to its dubious new boss Hoover – which Hoover accedes to after coaxing by the new AG – and possibly because Knox has somehow gotten the goods on Means to turn him.
Given that even proper upstanding types are just as bad as the “bad guys,” little wonder that the progeny of these nouveau riches, notably Eli’s son Will, is eschewing the standardized “chance at a better life” Eli has been pushing him toward. Fulfilling his arc back to the family business, increasingly distant since he accidentally killed a classmate and benefited from Nucky’s graft-greased help in framing his hapless roommate, he casually informs Eli he has quit school. When Eli plays tough-dad over it, the heretofore dutiful Will reveals how criminal complicity has hardened him, muttering, “Get your hands off me.” Nucky separates them, Will storms out, but a drunken Eli dredges up his long-simmering inferiority complex and warns Nucky that, while the latter might control AC, his family is off-limits. This will prove problematic as, upon Will and Nucky’s later meeting, Nucky appears already to have assented to putting him on the payroll.
Over in Chicago, Al (Stephen Graham) is smelling a play everywhere as he takes his coke-fueled vendetta to the streets, capping Chicago cops. He tells boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) he’s convinced their rival outfit, Dean O’Banion’s gang, was secretly behind the mysterious Chicago flying squad that gunned down brother Frank, while Torrio admonishes him to chill as they still have business to do with O’Banion. As a good faith effort for O’Banion’s help fixing the Cicero election, Torrio agrees to buy one of O’Banion’s illicit breweries, but no sooner have the property papers been signed and the money handed over than a battalion of cops storms the place and cuffs everyone involved. When Torrio makes bail, the Capones tell him the cops dropped charges against O’Banion and released him an hour after the bust. It’s a grift too far, as Torrio issues the order: “Kill that Irish f—k.”
The long-con has been played with frightening genius, meanwhile, in AC’s African-American ward, once the exclusive province of Nucky capo Chalky White (Michael K. Williams). Harlem kingpin Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) has lured away Chalky’s disgruntled right-hand man, Dunn (Eric LaRay Harvey), and made him his Jersey coast heroin distributor, and also insinuated the talented singer Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) as Chalky’s top act. Maitland is as bad as the H, having seduced Chalky in such a way as to make him think it was his idea, and the otherwise occupied Chalky has become aloof from his ward’s concerns, notably the rotting effects of heroin.
Chalky finds himself discomfited when Narcisse informs him Maitland has been booked elsewhere and secures an extended run in exchange for allowing Narcisse to set up an AC chapter of his Universal Negro Improvement Association, expanding his organizational footprint for his eventual coup attempt. Dunn plays at Chalky’s proxy, badly, in sounding out the African-American community’s growing discomfiture, and as their confidence in Chalky ebbs, Narcisse stands to announce his organization’s advent and his commitment to “restore this community to its full and glorious potential.” Narcisse is the consummate Wall Streeter, selling toxic assets and betting on the outcome, wielding just as much moral clarity. We discover Maitland to be in his thrall after he “rescued” her from her prostitute mother, whom he had strangled to death.
Margaret rediscovers the pitfalls of playing the game, however proper the veneer, when she does her shill bit for a new client named Redstone. Redstone turns out to be one of Nucky’s old enemies/partners, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), who recognizes her and stymies her routine. The boss makes the sale anyway, and Rothstein leaves her a $100 tip, phoning after to emphasize they should keep each other’s secrets.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire premiere Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO
Photo credit: Macall B. Polay