Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) came to Atlantic City seeking whatever main chance the city’s rough underworld might afford him. It initially ran him afoul of the boss of the city’s African-American ward, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams). Chalky, like all men of dubious trade, saw value in Dunn’s skills and the zeal with which he employed them, but the cloud looming over all seekers of the main chance, as Chalky finally discovered on last night’s Boardwalk Empire, is that they are by nature narcissists and serving themselves will trump all commitment to anything greater, which means their course of action will always be decided by the better offer.
Given that predation serves as the prime catalyst of the graft-centric economics of 1920s America, trust, it turns out, becomes the most valuable thing tradeable. Chalky’s boss, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), has learned that the hard way, betrayed in recent years by his surrogate son Jimmy Darmody and his own brother Eli. Eli (Shea Whigham), owner of a long-simmering inferiority complex as pertains to his more successful brother, did a prison hitch before Nucky reluctantly welcomed him back into the fold, eventually to again become top capo. For Nucky, family is the guard, though you’d think he would have learned. You’d also think Chalky should have been smart enough to know the risk he ran making Dunn his chief lieutenant, but Dunn has been co-opted by the smooth-talking Harlem kingpin Dr. Narcisse, and the episode opened on him delivering two hefty bricks to Narcisse’s new enterprise in AC: an unassuming neighborhood house that just happens to be littered with heroin addicts.
This is the wedge, Narcisse’s grand play, to secretly profit off the “weak-willed” lesser members of the African-American community while publicly setting himself up as the tonic, to both heroin and Chalky’s mismanagement, via his Universal Negro Improvement Association. But Dunn, enjoying his new power, hasn’t exactly been surreptitious about it, which led to his murder of a local church deacon about to report his involvement to Chalky. His broad-daylight delivery to the H-house comes as the community mourns the deacon, and as congregation members eye Chalky uneasily. The murder has only fanned their discomfiture, and his hold on his ward is slipping.
This, of course, has repercussions. Nucky’s puppet AC mayor is rattled. He needs the “colored vote” in-pocket to win, and instability there means instability for their business, Nucky reminds Chalky. “I need to know your house is in order,” he says. The irony is that Nucky’s own is becoming disheveled, even aside from his getting past his intimacy issues and the unseemly, brassy independence of his Tampa lieutenant and romantic interest Sally (Patricia Arquette). Eli’s rift with son Will over the latter’s quitting college has revived Eli’s insecurities, even as Nucky has put Will up in his hotel and soon to work as his eyes and ears in the mayor’s office. Already leery of Nucky’s influence over Will, Eli has yet to learn the reason behind Will’s self-expulsion, manslaughter of a fellow student via spiked booze, which Nucky fixed with corrupt Philadelphia authorities by pinning it on Will’s roommate.
But intrepid Bureau of Investigation agent Tolliver (Brian Geraghty), after interviewing the roommate, confronts Eli, dispelling his previous feint of being a corrupt Treasury agent, and reveals Will’s crime and Nucky’s fix. When Tolliver made a run at Nucky’s longtime associate Eddie, the latter offed himself, but Eddie, Tolliver points out to Eli, “had nothing to lose. That’s not you. Make the smart call. Bring us your brother along with the criminals he conspires with, and your son stays a free man. All you have to do is nod, and you get to hold on to what matters. One little nod.”
Eli returns home, where Will makes a heartfelt appeal for his forgiveness and receives it. Whether he nodded for Tolliver hangs in the air.
Chalky, meanwhile, conscripts Dunn to join him and some of his other men in reasserting control of the wards. They raid H-house and bust heads. When Dunn demands one of the addicts identify the “head man,” Dunn beelines to the kitchen where he immediately guns down the manager of the house, assuring his silence. Chalky, having wanted to interrogate the man, is livid but discovers the new bricks of heroin and also a flyer for a play being staged by the UNIA.
Chalky makes a racket on the street as the play is letting out, and shows Narcisse his heroin bricks as he comes out. When an onlooker asks what they are, Chalky defers the question to Narcisse. He burns the H in front of everyone, to Narcisse’s obvious chagrin. Narcisse later visits his Mata Hari, Chalky’s new paramour, Daughter Maitland, in her hotel room, obviously disturbed by the day’s events, and says when Chalky visits tonight, she needs to keep him occupied until another man visits…
She does, delaying his departure but with enough of a weird look to put him on edge when Dunn knocks on the door. Dunn offers his own reveal, that Narcisse is slinging the powder and also the one who ventilated the deacon, and proposes they go over to ice him tonight. “One thing you ain’t mentioned,” Chalky says. “How much he paying you to f—k me?”
Desperate fisticuffs ensue, Dunn gains the upper hand, throttling Chalky, until Daughter turns Wild Card. Making her choice, she puts a knife in Dunn, who runs out of main chances.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire premiere Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO.
HBO photos by Macall B. Polay