Earlier this season, we explored inescapable theme in HBO’s epic period series Boardwalk Empire that everything, above board or below, appears to be a grift. In 1920s America, it was the national ethos, but it presents the thorny problem, Who do you trust when you an trust no one?
For AC boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his African-American lieutenant Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), this has become a particularly pressing question. For Chalky, his bullish attempt to dispatch erudite, malevolent nemesis Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), saw the tables turned as Narcisse lined up with New York mafia boss Joe Masseria. As a result, Nucky’s puppet mayor has accepted a competing offer and thrown in with Narcisse. Nucky, not yet ready to abandon Chalky to Narcisse’s whims, has sent cops to get Chalky out of town, not knowing they have other orders, and Chalky winds up killing both in self-defense. Chalky lams it rural Maryland and the protection of his aging mentor, Oscar (Lou Gossett Jr.), while Nucky seeks the counsel of his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) as to how to navigate their increasingly precarious position.
Family, in some form, is of course the answer to trusting no one. So Nucky thinks.
Oscar is not enamored of Chalky’s traveling partner, Narcisse’s former spy Daughter Maitland, nor a fan of the fancy big-city ways leading people like to Chalky to pretend at cosmopolitan. Chalky plans to return to AC to exact revenge upon Narcisse and, thinking he has betrayed him, Nucky, and appeals for help. But Oscar reminds Chalky that he has betrayed the things he has been taught, notably, “Dont’ never do no business with no ofay smile you don’t have to.” In becoming tight with Nucky, in other words, Chalky courted disaster. Oscar’s nephew Winston says he’s not afraid to throw down with Chalky’s enemies, but Oscar and Daughter agree on one thing: Chalky should quit the game.
Nucky’s disquiet is little assuaged by a late-night call from one of his government contacts, the historical scoundrel and agent of graft Gaston Means (Stephen Root). An obviously agitated Means says, “There’s a skunk in your cellar.” He offers to sell Nucky the information for abruptly inflating sums, just before he is arrested for one of his myriad crimes. Nucky’s rat/skunk is, of course, Eli, who is being blackmailed by blue-eyed babyfaced choirboy/murderer Bureau of Investigation agent Tolliver (Brian Geraghty) to orchestrated a meeting of Nucky’s business associates, Masseria, Luciano, Lansky, etc, primed for a raid by Feds.
Nucky raises with Eli the possibility that the rat might be their local on-the-take T-man, Knox, which Nucky doesn’t know is Tolliver’s cover. Eli deflects the query and suggests a way to defray the encroachment of Masseria and Narcisse into their Tampa-to-New Jersey distribution and their AC powersphere: a summit.
Gillian (Gretchen Mol), meanwhile, finds catharsis. Her attempt to have a moment with grandson Tommy — the son of Jimmy, her bastard child by Nucky’s rapacious predecessor The Commodore — is interrupted by Jimmy’s vet friend and enforcer Richard, who rescued Tommy from Gillian’s whorehouse (formerly the Commodore’s mansion) in last year’s climax. Richard and his girlfriend Julia are now married, she discovers, bolstering their chances for custody of Tommy. She meets up with boyfriend, prospective sugar-daddy and legit businessman Roy (Ron Livingston) in a kind of euphoric state after a realization that Richard and Julia will be better for Tommy and that she is “free.”
At dinner that night, he says that he must depart for his next assignment and asks her to come with him and marry him — everything a dispossessed, orphaned “working gal” wants to hear. But when they leave, a strange man approaches, accuses Roy of ruining his life and reaches for something in his jacket. Roy grabs a gun and blazes, and he and Gillian bolt. Back at the mansion, he is freaked out, threatening to turn himself in, and she urges him not let it ruin their new life just over the horizon. She comes clean about how she orchestrated the murder of a Jimmy-doppelganger in order to gain control of the Commodore’s estate and insists, “You can make yourself live with anything.”
Two men emerge. They are all Pinkerton detectives, Roy reveals, hired by Leander to stage the phoney romance and murder and thus elicit it her confession by Leander, payback for her role in the Commodore’s death. Gillian’s White Knight turned out to be a grift, as well.
Nucky hosts Eli’s family for dinner in a warm scene full of mirth and good-natured ribbing, which turns toward Eli, when his wife brings up a certain insurance salesman who “had his number, a real blue-eyed babyface . . . choirboy type.” The description conspicuously recalls Agent Knox, and Nucky notes Eli’s mood-swing as he shut down his wife’s line of conversation. Nucky later asks Will about Knox and learns from Eli’s wife that he has been hitting the bottle again.
Before he departs, Nucky tells Eli to go ahead and set up the summit. But he phones his Tampa lieutenant and new love interest Sally (Patricia Arquette) and confesses, “I want out.”
Back in Maryland, Chalky wakes to find Daughter gone. He wanders out to the porch, where Oscar sits with a shotgun. The old man reveals she has gone, then stands and listens to strange sounds in the woods beyond the drive. He calls out to reveal themselves but is greeted with gunfire. Chalky grabs his shotgun, holes one of the assailants, but finds himself surrounded by gunmen looking to place “your nappy head on the Doctor’s desk.” It is then that Winston and another of Oscar’s men appear, blast a few more of the assailants and drive the rest off. When they realize Oscar is mortally wounded, it appears Chalky will be returning to AC after all, with some muscle in tow.
HBO photos: Craig Blankenhorn/Ali Paige Goldstein