Give it to Terrence Winter. Even when he takes a season of Boardwalk Empire to help us truly loathe some of his characters and have us yearning for them to get theirs, he reminds us that even the violence we now expect to solve our TV problems is far from a neat clean thing.
Agent Tolliver (Brian Geraghty) found that out in brutal fashion at the hands of inferiority-complex-addled Bureau of Investigation informer Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) on last night’s Season 4 finale. Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) came face-to-face with the cold reality of the collateral damage of such violence. And Richard (Jack Huston) tragically followed his odd honor back to hired-gun work, stanching the dawning revelation that, even in the wake of his WWI disfigurement, he is capable of being more than just a killer.
Chalky returns to Atlantic City to face down his erstwhile business partner, the city’s rackets boss, Eli’s brother, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). Nucky has ostensibly sold Chalky out to his rival for control of AC’s African-American North Side, the Harlem charlatan Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), as well as powerful mafia don Joe Masseria, but Nucky protests that Chalky’s problems are his problems and, appearances aside, he needs to trust him if he wants to solve their mutual problem, Narcisse.
Nucky sets up a meeting with Narcisse to broker a safe parlay with Chalky. Nucky attempts to relieve Narcisse of his suspicions, saying he doesn’t care who runs Chalky’s club or the North Side, he just wants it all over, and his ostensible narcissism seems to convince Narcisse that Nucky has been worn down to his true motivations. But Nucky is not quite so worn as he seems. Prepping for a “summit” he has asked Eli to set up with Masseria, Lansky, Petroccelli, et al., Nucky asks Eli to drive him over,“to present a united front.” When Eli arrives at Nucky’s hotel hq, however, it is empty, except for Nucky. Nucky has observed Eli’s recent behavioral quirks and put two and two together, that the summit Eli proposed is an orchestrated attempt to get major crime figures in the same room so that Tolliver, blackmailing Eli with damning information about his son Will (Ben Rosenfield), can raid it, prove the interstate network of kingpins and prove his mettle to racist martinet boss J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin).
No summit will take place, Nucky tells Eli, the Feds are dangling. Presented a second betrayal by Eli — who joined the coup against Nucky in Season 2 — Nucky draws his gun. Eli steps into it, saying he doesn’t have anything to lose because Nucky winds up taking everything he has. Among those things (in Eli’s perception) is Will, whose arrival leads Nucky to relent on shooting the kid’s father.
Richard, meanwhile, deals with the apparent last threat to his happiness with Julia (Wrenn Schmidt) and adopted son Tommy, by testifying against Tommy’s former-madame grandmother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol). After a long-con that led her to confess the murder of a lookalike of Tommy’s father, Jimmy, in order to gain his assets, she protests to the court that there is no body, and that the real Jimmy has never been found. Richard, knowing Nucky dispatched Jimmy, asks him to divulge the whereabouts of the corpse, hinting he will not be vengeful, but, in fact, grateful — enough so to do one last job. With Gillian’s fate sealed Richard puts Julia and Tommy on a train to Wisconsin, saying he will join them soon, but his goodbyes, she notices, are a little too poignant.
Over in Chicago, Al (Stephen Graham) is suspecting his boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) of being behind the hail of submachine gun fire that nearly offed him. Then Torrio finds himself the target of a gunman outside his home and is gravely wounded. When Al visits him in the hospital, Torrio says, “This is a young man’s game. I’m not gonna fight ’em . . . You win kid. I’m outta your way.”
Back in AC, Tolliver grows agitated when the summit does not materialize, seeing as his career with the Bureau is banked on this op. His second, Selby, notes his unbecoming behavior and asks Tolliver to surrender his sidearm. Tolliver suggests he take it from him, then storms off to confront Eli. In front of Eli’s family, Tolliver suggests the dark prison fate of Will and draws his own gun on Eli. Eli manages to knock it out of his hand and a desperate, ugly struggle ensues, Eli eventually battering Tolliver nearly unrecognizable.
Chalky meets with Narcisse at the Onyx, Narcisse confident of having the upper hand on his low-born nemesis, revealing he has Chalky’s daughter, Maybelle (Christina Jackson) and suggesting he has no intention of respecting his safe-passage agreement. But Richard appears in a high vantage point, drawing a bead on Narcisse with a sniper rifle, but his attempts to “get right” intrudes on his cool demeanor. He flinches, then fires too fast. Maybelle has walked into the scene and takes the round meant for Narcisse. Chalky’s men wisk him away, while Narcisse’s pour fire on Richard in the melee that ensues. Then Feds raid the club, ostensibly looking for Eli and sweep up Narcisse in the net.
Richard wanders out under the boardwalk and there dies.
Eli, has in fact, been shunted off to Chicago to work for Capone. Nucky assures Will this true, and reminds him he must assume the head of the household now, likely soon to bring him full into the fold of the organization. “It gets easier,” Nucky says. “You’ll see.”
Narcisse meets Hoover, who dismisses his protests that he is an upstanding citizen.“You seem to be a clever fellow,” Hoover says. “Who do you think gets to decides what the truth is?
“Truth is what those in power wish it to be,” Narcisse says.
Hoover posits a version of the truth suggesting a “colored” man assassinated agent Tolliver as the latter investigated Maruc Garvey’s organization, one Narcisse’s fronts, but that Narcisse helped apprehend the culprit, and that, behind the scenes, Narcisse agreed to continue to monitoring Garvey’s organization for the Bureau. Narcisse accedes, forced by Hoover to do in subordinate fashion: “Yes, sir.”