Last week’s Boardwalk Empire closed with Richard Harrow on his sister’s doorstep, Nucky in an uneasy truce with Joe Masseria, Al Capone beginning to feel his oats, and Chalky dealing with some unusual difficulties at Club Onyx. This week, in the opening scene, Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) made his grand reappearance as an enforcer delivering flowers and punches for the mob, while Richard and his sister Emma catch up — she’s glad to see him, but warns him that if he leaves again (he claims he has an appointment with the Veteran’s Bureau in Milwaukee), he shouldn’t bother coming back. She hands him a book (“The Chessmen of Mars,” in which a past-due property tax bill of over $1,200 is tucked.
Nucky’s having breakfast and notices Eddie shaking while serving him. After a spill, Nucky says “it’s only coffee,” and a rattled Eddie says “everything is only something.” The eggs are overcooked, he insists, and the bags for Nucky’s trip to Florida aren’t yet packed; he’s testy but defiant, irritated and self-deprecating (“I will endeavor not to crash the car,” he tells Nucky about the trip to a construction site, which turns out to be the site of a church).
Van Alden’s trimming flowers at his mob boss Dean O’Banion’s establishment when O’Banion suggests he go to work for Capone in Cicero and feed him information about Capone’s movements. While he ponders that, Harrow’s at the job in Milwaukee, where he’s supposed to kill a guy, setting that book on the desk as a calling card, but when the man tells him he has a wife and two daughters, Harrow lets him live. “When you see your children tonight,” he growls, “remember that they didn’t cost you anything.” He leaves with the book (but not, as we discover later, with everything he brought).
Nucky and Eli are at Mickey Doyle’s, where he meets with Bureau of Prohibition Supervisor Fred Elliot and Agent Knox, who we saw assert himself rather violently in last week’s episode. He’s the new head of the prohibition squad in A.C., and Nucky lays down the law — Knox is to meet with Eli for any needs, but is never to meet with Nucky again.
Nelson and his nanny are at home, where she surprises him with a davenport. He’s not impressed. “We have chairs,” he mutters. She paid $360 for it — “we don’t have that!,” he complains, but she bought it on credit, which does not mollify him. But she wants a home, she wants furniture and she wants him to hang the doors that are yet to be installed. His resistance to domesticity could be a problem.
Chalky’s in charge at the club, making the rounds and surveying the scene, but after he spies an unfamiliar person looking down from the office window, a white patron’s rubbing his head “for good luck” reminds him that it’s still the 1920s. He goes upstairs and finds Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), in the company of the woman who falsely cried rape in the previous episode, Cora Pastor, wife of the talent agent and perv Dickey Pastor, Narcisse claims to be Dickey’s “employer,” and he wants… well, he gets called off by Cora before he sets terms. Before he goes, he says he likes the room because “one can look down and see many things. You know what I saw?”, he asks Chalky. “A servant pretending to be a king.”
Eddie serves Nucky with a letter of resignation, but Nucky isn’t accepting. “No matter what happens, there will always be a place for you,” Nucky says, but Eddie recites his service of 11 years and wants Nucky to demonstrate his respect. When Nucky tries to hand him cash, he rejects it, but when Nucky asks if he wants a promotion, Eddie responds, “that is for you to decide.”
At the Harrow house, a dog is dying, and Emma asks for Richard’s help. She can’t bring herself to shoot the dog, but Richard denies he has a pistol. She knows better, and he pulls the gun and… he can’t do it, either. Milwaukee wasn’t an aberration — something’s getting in the way. So Emma takes the pistol and when Richard walks away, she pulls the trigger. (She CAN do it, after all.)
Capone has a staff meeting to prepare for an invasion of a mayoral election rally by a reform candidate, and Van Alden — as George Mueller — shows up, recognized as his alter ego by Capone. Capone’s brothers are on to him as O’Banion’s spy. But the terrified Van Alden presents an opportunity to the brothers, who welcome him to the “vote-getting” thug squad. At the Onyx Club, Chalky and Dunn are discussing the visit by Dr. Narcisse when Chalky notices the band isn’t on stage. A knock on the door reveals the band, who tell Chalky that Dr. Narcisse told them not to play.
Nucky had Gaston Means investigate Agent Knox, but Means only found that the agent is, as he appeared to be, “a hayseed of the purest order.” Uh huh. Back in Cicero, Capone and his thugs go to a mayoral rally and bust the place up, and Van Alden, bloodied, proves his mettle. And Dr. Narcisse has Cora tearfully tell Chalky and Nucky her story about Dunn and the throat slashing, and when she heads to the powder room, Nucky notes that Dr. Narcisse has no proof, but that isn’t stopping Narcisse, who is dragging Nucky into the fray and refusing to set a price for peace. Chalky curses out Narcisse but Nucky offers 10% of the club to Narcisse, and he takes it. “It’s better all settled,” Nucky counsels Chalky, but only after asking how Dickey would have known what hotel Cora and Dunn were in. (Make a note of that question and the non-answer, “he was resourceful”; Narcisse does.)
A meeting about Atlantic City dealings with Supervisor Elliot turns out to include J. Edgar Hoover and his “undercover operative,” who is, of course, Agent Knox. He confronts Elliot about taking money from Nucky; he denies it, walking out of the meeting. “Why can’t they just admit they’re guilty?.” Knox asks.
Narcisse and Cora are in the car on the way back to New York; she says she wants what happened to Dickey to happen to Dunn. “The Old Testament,” Narcisse muses. After a nod to the driver, the driver says that he needs to check the tires, stops the car, and exits with the man in the passenger seat. That leaves Narcisse and Cora alone, and he asks her how Dickey knew what hotel she and Dunn were in. She says he was resourceful, which is the wrong answer. The door opens, the other man pulls a rope around Cora’s neck, and she gets dragged off to her death, Narcisse smirking in the back seat.
Nucky’s off on the train to Tampa, but not before giving some instructions to Eddie about a financial transaction — he’s gotten a promotion, and won’t be bringing Nucky his meals anymore. But at the Harrow House, Richard takes a call from someone claiming to be the tax assessor. It isn’t the tax assessor. Remember the guy in Milwaukee? Someone else finished the job with a bullet to the brain. And that person is on the line, looking at that tax assessor’s bill, which fell out of the book in the office. Uh oh.
The woman’s body turns up at the church site. No identification. The end.
Next week’s episode — “Acres of Diamonds,” which suggests something involving Temple University, as in Eli’s son, who, we discovered last week, goes to Temple — has Nucky in Tampa, with Patricia Arquette as the owner of a speakeasy, and Gillian and her Piggly Wiggly exec guy make a return visit. Still no sign of Margaret, though. This week was another not-bad installment, at least moving things along — we got a new “villain” in Narcisse, plus J. Edgar and a complication in the Richard Harrow saga. Why did he suddenly become trigger-shy? What’s going on in his head? Why isn’t the show primarily about him? These and other questions may or may not be answered next week….