One of the things about Boardwalk Empire that’s striking is how, while there’s a main character around whom everything revolves, his story hasn’t been as strong or compelling as the subplots involving secondary characters. Whereas Tony Soprano’s therapy and struggles to reconcile his mob family with his family family and Walter White’s transition from meek teacher and cancer patient to very bad guy — and ultimate admission that it was all for himself — provided those shows a reason for existence stronger than “well, it’s a good story,” Nucky’s just been, since the storyline about his personal life with Margaret fell by the wayside, a powerful guy in a secondary market, a big fish in a small pond, with only tentative nods towards wanting something more. In negotiating territory with Masseria, he split Jersey; he’s made no moves on Philly; the heroin trade is happening without him. His horizons have been limited. And his character, since the explosive first season, has receded in importance behind the Capones and Harrows of the story.
This season has shown tentative changes in that status, though, on the business side, at least. The Tampa deal’s taken him beyond South Jersey in the geographic sense, but also out of his element. He’s an interloper there, needing bartender Sally’s help and guidance in the alien world where alligators fight in the back room and toothless rednecks don’t take kindly to the slick northerner in tailored suits. He’s not sitting still, even though he openly wonders why he’s making his moves. This week, Nucky’s back to being the focal point. And Eddie’s death, as this week’s episode begins, has shaken him.
At a restaurant at the old Penn Station in New York, a coffee cup shakes while Nucky watches and waits, joined by — can it be? — Margaret! She’s still on the show! I knew they kept Kelly MacDonald in the credits for some reason. Anyway, the lost co-star joins Nucky for some small talk — she’s reticent and unwilling to tell Nucky much, but he’s there to tell her that Eddie’s dead and to pass along the toy he got in Tampa for Teddy. She’s not pleased that he sprung the Eddie news on her, but she’s not saying a lot about her current situation other than that she’s working, paying rent, and managing. She’s concerned about the gift for Teddy being a pet. “I wouldn’t put something alive in a box,” Nucky says, and they pause to consider the unintentional comedy of that line. The whole thing is awkward, but Nucky obviously needed to share the news about Eddie with someone.
In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover and Agent Knox are discussing the death of their reluctant informer Eddie. Knox gets one more chance to go get dirt on Nucky and prove his theory of a nationwide network of criminals, telling J. Edgar that if he fails, Hoover would “get the satisfaction of knowing that you were right.” Speaking of Eddie, Eli and Mickey Doyle are rifling through Eddie’s room, looking for whatever they can find, which includes a note in German and a pair of birds. When Eli goes to feed the birds, he finds a safe deposit box key in the seed bucket. Eli later goes to the bank and shows Eddie’s driver’s license as identification. He tells the bank manager about Eddie’s death, and the manager says he’ll need a death certificate and will with proper directives to access the safe deposit box. Eli can’t get him to relent.
But he has another option: Agent Knox, who’s still on the take from Eli and Doyle, agrees to muscle the bank manager, insisting on access to the box as part of a “federal investigation.” There’s information in there about the accounts in Eddie’s name, but Eli doesn’t know that Knox is not to be trusted… or even who, really, Knox is. “We’ll keep doing this,” Eli says to Knox about their arrangement, unaware of what dangers that might entail… and then he notices that the initials on Knox’ handkerchief don’t match his name. WIll that go anywhere? Can he save Nucky? Can he save Willie, who he said he wanted to visit at Temple in a middle-of-the-night outburst? Can he save anyone?
Daughter Maitland flirts with Chalky at the Onyx Club, but Chalky remains resistant. While Daughter sings, though, he looks and listens for a moment, but it’s too much; he stalks out. The urges, they’re too strong; later, after a tense dinnertime dispute with his wife over their son’s hanging around the club and a testy exchange with Daughter back at the club office, Chalky and Daughter (that sounds bad, but it IS her name) hook up (roughly, violently) in the episode’s last scene.
Paul Sagorsky? Well, Richard Harrow’s former combatant and father of Julia is hearing a doctor tell him he needs to stop drinking, because, we later learn, he has cirrhosis. He’s dying. Reeling from the bad news, he leaves the office and sees… say, it’s Richard Harrow! He chases after Harrow, then passes out, reviving to see Harrow looming over him. And after telling Harrow he’s a goner within a year, he’s okay with the idea of Richard coming back to Julia and Tommy. That sends Richard back to their door. Later, at night by the water, Richard and Julia watch Tommy looking at the stars while Julia fills Richard in on Gillian’s whereabouts. (Apparently, Richard doesn’t watch the alternate-week episodes when he’s not in them.) Julia notes that in court, they can’t say anything about Richard, on account of his killing people and running away. “I don’t want to do this all by myself,” Julia tells him, “but how can I trust you?” But when Tommy asks if Richard is coming home with them, Julia says yes. So that’s back in play.
Nucky… Oh, right, Nucky’s train deposited him back in Tampa, meeting with McCoy at Sally’s and dealing with a couple of rednecks who want to know where Tucker is. McCoy isn’t revealing what he did to Tucker, and it takes Sally to aim a rifle at the rednecks to get them to go away. Nucky’s pissed that they’re short an investor, but McCoy says has a new investor lined up, a big one named Pierce (who turns out to be Vincenzo Petrucelli). However, Nucky has his own guests — Lansky and Luciano. They negotiate, with Petrucelli wanting the same terms as Tucker and Nucky responding that they’ll talk it over. Turns out that Petrucelli knows Luciano better than he let on in front of Nucky and is surprised that Luciano’s doing business for himself nowadays. Luciano is none too pleased to be risking exposure with his boss Masseria back north. In fact, he’s fairly panicked. Petrucelli, he’s convinced, will tell Masseria what he’s doing. He’s ready to off Petrucelli to clean up his problem. Lansky tells him to do what he wants, but he’s staying in Florida. “You don’t have the green,” Luciano shoots back, but Lansky is undeterred. “Don’t touch Petrucelli,” Lansky calls out as Luciano stalks out.
Sally and Nucky are polishing off a big bottle of what Nucky calls “battery acid,” and Nucky tries plying her for information on Petrucelli and confesses to be nervous about the Tampa deal and his sadness about losing Eddie and realizing how little he knew about his trusted assistant. Sally responds by punching Nucky in the face, then picking him up and slapping him. “I just hate a goddamn whiner,” she says, before Nucky slugs her. This, naturally, being television, leads to kissin’ and sexy time, accompanied by a loud thunderstorm to underscore the rough sex, because that’s how it always happens. The next morning, a bruised but glowing Nucky gets word from Lansky that Luciano’s out. He pulls a bag full of money away from McCoy and appoints his closer-than-ever pal Sally to hold the cash and make sure things go right. Lansky offers condolences to Nucky for Eddie’s death, but Nucky can only respond, “that all happened somewhere else.” He’s trying to put it behind him, but circumstances might not let that happen.
Once again, we’re on an alternate-week plot schedule; no Capones/Van Alden, no Gillian/Piggly Wiggly, and, other than Daughter and Chalky talking about him, no Narcisse. They’ll all be back next week, it appears.
This week, there was more Nucky development, and an indication that Eddie’s loss and Nucky’s reassessment of his life might bring Margaret back into his life, even if she indicated no eagerness to allow that to happen, and whether you think that’s a good development might be dependent on your tolerance for Margaret. But anything that goes towards giving us more of a reason to care about what happens to Nucky is a good development, because it was getting tiresome to think that he was a secondary player in his own story, eclipsed by Richard Harrow, Al Capone, and, this season, Chalky White. He’s no Tony Soprano, and may never be, but complexity suits Nucky.