If there’s an overriding theme for this season so far on Boardwalk Empire, it was contained in one thing uttered by Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson to Stephen Root’s sleazy investigator Gaston Means on Sunday night’s episode “William Wilson”: “Ever wake up and have a vague sense of unease? Like you know something’s wrong but you can’t put your finger on it yet.”
Unease is the thing that’s driving the series at this point, mostly because it’s set off on several tangential plot lines that seem to augur nothing good, while abandoning others at random. This isn’t always a bad thing, either, although it continues to relegate Nucky to secondary status in his own show. Nucky doesn’t know what the FBI’s up to, doesn’t know who Agent Knox really is (and thus can’t get him under control or taken care of), doesn’t know what Margaret’s up to, doesn’t know that Narcisse and Dunn are building the heroin trade under his nose. He can’t even get a handle on his brother and nephew. He’s lost.
In this week’s episode, one new thread — Margaret’s new job — joined with incremental steps forward in several others, including the Capone’s quest to get revenge against O’Banion for his role in their brother’s death, Dunn and Narcisse’s business arrangement, Gillian and the Piggly Wiggly guy (I just can’t call him Roy), Willie’s troubles at Temple, and Hoover and Knox’s building conflict at the FBI. There’s even a nod to Tampa and Luciano’s dealings there. Nothing earth-shattering happens, but some key relationship developments create… yeah, a sense of unease. As if it wasn’t cloudy enough.
First, Chicago: The episode begins with a cop getting shot in the forehead by Al Capone. Capone runs to his boss Johnny Torrio wanting to take O’Banion out, but Torrio isn’t crazy about the prospect of taking on the Chicago Police in the bargain. He’d rather negotiate with O’Banion, who pretty much forces Torrio to buy an unwanted brewery in a deal over territory. As soon as they sign the paperwork, the cops raid the place and arrest both men, but, later, after Torrio bonds out of jail, Al and Ralph Capone tell him that O’Banion was released without charges. “Kill that Irish fuck,” Torrio orders.
Remember the moment last week when Eli noted that the handkerchief handed to him by Agent Knox had someone else’s monogram on it? Eli brought it to Nucky, who wants his contact at Treasury, Fred Elliot, to check it out. But Elliot is nowhere to be found, so Nucky hires the aforementioned Gaston Means to track him down and find out more about this Agent Knox, who Eli now thoroughly distrusts. Means says there’s nothing in Knox’s history (and that Elliot “retired” and moved with no forwarding address). Later, the reason for Knox’s clean record is revealed…
…but not until after we get some FBI action. Knox, the soon-to-be-promoted J. Edgar Hoover, and — another blast from the past — Agent Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) are conducting the investigation into Nucky, grilling George Remus (who insists on referring to himself in the third person and really wants hotcakes instead of the eggs and sausage he got served), and Hoover once again belittles Knox — real name James N. Tolliver, hence the monogram JNT — for his theory of a national network of organized crime. But when Randolph tells him that the Attorney General agrees with that theory, Hoover makes a mental note of it. So, when the Attorney General introduces Hoover at a gathering of agents as the new FBI chief, Hoover launches into a speech proposing the very same theory, sending Knox/Tolliver out the door in a rage and off to a bar, where he complains about it to… Gaston Means. Seems Gaston and the agent have an arrangement. Trust no one.
Speaking of which, a scene in which a stockbroker is trying to get a reluctant client to invest in a dodgy REIT includes a scam involving having one of the women in the office pose as a secretary who talked her husband out of investing in the same trust, to their detriment. That impostor? Why, it’s Margaret, posing as “Mrs. Rowan.” She gets a ten buck bonus for her effort. But when the boss brings her in to do the same for another sucker, that client turns out to be familiar. “Abe Redstone”? No, it’s really Arnold Rothstein, and the sight has her flubbing her lines and bolting. The boss is upset but “Redstone” bought in and left a personal bonus of $100 for Margaret, followed by a phone call to ensure that they would keep each other’s secret. She stammers assent.
One brief scene has Luciano called in to meet with HIS boss Masseria. Turns out that Masseria knows more about Tampa and Lansky than Luciano thought… and wants Luciano to go back and do business with Petrucelli, getting heroin to send north with the booze. Lucky, indeed. So that one isn’t over.
There’s another running theme in this episode: the post-coital scene. We get it with Gillian and Piggly Wiggly, who was there to help Gillian through withdrawal and informs her that he started divorce proceedings the day after he met Gillian; there’s one with Chalky and Daughter Maitland — after we get to see them in the act; and there’s one with Willie and his sometime girlfriend Doris, in which he freaks out a little when she asks him if he believes in God and then about Clayton, his framed former roommate.
That last one leads to the reason for the episode’s title. The Poe story is the subject of a class that Willie bolts out of, after refusing to answer the question of what it meant for the title character to kill his doppelganger. (Another apt reference is in the opening scene when the cop gets shot; he’s reading a paper with a lead story about the Leopold and Loeb thrill killing case when he’s shot.) Back in A.C., Willie tells the family (and Uncle Nucky) that he dropped out of school, and when Eli puts his hand on his son, Willie tells him to get his hands off him. Eli attacks, Nucky pulls Eli off the kid, and Willie storms out. Later, Eli drunkenly scolds Nucky for breaking the fight up, pointedly repeating that Nucky has produced “nothing,” meaning no kids; Willie shows up on Nucky’s doorstep and talks his way into staying there.
And as for Chalky and Daughter and Narcisse… First, there’s Dunn and Narcisse telling a community group at church that they’ll fight to rid the town of the heroin scourge, with Narcisse pretty much blaming Chalky. Then, after sex, Daughter tells Chalky about how her prostitute mother was choked to death by one of her clients in a fight after she burned him defending herself. Who was that client? Well, later, as Daughter reports back to Narcisse about Chalky, she runs Narcisse’s chest, which is covered with… burn scars. If that’s not enough, Dunn stabs the church deacon, who threatened to expose Dunn’s complicity in the heroin trade, in the gut.
Which means that we now have a Chalky-Narcisse confrontation coming, whether Chalky knows it or not; Willie seemingly poised to join Nucky’s operation (and maybe be a surrogate son, which would not please Eli); and the Capones ready to wipe out O’Banion and take on the Chicago police in the bargain. The Tampa and Gillian threads moved only a little bit. Margaret, in her second week back, got more interesting.
Having so many plot lines that they have to drop some on alternate weeks is annoying; nevertheless, this week, they seem to be moving forward, even if the Chicago story (sans Van Alden) seems to be heading in an entirely different, unrelated direction from Nucky World. And Nucky continues to be among the less interesting characters, but maybe taking on Hoover will change that.
What did you think?