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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “Havre De Grace”

Boardwalk Empire
HBO

Tonight’s all-new episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire‘ shakes up the formula a bit: last season’s penultimate episode was filled to the brim with action and violence, giving us a more subdued finale that paved the way for season 4; this week’s episode continues to forcefully drive in the screw that’s been slowly turning all season long. There are a couple of surprises in “Havre De Grace,” but tonight’s episode is definitely preparing us for a much bigger conclusion in next week’s finale. 

Chalky and Daughter take up with an old ‘hood friend of Chalky’s by the name of Benno (guest star Louis Gossett Jr.), out in a place overlooking the water, and it’s there that the very old school Benno imparts a little wisdom. “That day come,” he says, when, “everybody gonna run outta road.” It doesn’t matter the crimes you’ve committed or the money you’ve made from them. It doesn’t matter who you’ve killed or in whose name you’ve done your deeds. In the end, we’re all just biding our time, waiting for our death at the end of the road, with little and less to show for it. And what Benno has is a house out in the country with his nephew and fellas, similarly biding their time until he passes them by. Everyone’s just waiting.

Chalky and Daughter can wait there, or they can go back to the city and Chalky can face Narcisse (and Nucky, whom he assumes betrayed him) … or they can just walk away and leave everything behind. And even though Chalky decides to do the latter and seemingly makes the call with such sweet ease, she makes the tough decision for him, stealing off in the middle of the night, only to have Narcisse’s men find their hideout. All that time spent making decisions is just more time spent waiting for death.

And while at Benno’s place, Chalky starts to learn something that Nucky and Gillian are learning this week — the difference between a daughter and a woman, a brother and a traitor, a man and a criminal, a son and an orphan, a mistress and a wife … it’s a just a few words; just a question, really — the right question. Nucky has spent most of this season dancing around asking the right questions, and while we’ve assumed that it’s because he’s been rather oblivious to what’s been going on around him, the truth emerges tonight: Nucky isn’t so much oblivious as he is just sort of fed up with all of this.

What Benno says to Chalky earlier, about everybody running out of road, reflects the ongoing theme of the senselessness of criminality and violence on this show. The entire episode is a chorus for this series if there ever was one. Benno’s body lying dead in the road and his son Louis, shaking his head as he tells Chalky that he warned him what this was all about. Nucky, realizing that the “baby-faced” insurance agent that visited Eli’s house — and whose mere mention at Nuck’s dinner table got Eli all riled up — is most likely Agent Knox/Tolliver isn’t another shocking act of betrayal. At this point, it’s damn near expected. A frantic phone call from Gaston Means in the middle of the night trying to sell him the name of a traitor in exchange for $200k isn’t a warning bell to Nucky, but just another thing that happened that year.

Threaded through all of this is Gillian Darmody, who thinks she’s found her Prince Charming in Roy Phillips. In a clever move, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ plays a long con on its audience by having Phillips play the long con on Gillian. Turns out, he’s nothing more than a Pinkerton agent, inserted by Leander (always nice when Dominic Chianese gets something to do) — who thinks he still owes the Commodore a favor — to entrap Gillian into confessing her crimes. It’s a little overwrought, but you can compare it to this season of ‘Homeland,’ which asked us to believe that Carrie and Saul hatched a complicated plan, lied to everyone (including the government, the public, mental health professionals, the press, loved ones, et al.), and never tipped their hats about it. And then we’re asked to just believe that it worked. But a big plan like that, when the audience isn’t let it on it from the get-go, requires us to back-track and re-connect the dots, to see the how’s and why’s of the plan’s execution, to figure out if the writers were really working off of that plan from the beginning, or if the plan was executed after the fact. The problem with ‘Homeland’ was that it asked you to invest in the emotional journey of what Carrie went through and then told you that it was mostly a lie. That’s not the case with ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ as we’ve known since Roy Phillips arrived that there’s been something off about his presence.

We didn’t need to be clued into his plan for the reveal to be effective, and the lack of investment in Gillian’s overall happiness, given her less than sympathetic status, actually sort of helps the outcome of this arc. The end result is an odd mixture of joy and sadness because while there’s that innate sense of justice prevailing, we also wonder: if there’s no redemption for someone like Gillian Darmody, what is there? That day gonna come, everybody run outta road.

Nucky calls Sally Wheet for one of their nightly chats, and we wait anxiously, thinking what he’ll tell her is, “Eli has betrayed me.” Instead, in his silence, we reflect back on Chalky and Eli, on Narcisse and Daughter, on the heroin trade, on Eli’s son and Agent Tolliver. If that day comes when everybody runs out of road, why not choose a different road? So it’s no surprise then, when Nucky says with every bit of Steve Buscemi’s trademark resignation, “I want out.”

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