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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “Resignation”

Boardwalk Empire Resignation
HBO

Boardwalk Empire‘ season 4 continues with its second episode, in which we catch up with Van Alden and finally meet Jeffrey Wright’s enigmatic Dr. Valentin Narcisse. In “Resignation,” new relationships are formed and the dynamics of others tested — who is the slave, and who is the master? And what does it matter when neither are kings? 

“A servant is not greater than his master, nor is the messenger greater than the one who dispatched him.” This is the letter (revealed a piece of bible scripture) sent to Chalky White from one Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a man who owns a little piece of every African American performer working in Chalky’s club (not to mention every other club on the northeastern seaboard, apparently). And what a hell of an introduction we get, as Narcisse comes knocking to claim his due with the elusive Mrs. Pastor at his side. He digs at Chalky, telling him he’s just a servant pretending to be a master — an assessment proven true when Nucky offers 10% of the club’s profits to Narcisse in exchange for the service of the performers and the good doctor’s promise to get rid of the Pastor problem.

And while Narcisse is a well-spoken, eloquent gentleman, it’s clear early on that there’s something sinister hiding behind his pleasantries, especially when he waxes on about African and Nordic ancestry. This season is taking the idea of servants and masters and examining the many shades of gray between all that black and white. Rather than focus on well-tread dynamics between races, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is showing us that nothing is quite so simple. Last week, we watched as Dickie Pastor and his wife tried to oppress Dunn into some bizarre racist cuckolding, and this week the table is turned when Narcisse gives Mrs. Pastor a lesson in keeping things “pure.” When you mix things, he says, the flaws are diluted as well as the purity. Narcisse’s motivations are about business, of course, but they’re also about protecting his own race. It’s no wonder he thinks of himself as a king; he may have placed the crown there himself, but it’s those who are under his thumb — his subjects, if you will — who are keeping it in place.

Nucky is having some trouble with his own servant this week — Eddie isn’t quite what he used to be, all trembles and overcooked eggs and spilled coffee. And it’s hard to feel cherished when you work for a man like Nucky Thompson. Although I’m sure Nucky has rarely explicitly expressed his gratitude, it’s even more apparent in “Resignation.” Not once does he thank Eddie for bringing him breakfast, nor does he thank Gaston Means for giving him information on Agent Knox during a later phone call. Narcisse refers to Nucky as a fellow king, and that title seems to suit him, especially when he asks Eddie for advice handling the new church project (thanks, Margaret!), and Eddie all but deifies him. But Eddie feels he deserves something more than just being a simple servant. As the note from Narcisse read, “a servant is no greater than his master,” and Eddie believes he has earned some respect — and he has, especially after he took a bullet for his king.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Van Alden (still under the name George Mueller) is working for Dean O’Bannion, delivering flowers and cracking heads to collect debts. His wages are meager ($15 is more than half of what he makes a week, he tells his Norwegian wifey), and he’s become something of a bumbling mushmouth, keeping his head down and performing simple work. But when he’s sent off to spy on Capone and gets roped into busting faces at a mayoral rally, there’s a switch that gets hit and we see the old Van Alden spring back to life. That aggression is still simmering under the surface, likely exacerbated by his wife purchasing all that fine new furniture, but even more likely it’s just been getting worse the more he pretends to be the humble, oblivious flower delivery man. And it was definitely awesome to see Michael Shannon back this week, giving us some of those classic bug-eyed reactions — no one takes a hit like Michael Shannon.

But what was the other line in Narcisse’s note? “Nor is the messenger greater than the one who dispatched him.” Van Alden is O’Bannion’s messenger this week, and he seems to know his place beneath his master, though I’ve a feeling he might be getting in deeper with Capone in the coming episodes.

Narcisse isn’t the only new introduction this week — Agent Elliot is called in by none other than a young J. Edgar Hoover, working for the FBI to investigate Nucky Thompson, and Agent Knox is in his pocket (though obviously not playing by Hoover’s rules, judging by last week’s double cross). Hoover is going a bit outside of his jurisdiction, as noted by Elliot, but with this investigation kicking off, it seems that Nucky’s deal with Esther Randolph might not mean anything to Hoover and Co. At least he’s still got Gaston Means, for the time being.

As for Richard Harrow, he’s a former servant trying to reclaim his life, and we watch as he hesitates not once, but twice, to pull the trigger this week. The first time as he confronts the man he was paid to kill, instead reminding him to go home and be thankful that it cost him nothing to see his children; the second time as his family dog needs to be put down. It seems all those bullets in all those faces finally added up to something, and Richard is done killing. He’s done being a servant to men in power, who send him to kill because he’s just a hired (and skilled) gun; he’s done being a servant to those who wish to take advantage of him, like Gillian, treating him as lesser than because of his appearance. This is why Richard is back home. To stop being a servant, he has to stop pulling the trigger. Unfortunately, someone has caught up to him, and he’s not quite done yet.

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