‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “The North Star”
On tonight’s new episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ Eli Thompson muses to sneaky Agent Knox that everyone’s “just tryin’ to make a livin’,” but if only it were ever that simple. With Nucky still coping with the death of Eddie, he’s got other affairs to get in order — namely his new business deal down in Tampa — while back in New York, Chalky struggles with his headstrong new singer, Daughter Maitland.
That Agent Knox is no good. But he’s a brilliant sort of no good, isn’t he? With his apple-cheeked, corn-fed, gee-golly routine, you never see the snake in the grass with that guy. He’s able to take the banker off guard and retrieve the money hidden in Eddie’s deposit box to curry favor with Eli, and he can play aloof with Eli and Mickey Doyle (I’d like to take a moment to praise Paul Sparks’ consistently great work as Doyle because I don’t think he ever gets the credit he deserves for this part) to keep himself around a little longer — even though J. Edgar Hoover seems to think this prohibition business is the least of the agency’s concerns. There are traitors among us, after all. But Knox is obsessed with bringing Nucky down. Maybe to prove himself to his superiors, or to prove something to himself. Maybe it’s out of moral obligation. Maybe he just likes to worm his way into things and rot them from the inside. Knox is sort of an enigma of a guy, whose motives aren’t quite clear, making him more dangerous than someone like Van Alden, whose righteousness was rather blatant.
But when Eli — who is surprisingly struck by Eddie’s death the hardest because he can’t imagine leaving his son (or his other seven kids) behind — is comforted by Knox in Eddie’s old room, he notices something strange: the initials embroidered on the handkerchief Knox offers him. JTM? Regardless of who this JTM character is (and the closest thing I can come up with looking down the cast roster is Joe Masseria, which seems unlikely), that handkerchief doesn’t belong to Knox, and in that one moment, Eli is reminded that he needs to guard himself and his business — whether personal or professional — a little better. I don’t think Eli is the kind of guy who will let Knox exploit his relationship with his son, but we have seen him betray Nucky in the past. Giving him that moment of a-ha clarity with Knox seems to present us with reassurance that Eli won’t betray Nucky again, but there’s definitely something developing here. Let’s hope Willy’s college situation is dead and buried for good.
Margaret returns to us this week, however briefly, and what a beautiful scene that opener was. From the close-up of Nucky’s coffee, flecked with creamer and rattling on the train station table, to his unwitting jab at Margaret (“I wouldn’t put something alive in a box” — ouch), there’s a surreal quality to the exchange. Nucky is still reeling over the death of Eddie, but he’s never been the kind to handle emotional struggles very well; business is his forte. So he reaches out to Margaret, the one person with whom he’s shared a real emotional connection since his first wife died, but she’s not interested in his life anymore, or the life of the one person who knew how to tend to Nucky’s needs, as she so sharply puts it. Margaret is getting on with her life, while Nucky hasn’t really changed.
But Richard seems ready to change, especially after running into Mr. Sagorsky, who has just discovered he has scarring on his liver and not much time left to live. He knows what Richard did (as does Julia, he’s assured), but what matters is that Julia and Tommy are safe and taken care of. And while Richard did something pretty dark and horrible, he did it to save Tommy, and the men he killed were bad guys. Mr. Sagorsky relates a beautiful story about a young girl he killed while stationed in the Philippines. When he asked for her identification, she said, “I am who I am. Who else could I be?” Richard, just like Mr. Sagorsky and Nucky and Eli and everyone else, can’t erase what he’s done, but it’s a part of his past now, thus making it a part of who he is. He doesn’t have to be defined by the things he’s ashamed of, but he doesn’t have to let them control his life and he doesn’t have to torment himself over them, either.
Over at the Onyx Club, Chalky continues to feel as though his business is out of his hands. Daughter Maitland, the singer sent over by Dr. Narcisse, is insistent on singing the songs she feels like singing, no matter if they’re depressing little tunes about the pointlessness of life. Chalky’s typically effective quiet ferocity is getting him nowhere, but it doesn’t matter what he wants anyway — Miss D belongs to Dr. Narcisse, and she can do what she wants, even and especially if what she wants is to purr into Chalky’s ear about who he is and what he wants. And back at home, we see his powerlessness reflected at the dinner table, when he tells his kids to ask his mother for permission to do what they desire. It’s his house, but it’s her table; it’s his Onyx Club, but it’s Daughter Maitland’s stage.
The struggles of both Chalky and Nucky both culminate in violent sexual experiences this week, representing a sort of catharsis for their characters. While in Florida to meet his new partner (who knows Masseria, scaring Luciano out of the deal and giving Meyer Lansky a bigger cut of the pie), Nucky is feeling sorry for himself over Eddie’s death, but not in the way he’d like. He’s worried that Eddie may have betrayed him, and all he can think about is the question he needs but can never have answered. So his new drinking buddy Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) gives him a couple of solid punches in the face to get him to stop whining — and man, isn’t that what he’s needed for so long? We all know any romantic relationship with Nucky isn’t going to work out, but it’s always exciting when he meets his match. He met it in Margaret, who wouldn’t tolerate anything less than being treated with respect, and now he’s met it in Sally, who can drink like the men, tote a gun like the men, and throw a punch like ‘em, too. Their scuffle leads to some hot (literally, it’s Tampa) sex in the bar, before Nucky declares that Sally will be in charge of his Florida business while he’s in New Jersey. Finally, a woman in power.
Chalky’s sexual encounter is equally violent, but not as playful as Sally and Nucky’s. With Sally and Nucky there’s a real awkward quality that makes the moment feel genuine, but with Chalky and Daughter, there’s something more fierce and primitive at play. Chalky’s tired of Dr. Narcisse having control, and he’s exerting his authority with the only avenue available to him — he can’t shoot anyone, he can’t run his business the way he wants, and he just feels like a pawn being knocked around by Nucky and Narcisse. So what can he do, as a man, to show his power? Have sex with Narcisse’s property, thus violating that contract in whatever small measure he can. But how much of a violation can it really be when Daughter is so willing to poison the well?
When Eli says they’re all just trying to make a living, it’s both the most simple and the most complex explanation he can give for the motivations of everyone, and sort of serves as the only real thematic line drawn through the entire series. Why else do they kill, hurt, destroy, betray, and suffer? They’re just trying to make a living, is all.