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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “The Old Ship of Zion”

Boardwalk Empire The Old Ship of Zion
HBO

On tonight’s all new episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ there are plenty of surprises to go around: Nucky’s shipment from Florida contains something he didn’t order, while Agent Knox discovers a little leverage to help him turn Eli Thompson against his own brother. Meanwhile, Chalky tries to regain control over his part of town, declaring war on Dr. Narcisse and his heroin business in “The Old Ship of Zion.”

“I told you it’d work itself out, didn’t I?” Nucky asks his brother Eli at the end of the episode, unaware that Agent Knox has revealed himself as the lead investigator in the case being (slowly) built against Nucky. We never see if Eli nods his head to indicate that he’ll flip on Nucky because that’s not really the point of this week’s episode. The point is keeping it in the family, as Nucky says to Eli earlier on, and this season has focused a lot on what family means to people like the Thompsons (and the Capones, for that matter). But with family comes an inherent sort of trust, and it’s that trust that can blind you to the reality.

Juxtaposed against Nucky’s obliviousness to the threat of Eli — whose love for his kids and his wife might very well be the thing that brings Nucky down, coming from the place he should expect the most, but suspects the least — is Chalky White and Dunn Purnsley. Early in the episode we watch Purnsley enter a heroin den (run by a charming little old lady, as all drug dens should be — think of the doilies!) that he’s been managing under the guidance of Dr. Narcisse, but in order to keep up appearances with Chalky later, he shoots his own man, installed there to keep tabs on the cash and drugs. This naturally raises Chalky’s eyebrows, and all we can do is hope he’s as smart as we think he is — and he is, indeed. You see, while Chalky’s got his eyes on Narcisse — burning his drugs in front of the good doctor and his congregation, gathered to watch Narcisse’s morality play about the dangers of intertwining races — Purnsley’s got his eyes on Chalky. It’s not who you’re watching, but who’s watching you. Nucky gives Willie a speech about looking forward, but sometimes you need to keep an eye looking back.

Nucky doesn’t know that yet (or maybe he does; it’s hard to imagine he’d let Eli screw him over twice), but Chalky isn’t so easily fooled, leading us to a stomach-churning sequence late in the episode, in which Purnsley’s been sent by Narcisse to kill Chalky in his post-coital bliss at Daughter Maitland’s residence. As she gives Chalky a private performance of the hymn “The Old Ship of Zion,” we wonder if she’s singing to comfort him or if she’s preparing him for his impending death. When the knock on the door arrives, Daughter’s eyes flash a brief crisis of conscience. We know there are only a few outcomes: the first, and the most dreadfully likely if you’ve spent any time watching shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire,’ is that Chalky will die a violent and sudden death, expected or not, at the hands of his own man. The second, once Chalky triumphantly asks, “just how much is he paying you to f— me?”, is that Chalky will kill Purnsley. But the third, and the one you know and hope is coming when the two get to tussling, is that Daughter Maitland will save Chalky.

And she does. It’s an old trope, the man or woman hesitantly wooing someone under false pretenses, and unwittingly falling for the mark, but it’s one we hope for here, and one that, like “The Old Ship of Zion,” offers some sad, sweet relief. Like Chalky, we gaze in awe at Daughter singing the hymn at Deacon Cuffy’s funeral, and we wonder, like Chalky, just who is this lord and savior she’s really singing about? Is it Narcisse, is it some lingering faith in God and the dim beacon of salvation wherever it may be found or had, or is it Chalky and his willingness to accept her for who she is, even if she doesn’t know who she is — as Daughter gently explains gazing up from Chalky’s knee like a hopeless child, she’s been lost, wandering the earth and trying to find her place, no more or less than anyone else. In Chalky she finds a similar despair, but more than that: acceptance. She isn’t his puppet. He’s a man of simplicity, who demands that no one be anyone but themselves, honest and true.

And it’s in that spirit that we understand, as Chalky lights Narcisse’s heroin on fire in the middle of the street, that his morality is superior to that of the doctor’s. He may be a criminal, he may be a bootlegger, and he may have killed some folks, but he does have his people’s best interests at heart, while Narcisse wants to weaken and cripple them, drive them to worship at his feet and beg for mercy; he wants to destroy them so he can lift them up and do it all over again. It’s what he’s done to Daughter, by murdering her mother and taking away her choice and sense of self, making her wholly dependent upon him. He doesn’t believe in God; he believes he is God.

I’ve spent so much time talking about Chalky and Narcisse, that I haven’t touched on another great element of tonight’s episode: Sally Wheet’s trip to Atlantic City, which catches Nucky completely off guard. What I continue to love about her is the way she doesn’t buy into this code of male ethics. She will buy her own drinks, pay for her own hotel, and she will flirt with Mickey Doyle if she damn well pleases. I’d love to see her go toe to toe with Narcisse because she would not even put up with his nonsense. Sally doesn’t need a man, and she’s not going to have one dictate where and when and how she should be, and what’s appropriate or not. She’s a grown-ass woman, and when she finally pushes Nucky into remembering that, forcing him to knock Mickey upside the head (poor Mickey) to clearly establish what he wants from her without all this fuss about chivalry and dinners, that’s when she’s ready to listen.

Sally pushes Nucky to be a more honest and forthcoming version of himself, a man more like Chalky White, with whom Nucky earlier danced around the topic of whether his friend had his “house in order.” Chalky continually asked Nucky to just ask what he wanted to ask, but Nucky is overly concerned with maintaining this facade of a proper code of business conduct. That’s better suited for men like Rothstein (who will eat an entire cheesecake after losing $500,000 at the race track, as if nothing happened), but with the way things are headed in Atlantic City, there’s so much being purposefully left unsaid. When we see Eli forgive Willie at the end of the episode and welcome him back into the family, Eli doesn’t exactly know what it is he’s agreeing to, but his silence and the crestfallen look on his face are saying it all — if only Nucky would listen.

Elsewhere in the episode: we get our weekly update on Eddie Kessler’s birds — they’re okay!

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