Often on Boardwalk Empire, characters become resigned to the less agreeable aspects of their situation, even if they’ve otherwise acquired positions of power. Jimmy Darmody was a prime example, as he never fought his depraved mother’s presence in his life. Richard Harrow has followed this example with his heavy involvement (almost reliance) in violence since the war. And we see in (the not coincidentally titled) “Resignation” that Chalky White has succumbed to this trope, playing the part of subservient black man to his white customers.
Here is a man who personally brutalized the local Grand Cyclops of the Klan in Season 1, and who now controls the biggest club in Atlantic City – in “New York Sour”, he comfortably and authoritatively called in the Thompsons to help clean up Dunn’s killing of the booking agent. But when we see him tending to his guests in the Onyx during the early scenes of “Resignation”, he just stands there while a white customer condescendingly rubs his head. It clearly bothers him, yet he says nothing and walks away. After all the progress he’s made, he still views himself as the “field nigger” he described to his family in Season 2.
This is noticed, too, by Dr Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, Casino Royale). Narcisse is looking for reparations after the death of the booking agent, Dickie Pastor, and observes that Chalky is “a servant, pretending to be a king”. It clearly rankles the modest Chalky. It gets worse, too – Mrs Pastor is claiming Dunn raped her, and a white woman’s word will outweigh Dunn Pursley’s every day of the week in 1924. Narcisse sticks the boot in further when he takes the performers away, sending one of them with a note to inform Chalky that “A servant is not greater than his master”. Ouch. When Nucky is brought in to help out, Narcisse manages to negotiate a 10 percent cut of the Onyx. I thought it was telling that, while the three men were in the room solving the matter, Nucky comes across as superior to Chalky (albeit reluctantly), while Narcisse sits on his couch the very image of calm power (surpassing, perhaps, even Nucky’s ability to control a room). Had Narcisse been Gyp Rosetti, or had the Onyx been owned by Nucky, would Nucky have been so content to give up part of his earnings? He started a ridiculous war over much less. This is just one more example of Chalky being undermined by a white man, and I wonder for how long more he’ll accept it.
As for this new rival, congratulations must go to the writers and to Wright for Narcisse, a villain with a name straight out of a James Bond film. Already he’s shaping up to be another memorable character, but also a dangerous one. Not only does he quickly hit on Chalky’s insecurities, he also realizes Mrs Pastor is lying (and has known it all along). He has her killed, but not before using her as leverage to get his action from the Onyx. Notice, as well, that he appears as different from Gyp as possible – where Gyp was a homicidal maniac, Narcisse is all cool collection, handling the verbal bandying while his men carry out the physical violence.
Continuing my labored connection between characters, this episode sees George Mueller resigning himself to some violence. O’Banion dispatches Mueller to check out what Capone is up to in Cicero and, along with some other jackboots, he partakes in a good, old fashioned beat-down of democrats. It’s his scenes with the Capones that allow Michael Shannon to show what a magnificently expressive kisser he’s got – from his squeamishness at first with an angry Al to that dazed and pained look after taking a whack, it deserves a tasteful bout of applause.
Shannon’s Mueller is just as entertaining when he sees that his wife, in an effort to turn their house into a home, has bought a couch. From his initial shock to his delivery of the line, “Has it been sat on?”, and on to the end of the scene, I laughed, continuously and loudly. Mueller’s wife, on the other hand, is a strange one. We don’t know much about her, but she’s thrown her lot in with her oddball husband, going so far as to kill a man. I wouldn’t mind getting to see more of her. Plus, her accent amuses my inner child, so there’s that.
Elsewhere in the ‘folk who could really go for a nice home right about now’ section, we have Richard Harrow. Showing that the episode’s title has one of those dual meanings – which critics like those of us here at PHG love – he resigns from killing. First, he lets his final target go, then he has to leave it to his sister Anna to put down the family dog. Jack Huston is typically excellent here, making it uncomfortable to watch Harrow’s anguish. This episode also saw the quick resolution of the Harrow mystery from last week. We now know the reason behind his string of murders and, also, that someone (likely his employer) knows he didn’t go through with the whole job. That person also has the Harrows’ address thanks to Richard’s sloppiness in leaving his book behind.
We have a more normal resignation in Nucky’s strand of the story, when Eddie gives Nucky an ultimatum – one that Nucky meets. From now on, the resourceful assistant is going to be yet another arm in Nucky’s criminal operation. I enjoyed Anthony Laciura’s indignation at his treatment, as well as Buscemi’s displeasure at Eddie’s shaking.
Sidebar: is it unusual that I’ve included Nucky’s role in the episode so late in the review? Before this season began, I spotted several commentators declaring that, despite his position (arguably) as the main character, Nucky is among the least interesting in the show. I was dismissive of that idea originally but, after “Resignation”, I understand it to a degree now. While it’s becoming clear that his story is going somewhere, he seemed a lot more inconsequential to this episode than he did in previous ones. I’ve noticed that the crime author Dennis Lehane has joined the writing team this season and has supposedly given advice on the season plan. He did well with The Wire, and several of his books focus on this type of sprawling story, so it bodes well for the future. As for where Nucky’s story is going, we’ll surely learn who he’s going to meet in Tampa during the next episode.
Potentially playing into Nucky’s future arc, this episode also saw the introduction of one J. Edgar Hoover. Since that second mystery of last week – Agent Warren Knox – has become somewhat unraveled, it looks like Nucky is in for more trouble, with massive crackdowns on bootlegging imminent. There’s still more to Knox though, especially when you take into account how nonchalantly he dispatched the men in “New York Sour”. He’s almost overzealous in his desire to act the Fed and this can only bring problems down the line. Either way, Hoover has him on the inside of Nucky’s business, so we’ll see what conflicts emerge in time. Hoover himself is played by Eric Ladin, a veteran of HBO and AMC productions (Generation Kill and Mad Men among them). Ladin portrays Hoover as a persistent twerp, which, in addition to frustrating Agent Elliot, makes for nice viewing.
It’s been a dandy start, so, with some of the plot lines already beginning to take shape. It’s not been astounding, by any means, but we have had two quality episodes to get the season going. That’s going to have to be enough for now. – E
“I like this room. One looks down in secret and sees many things. You know what I saw?”
“A servant, pretending to be a king.” – Dr Narcisse, Chalky