“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight: “The Old Ship of Zion”

* We open on Dunn Purnsley walking in slow motion. This is what my mind looks like inside, if you were wondering. Thank you, Tim Van Patten.

* Ha, this nice old lady runs a crackhouse! Or whatever you call its heroin equivalent in period-appropriate slang.

* God I love his reptilian smile, his gold tooth, his oily purr. Such a fun character.

* “The Doctor’s expecting everyone.” Lovely line. Thank you, Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder.

* Knox is such a prick. That said, “We’ll get the crooks. Then we’ll find the law” is undoubtedly an American recipe for success.

* Assuming Nucky’s nephew is the weak link, that’s some Boardwalk-ass tying together of disparate strings. And kudos to the show for presenting this information to Knox in the form of an unnecessarily articulate, righteously indignant fellow agent. Even the bit parts don’t respect Knox, and that sends a message to the viewer.

* Willie’s staying in Eddie’s place. Another strand.

* “We all have to move forward, Will….I want you to give some thought to how to turn this into an opportunity.” Nucky in a nutshell.

* “Daddy, are you alright? People were lookin’ at you.” That’s Chalky’s gift and Chalky’s curse. His part of town looks to him as a leader because he delivers for them, but his power is therefore dependent on them. Nucky, by contrast, has increasingly withdrawn from the public-service aspect of his career the more it’s involved outright criminality. You can’t be worrying about electability when you’re fighting a gang war, or vice versa, as Mayor Ed’s concerns make clear.

* Mrs. White is wise to Chalky’s affair, and Chalky’s unconcerned, we learn later on. So my earlier question about what she sees in him is answered at least in part, or at least as far as Chalky’s concerned: She appreciates the refinement his unrefined money can purchase for herself and her kids. Carmela Soprano.

* I like the look Narcisse shoots at the Mayor when he “Amen”s. Like he smelled a fart.

* The new preacher’s got a good question: “Might we ask why his leave need be so swift and so violent?” It’s interesting to see how soft power drives hard men like Chalky and Nucky into action.

* “Turns out…this was her sister!” “Twin sister?” “No. That’s the peculiar aspect.” Never change, Mickey Doyle.

* I’m coming around on Sally Wheat. Patricia Arquette has a fabulous look for this show, the toll of age on her striking face and frame transmutated into Southern charm, like Spanish moss on an old building. Flirting with Mickey Doyle would read like a transparent ploy, or simple bad writing, were any other woman we’ve met to do it, but Sally legitimately seems like someone who’d relish his entertainment value enough to actually enjoy his company, as far as it goes. And her chemistry with Nucky is genuine, much to my surprise. Maybe it’s just that she’s an age-appropriate love interest, for once, or maybe it’s that her appeal in no way relies on subverted sexual innocence, like his countless girlwomen showgirls (just compare her unfathomably prominent bosom and cleavage to those flat-chested flappers), or Margaret’s nice-Irish-girl vibe. She’s as in control of her desires as he is.

* “It’s always good to save something to talk about for later.” Criminal caginess as courtship etiquette. Nice work, Nucky.

* It’s to the show’s great credit that during the entire series of scenes between Chalky and Dunn, I had no idea who was going to die. I suppose I’d have put money down on Dunn if I had to, but last night when I saw a tweet to the effect of “We talked to Boardwalk Empire’s Dunn Purnsley about…” I stopped myself from reading the rest of it and suspected that he’d died but also thought it was entirely possible he’d staged a successful coup and killed Chalky.

* “You’re uncle, he’s…involved in other enterprises now.” Mayor Ed’s got a gift for understatement.

* The raid on the heroin house (someone please give me a term to use here) was engrossingly brutal. It’s relatively rare on this show to see a full-fledged assault on someone completely incapable of defending himself, let alone an entire one-sided battle full of such things. Sickening, yet cathartic given all the delayed and deferred tension — tension Dunn preserves by executing his contact before Chalky can interrogate him. Not, however, before he can discover a connection to the Doctor, whose vanity is starting to prove to be his undoing.

* “Know what I see? A house full of trouble.” Another lovely line.

* Three packs of Chesterfields and “Tell me all about William Thompson.” Chillingly efficient.

* “It’s not my style of music, but you can’t say it doesn’t have an effect.” “Chalky. Don’t let your life get out of hand.” Nucky Thompson, student of human nature.

* “If you’re bored, you’re boring.” Betty Draper offered a variant of that line in Mad Men, too, which means it’s safe to assume it’s something David Chase said to Winter and Weiner when they complained about the long hours sometime.

* “Enjoyed our conversation. You have a fine evening.” Hahahaha, Mickey Doyle responds to a rap on the head with a cane like a dog getting hit with a newspaper. To be fair, he hasn’t had the best luck with pissed-off bosses in boardwalk nightclubs.

* “He gets on my nerves.” “He wasn’t getting on mine.” Double entendre of the night.

* Hahahaha Willie kept up by Nuck and Sally. The thought of lying in bed forced to listen to the coital noises of your uncle is truly gross.

* As he mouths his own turgid lines from the side of the stage, as his play lands with a thud, as he theatrically bows in front of a blank curtain to no applause whatsoever, as he self-deprecates with obvious phoniness and egotism, the true character of Dr. Narcisse is revealed at last: Just as I suspected, he really is just a vain piece of shit.

* Marvelous Godfather-esque staging for the street confrontation between Chalky and Narcisse. And I loved the unspoken menace of Dunn, an enemy hiding in plain sight.

* Willie wants to try making it on his own. “If I don’t, it means I didn’t deserve it.” Looks like he internalized that morality-of-capitalism lecture he attended after all.

* Daughter Maitland suffers from depression, and Dr. Narcisse has her apologizing for how badly she upsets him when she gets that way. Wonderfully loathsome, and recognizable.

* “Will you keep him here? There will be…another visitor.” Another lovely line.

* I’d assumed Willie was going to be the next weak link Knox attempted to break, but of course it makes more sense to use his plight to blackmail Eli, a tried and true tactic of law enforcement targeting medium-sized fish with big-fish bosses and little-fish kids who’ve got legal trouble that can be made to go away. My thing about this development is this, however: Eli’s gotta go to Nuck with this, right? I mean, wouldn’t you? Eli’s sore at Nucky for his involvement with Willie, but not so sore that he wasn’t amused by Sally’s antics at the warehouse earlier that day, for example, or that he didn’t seem to be on the road to accepting Nucky’s truce. And god knows the two of them have weathered far worse.

* But maybe that’s the point — some wounds never fully heal. The part of Eli so hurt by Nucky’s paternal condescension and intrusion into his nuclear family is the same part of Eli that was hurt by Nucky’s political condescension back in Season One when Eli’s attempts to become a macher in his own right wilted in the face of his lack of innate talent for the game.

* I suppose my point is that I don’t fully buy this turn of events, particularly if they lead into the death-of-Eli territory virtually demanded by a second betrayal, fool-me-once-etc.-style. I really enjoy that character and that performance. But I also recognize that as the historical figures on the show evolve from supporting characters in the larger story of organized crime into leading players, the less pivotal/non-fictional characters are going to have to make room, by any means necessary.

* All that being said, there were two marvelously revealing details in that diner confrontation. The first: Eli struggling in vain to remain in place and not allow the other agent to sit down next to him. It reminded me of nothing so much as doing that exact thing to a sibling when they want to smush in and steal your spot. That’s telling. So too was his inability to stop it.

* The second: Knox’s sole technique, it seems, is to bully people. His schemes so far: Orchestrate the execution of his corrupt partner; beat, blackmail, and terrify Eddie into betrayal and suicide; blackmail Eli by using his son to get him to betray his brother. For Knox, spycraft consists solely of getting into a position where you can more successfully kick someone in the face. I think that will come back to bite him.

“Jack Dempsey came to your hotel.” “You remember that.” “I remember everything.”
Will’s got political ambitions! “I want the family to be back where it belongs.”

* When we hit that final scene, I thought to myself, “Wow, between Eli and Chalky, this could be a tough, tough episode.”

* “When you sing…that sound…like, like you tyin’ up a secret.” Lovely!

* The moment she persuades him to stay, you can hear a car pull up.

* All these shots of Chalky’s face. Guy’s like a monument. a weathered monument, his scar a crack in the edifice.

* Daughter broke because she saw he was moved to tears by her singing. That’s an incredibly accurate portrait of how discovering someone is affected by your art can move an artist. You get the impression that Narcisse’s compliments were always more about him hearing the sound of his own voice and congratulating himself on its powers of persuasion. I doubt her singing ever made him think of his mom and weep.

* And so passes Dunn Purnsley, one of my favorite television performances of all time. I’ll follow Erik LaRay Harvey pretty much anywhere now.

* Don’t do it, Eli. Don’t do it.

5 Responses to “Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight: “The Old Ship of Zion”

  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    I think the phrase you want is “shooting gallery.”

  2. Jesse Irmler says:

    Hey Sean where is the episode 9 (and now 10) commentary? What are you on vacation?

  3. [...] everything he loves, everything he holds dear can be gone.” Why lord it over him, you creep? Like I said before, Knox really only has one mode: bullying. Like a lot of Boardwalk‘s gangsters, he’s [...]

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