Atlantic City’s become a much grimmer place in the eight months since Nucky squashed his signature flower and stalked down the boardwalk to a life of relative anonymity. Life isn’t going poorly for most of the major players we actually got to see in last night’s season premiere, but no one’s riding high either: for every settled gang war, there’s a dead ex-girlfriend for some new squeeze to shit-talk; for every successful nightclub, there’s a lieutenant to murder a business associate over a little horrific racism. We haven’t met our big bad of the season yet, an interesting pacing choice given how quickly Nucky’s prosecution and Gyp Rosetti were unveiled in seasons past. But the major players of 1920s gangsterdom have more than enough problems to occupy the first hour of Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season.
According to Nucky’s olive branch speech to Joe Masseria, Arnold Rothstein, and their various minions, all Atlantic City’s overlord wants in life is to maintain his not-so-tiny fiefdom and pop into New York every once in a while without getting murdered. It’s believable enough, less because of the wads of cash the Thompson brothers fork over in a show of good faith than the distinct lack of tension between Nucky and his former antagonists. They put up a fight, but before long they seem to accept that casualties (Masseria) and double-crossing (Rothstein) are all par for the course in their particular line of work, which they’re happy to continue without Nucky’s interference.
The summit was also a nice little window into the current state of affairs between New York’s current kingpins. After his royal screwing-over at the hands of his once-beloved “A.R.,” Lucky Luciano has opted to stick with Masseria, an alliance that both restores the organizations’ divisions along ethnic lines and breaks up the dynamic duo of Luciano and Lansky. Lucky growls a bit in both English and Italian, Rothstein drops HBO Drama Lines™ like, “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself,” and they’re off.
The meeting takes place in the rebuilt Babette’s, which is now owned and operated by Chalky White. It appears that Nucky’s using the club as the base of his limited operations, watching dancers rehearse from above and hitting on showgirls he meets through perennial buddy Eddie Cantor. Chalky himself confers with a visiting talent agent, whose wife propositions Dunn Purnsley using the tried-and-true “sexually explicit napkin illustration” method. The episode takes a turn for the sickening once Dunn and the wife are interrupted by Dicky the agent himself, who more than lives up to his name by holding a gun to Dunn’s head and ordering him to “act like a n*****” by continuing to screw his wife while he pleasures himself. Dunn then does exactly what the audience hopes he will and butchers the man with a broken liquor bottle. The wife escapes through the window, presumably to be seen again very, very soon.
Though Chalky’s indignant that Dunn nipped a promising business relationship in the bud — “I was gonna make him my friend, inch by inch” — he still calls in the brothers Thompson to help make the whole mess go away. Most of Dunn’s misdeeds are forgiven with a simple bit of humiliation via backwoods burial, leaving Chalky free to go about his business and clearing the way for Nucky to hit on Cantor’s lady friend. She praises the Onyx Girls as “deliciously primitive” like the adorable little racist that she is, but she really screws herself over by speaking ill of Billie during some postcoital chat. Nucky coldly has Eddie kick her out while he gazes at maps of Florida on the deck of his hotel.
Back in the Midwest, Richard Harrow goes on a mysterious killing spree and Al Capone is mightily offended by a journalist’s inability to spell his name. Though we’ll certainly find out more about what Richard had against Old Mission Title & Insurance in later episodes, this one serves to reunite him with his sister Emma, sequestered in a quiet house in the middle of nowhere. Capone, meanwhile, acquires a taste for fame once he realizes how little-known he is relative to top dog Johnny Torio. “No one should know you,” Al’s brothers advise between wrestling matches, but as one terrified reporter can now attest, the man clearly disagrees.
That’s more or less it for characters we know (both Margaret and Van Alden are disappointingly absent this week), leaving this season’s new players. One, supermarket executive Roy Phillips, looks like he’s set to be Gillian Darmody’s knight in shining armor. Addicted to heroin and driven to prostitution, Gillian’s supposedly raising the cash to let her and Tommy live somewhere in peace, but she’s clearly not fit for mothering in her current state. And so Tommy remains with Julia Sigorsky while Gillian offers to be Phillips’ “knowledgeable companion” as he moves into Atlantic City and away from his wife.
Far more interesting is the latest corrupt Prohie on the scene, a sociopath who sets the Thompsons’ typical guy up to get axed via booby trap. He plays dumb throughout most of the episode, but his chilling assurance to his dying boss that he’ll “call it in, sir” whilst sipping some illegal spirits promises crazier things to come. No doubt it’ll spell trouble for Nucky’s operation, but this guy doesn’t seem like the type to take the straightforward path and hand the Thompsons over to the feds. I can’t wait to see him ask Mickey Doyle for a bribe.