Killing off one Big Bad only to replace him with another runs the risk of coming off like a lazy decision to play Antagonist Whac-A-Mole. And on a lesser show with lesser villains, it might. But in an ensemble cast awash with interchangeable doughy, middle-aged white men, Boardwalk Empire has a talent for making its adversaries into its most compelling characters, and by far and away its most memorable. So while we all mourn the loss of Bobby Canavale’s psychotic Gyp Rossetti, let us give thanks for Jeffrey Wright’s Valentin Narcisse, a considerably more level-headed and possibly more dangerous thorn in Nucky Thompson’s side.
As of the end of “Resignation,” here’s what we know about Doctor (not Mister!) Narcisse: he’s a religious, well-educated man based out of Harlem; he owns a controlling stake of every performer in Chalky’s new Onyx Club; and while he’s not afraid to play a racist white woman against a fellow “Libyan” to get what he wants, it probably won’t end well for the white woman. In fact, he’ll make a hell of a statement (and a fantastic end-of-episode shot) out of her by dumping her body in front of the future site of a squeaky-clean church, sponsored by Atlantic City’s hapless puppet mayor Ed Bader.
Our first peek at Narcisse is through Chalky’s eyes, an unwelcome intruder into the Onyx Club’s inner sanctum come to demand compensation for Dicky’s death. Narcisse uses the widow’s Dunn-raped-me backstory as a bargaining chip, but from the second we see him looming over her reading off a Bible quote on the importance of female modesty, it’s painfully obvious where the real power lies. The dynamic between Chalky and Narcisse is instantly tense; after witnessing Mr. White receive a condescending noogie from a high-rolling customer, Narcisse memorably calls him “a servant pretending to be a king.” Chalky is, understandably, not pleased, and sends Narcisse packing while flatly denying any knowledge of Dicky’s whereabouts.
Before Nucky gets called in to mediate, he’s got his own frustrations to deal with. Mayor Bader seems to think that Nucky’s new lack of public visibility means he still isn’t owed a hefty bribe now and again, a misconception that’s rectified easily enough with a threatening conversation in Nucky’s car. More troubling is the obvious discontent of his ever-faithful companion Eddie. Last season’s gunshot wound has left the valet unable to pour a cup of tea, let alone make Nucky’s breakfast. Unable to perform the job that’s also his life (no wonder he sees Nucky as “all there is”), Eddie’s fed up with his boss’s pity and demands to be taken seriously. Nucky obliges, welcoming his former manservant into his inner circle by ordering him to stash away the Bader bribe while he runs off to Tampa. More on that next week, we assume.
The Midwestern Interlude portions of “Resignation” show us a bit of Richard Harrow’s obviously doomed attempts to return to normalcy. He makes the admirable decision to go cold turkey on violence, refusing to commit the last of the murders-for-hire that brought him to Nowheresville, Indiana last week. Richard has so little fight left, in fact, that he can’t even bring himself to mercy-kill the family dog, telling his pregnant, widowed sister, “I don’t want any more of it,” before stalking into the house for a long, quiet life of peace and solitude. Just kidding! Someone, presumably the guy who paid Richard to commit all those murders, finishes the job and rings up the Harrows to “collect some property taxes.” The Hitman With a Heart won’t stay retired for long, especially when the fight’s brought to his doorstep.
Also struggling to make a more domestic life for himself is Nelson Van Alden, now employed as Chicago gangster Dean O’Banion’s all-purpose errand boy. As always, “George Mueller” can’t get a break; his wife is buying furniture he can’t afford on installment and his boss’ idea of a promotion is sending him off to deal with Al Capone. Van Alden lets slip that O’Banion wants to make sure his rival stays out in the suburban sticks and far away from Chicago proper, and in return for his troubles he gets to take part in a good ol’ fashioned beatdown on behalf of the local Republican machine. I am so much more terrified of over-the-edge Van Alden than I was of General Zod.
Agent Knox ratting out his corrupt boss to the feds, newly committed to their jobs under the Coolidge administration, was great, but let’s wrap up with the real meat of the episode: Nucky, Narcisse, and Chalky’s tripartite summit. There’s so much going on here, I don’t even know where to begin. Is Narcisse trying to convince Chalky he’s better than being Nucky’s less-than-friend by humiliating him? Was taking a stake in the club an attempt to undermine Chalky and Nucky’s partnership? Is Chalky’s position as the leader of Atlantic City’s black community in jeopardy? Having a villain whose main creed seems to be anti-racism has the potential to be either the best plot this show’s ever done or the most cringe-inducing. Luckily, I trust this show to make Dr. Narcisse into someone we’ll think twice about rooting against.