Most of “All In” carries us through a single night within the Boardwalk Empire universe, a fact that’s easy not to notice until two back-to-back scenes show characters stumbling into the dawn. As the title suggests, the dominant theme is risk: there’s Nucky and Rothstein’s gravitas-loaded poker game, of course, but at some point in the episode almost all of the characters have left themselves vulnerable, to varying degrees of success. Some seismic shifts have occurred for Meyer Lansky, the former Nelson Van Alden, and even the hapless Eddie. Unfortunately, most of them don’t seem to be for the better.
The action kicks off in Chicago with Al Capone’s hapless sidekick Jake Guzik suffering a heart attack while making a collection, plus the indignity of literally rolling down a flight of stairs. Dean O’Banion takes a break from punking an associate to send “George Mueller” off with some suitably low-quality condolence flowers for the convalescing Jake. As luck would have it, Al and Capone #2 are also in the hospital. Smelling weakness — and Van Alden’s exasperation with O’Banion — they ask not-so-nicely for him to give up some information on the Irishman’s speakeasies, then settle for dragging him along while they make Jake’s remaining collections for old times’ sake.
Amusingly, the Capones’ tactics in their Chicago turf war mirror the FBI’s. Agent Knox has settled firmly on the straight and narrow side of things, meticulously outlining for J. Edgar Hoover and company the massive criminal conspiracy that Prohibition hath wrought. Hoover, the humorless suit we met a couple of episodes ago, is sympathetic but skeptical, demanding that Knox bring him proof before the Bureau goes after everyone from Johnny Torio to Waxey Gordon. Knox’s solution? “Find the weakest link in Nucky Thompson’s chain and break it.”
What Van Alden is to O’Banion, Eddie is to a very sunburned Nucky. Still adjusting to a lieutenant with responsibilities beyond securing Rothstein’s milk and cake, Nucky sends him off to the train station to handle a cash transfer with Capone #3. Predictably, his admonishment to cut the drama because “it’s only money” proves laughably untrue (you’d think he’d have learned that after Margaret’s withering refusal last season). Eddie ends up spending a raucous night on the town with drinking buddies new and old, bonding with Capone over their mutual role as the quiet family man holding up a violent empire and belting out German drinking songs over a pint. The high comes crashing down the next morning, when Knox swoops in at the train station. Eddie’s big gamble fell through: he got a promotion, but with great bootlegging power comes greater responsibility to keep away from the feds.
Back in Chicago, the Capones’ first errand is innocent enough. After all, throwing a debtor out a window doesn’t hurt anyone except the defenestrated, and it makes for a fantastic shot that stays resolutely outside the building as the brothers storm their victim’s apartment. As with everything else on this show, however, things get more complicated once booze gets involved. Instead of delivering Van Alden home for some nice Norwegian stew, Al jacks one of O’Banion’s delivery trucks and has Van Alden take the wheel while he indulges in a little white stuff. Turns out one of O’Banion’s lackeys is still in the back, and the threat of being outed as in cahoots with the competition does for Van Alden what the Capones’ offers of aquavit profits could not: forces Van Alden squarely onto the Cicero side of things. Van Alden shoots at the poor guy without a second thought, and a coked-out Al Capone finishes the job with a freaking machine gun. And there’s your gangster-movie visual cliché for the week, folks.
While the Capones’ risky move gets them both liquor and a valuable inside man, Arnold Rothstein’s having one of the worst nights of all. Nucky’s called him into Atlantic City to discuss the Florida land deal, not because he’s particularly fond of AR but because he’s pretty much the only person with a half million dollars to spare with whom Nucky’s on speaking terms. At first, it’s Nucky trying to make the hard sell to Rothstein, who’s understandably skeptical that the guy who just wanted to make peace and maintain his tiny slice of the pie now wants a half-million dollar deal. In 1924 dollars.
But then the poker game starts. If you thought Nucky and Rothstein’s normal conversations were tense and coded, try putting a deck of cards and $200,000 worth of poker chips between them. Because I don’t play poker and I find it hard enough to follow their verbal tennis matches to begin with, I won’t even try to decipher some of the dialogue that goes on between Boardwalk’s iciest power players (“I suppose an intermediate action is better than no action at all.” “It is, if action is your only goal.” And so on.) Still, the outcome is pretty clear, with Rothstein losing big and showing Nucky a serious weakness for the first time: a fixation on winning, and potential gambling addiction, that has him throwing good money after bad and staying through the wee hours of the morning.
Suddenly Nucky’s not so hot on entering into business with someone who’s lost his famously cool head. That’s when Meyer Lansky makes his big bet, making a ballsy move to end all ballsy moves and offering to go into business with Nucky in Rothstein’s stead. The next ten minutes are a serious of awesome Meyer moments: we find out that not even a heroin bust was enough to break up the Lansky-Luciano bromance; we get Meyer and Lucky’s amazing origin story, involving bullying on the Lower East Side; and, hand freshly shaken, Meyer celebrates by beating an anti-Semite to a bloody pulp while muttering in Yiddish. Go, Meyer, go!
The final piece of the puzzle this week lies in Harlem, where Dunn goes to meet Dr. Narcisse in Marcus Garvey’s office because Historical References. The meeting exposes one of the stranger paradoxes of Narcisse’s character, who’s dedicated to causes like the Universal Negro Improvement Association, yet has no qualms about going into the highly destructive heroin trade as long as the two don’t mix. Though he’s miffed that Dunn brought drug money into his place of activism, Narcisse doesn’t stay angry for long. Instead, he explains his hatred of Chalky, likening him to a vampire for partnering with Nucky, making him complicit in the marginalization of Atlantic City’s black community (“Your North Side may as well be Mississippi”).
That’s when he lays out his vision: there are “n*****s,” who drag their race down with public drunkenness and ignorance and otherwise giving African Americans a bad name, and then there are those Libyans who help in the “uplift” of the race. Conveniently, there’s a vagrant on the steps of the very brownstone where Narcisse is about to attend a party. In a show of loyalty, Dunn beats him into the ground, demonstrating what side he thinks he’s on. Tellingly, however, Dunn’s still a muscle man, using brute force — generally not considered an “uplifting” method. That’s why Dunn still stays very much outside the soirée, while Narcisse heads indoors without a second thought.