‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 4 Recap: “The North Star”

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Hey, remember Margaret Thompson? The nice Irish lady who had one awful husband too many and packed off to Brooklyn? Turns out she’s still around, and she’s doing decently for herself. Teddy and Emily go to school, Margaret goes to work, and they stay far away from the likes of Nucky, who wouldn’t know an IRT train if it ran him over. Part of me wants nothing more than for that surprisingly cordial coffee date in Penn Station to be the last we ever see of Margaret, making her pretty much the only character in the history of HBO dramas who got out when she could and rebuilt her life accordingly. Unfortunately, that’s not how this show works.

Nucky’s on his way back down to Florida to seal his massive land deal, but first he’d like to clear his conscience by giving news of Eddie’s death to the one person in his life who’s proven she has a moral compass. But Margaret’s not having it. She feels for Eddie, of course, but right now she’s in the business of moving on, and learning about the latest fallout from her ex-husband’s shady dealings just isn’t part of that. With just one epic glare at Nucky’s claim that he “wouldn’t put something alive in a box,” she’s gone — possibly for the rest of the season.

Back in Florida, the land of honest, salt-of-the-earth folk who love a good alligator fight, Nucky gets the news that Gus Tucker has “disappeared” on account of a machete to the face. Local contact Bill shrugs it off and quickly brings in a replacement backer, who also happens to be Joe Masseria’s cousin. Surprisingly, this is what finally breaks up Lansky ‘n’ Luciano; Lucky gets spooked and backs out, but Meyer surprises him by insisting on staying and using his substantial cash reserves to make up for Lucky’s buy-in. Lucky storms out into the Florida rain, but not before spitting out a few drunken ethnic slurs (which we already know is a bit of a sore spot for Lansky; moment of silence for the world’s most insensitive poker-playing anti-Semite).

Though the lineup of partners does change dramatically, the more important goings-on in Tampa happen between Nucky and Sally, the straight-talking bartender. The two get sloshed together on particularly potent moonshine, and Nucky decides to open up. He knows he doesn’t need the Florida deal, but for some reason he can’t stop himself from trying to build an empire. He’s also fully aware of what a stone-cold bastard he is, given that his first thought after Eddie’s death was whether he should be worried. All this is interesting, but nothing we couldn’t figure out for ourselves. The awesome part is Sally’s supremely bored face during the whole monologue, followed by a full-on fistfight and some tropical-storm sex. Somehow, this qualifies Sally to manage Nucky’s business in Tampa while he stays firmly in Atlantic City.

Interestingly, Eli becomes the Thompson brother most affected by Eddie’s death. Worried about Willy and the “business with his roommate,” Eli channels his anxiety into cracking open Eddie’s safety deposit box and deciphering his German-language suicide note, both with the aid of Agent Knox. Now that his informant’s dead, Knox is looking for another way into the massive criminal conspiracy J. Edgar Hoover would rather overlook in favor of troublemakers like Emma Goldman. So he bullies his way into a bank to win Eli’s favor, only for the ex-sheriff to discover Eddie hadn’t stolen anything. The note is even more devastating: it’s a simple note to his son expressing his joy at being a grandfather. Looks like Knox’s last-ditch effort was a bust: not only did he fail to get a confession that Eddie’s death wasn’t an accident, he also hands Eli a handkerchief with a monogram that conspicuously isn’t his own.

The week’s most interesting subplot — we’ll skip over the least, i.e. Chalky channeling his family and Narcisse-related frustrations into sleeping with Daughter Maitland — involves the sudden return of Richard Harrow. Minutes after receiving a fatal diagnosis of cirrhosis, Mr. Sagorsky spots him in the hospital, presumably seeking treatment after the nastiness in the shed back in Wisconsin. Now that Richard’s family back home has moved on, he’s come back to New Jersey. It doesn’t seem like he had much of a plan, but by the end of the episode he’s reunited with Julia and presumably committed to being a presence for her and Tommy.

Sagorsky’s tough-love pep talk to Richard over a drink implies that Richard’s story may actually develop into a redemption arc, something that Boardwalk’s been justifiably reluctant to do so far. But no other character on the show deserves to have his conscience cleared quite as much as Richard, who’s done the best he can to make the best of the awful circumstances life’s given him. Of all this show’s players, Richard feels the guiltiest when he has the least to feel guilty about, a tragic bit of irony that’s unfortunate when it just affects him but becomes much more serious once it gets in the way of him being around for Tommy and Julia. Luckily, Julia’s not nearly as repulsed by Richard’s bloody past as he is, and she’s practical enough to call him out for bailing while still welcoming him back into the fold. It’s the most hopeful development on this show in weeks, and there’s no one else on Boardwalk I’d rather see get a happy ending.