‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 4 Recap: “William Wilson”

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Though “William Wilson” is named after the Willy Thompson subplot, the most important — and by far the most interesting — goings-on this week centered around Jeffrey Wright’s subtly terrifying Dr. Valentin Narcisse. Thanks to his machinations surrounding Atlantic City’s heroin trade and a certain Onyx Club guest singer, we’re much better acquainted with both Narcisse’s M.O. and the hypocrisy behind it. Narcisse may talk Universal Negro Improvement, but in practice he’s all in favor of murdering the occasional prostitute if it suits his fancy (and creepily adopting her daughter for future use as a bargaining tool).

Chalky and Daughter Maitland are now in a full-on affair, and Chalky’s smitten enough that the typically shrewd businessman blindly lets Narcisse open up a branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in exchange for keeping her around another month. A meeting at the church reveals both why the UNIA is such bad news for Chalky and how blatantly Machiavellian Narcisse’s operation is: even as he profits off of Dunn’s heroin trade, he also scores political points for blaming the drugs on Chalky’s negligence. And of course, he’s got Dunn to do the real dirty work for him if a priest happens to inconveniently figure out who’s really dealing the smack.

The episode’s final scene, however, takes Narcisse from distasteful to outright evil. Earlier, we got a token post-coital backstory monologue from Daughter, a speech that feels tacked-on in the moment but proves important to understanding her relationship with Narcisse. Her mother was a prostitute who kept her daughter in the closet while she “did her business,” an arrangement that ended poorly when a john murdered her in front of her own child. We’re told Narcisse then “found” Daughter and took her under his wing, but it isn’t until the end of the episode that we find out he’s the very guy who took out her mom. And even though she swears to Chalky they’ve never slept together, their relationship has a disturbingly non-platonic feel to it.

Where Chalky’s duped by sex, Gillian Darmody’s getting pulled in by something far more dangerous: love, or at least the sick, twisted version Roy Phillips has on offer. Phillips is continuing to play the knight in shining armor, nursing her all the way through a nasty heroin detox and repeatedly professing his love (and disregard for supermarket mergers). Alarm bells start to go off in everyone’s head but Gillian’s when he admits he divorced his wife the day after he met her, meaning this relationship is headed straight to crazytown and Gillian’s way too unstable to see it. It seems like the poor woman’s more than gotten what was coming to her at this point, but Roy’s particular brand of insanity is too interesting not to get excited about.

Of course, even characters on this show who are smart enough to get out when they can end up right back in the game. Take Margaret, who’s now more than happy to take dirty money as long as it’s a reward for pulling schmucks into a real estate scheme and not from her gangster husband. Unfortunately, Anaconda’s latest investor is one Arnold Rothstein, who’s evidently looking to get into the Florida game behind Nucky’s back. He’s also blackmailing Margaret into cooperating somehow, although I’m unsure a) what she could possibly do to help him now that she’s no longer married to Nucky and b) what he could possibly hold over her given that Nucky already knows where she is. Surely there’s plenty of secretarial work — and false identities — in New York to go around?

Before we get to Nucky and his troubles, Chicago looks like it’s headed for a full-on gang war. Coked-up Al Capone’s still howling for blood, strolling up to Chicago cops in broad daylight and shooting them in the face like it’s no big deal. Johnny Torio initially tells him to cool it, throwing a steak at the wall to drive home the point that taking on Chicago cops or even Dean O’Banion would be bad for business. The boss changes his tune, however, as soon as he’s arrested for owning a brewery seconds after O’Banion signs it over to him. Burned by the setup, he orders Capone to “kill that Irish fuck” for landing him in jail. Can’t wait to see how Van Alden gets sucked into this one!

As for our hero, his troubles are twofold this week. On the one hand, J. Edgar Hoover’s finally both the official head of the Bureau of Investigation and fully on board with the criminal conspiracy case “Agent Knox” has been pushing all this time. Turns out the guy’s real name is actually Agent Tolliver, whose monogrammed-hankie screw-up from last week gets covered by Gaston Means. It’s always a pleasure to see Stephen Root, whose molasses-slow sarcasm hasn’t been dampened a bit by Agent Tolliver’s unfortunate bit of blackmail. Oh, and both Andrew Mellon and Esther Randolph make token appearances this week, reminding us that not everyone in the 1920s-era federal government was a milquetoast Prohie.

On the other, Willy’s roommate-related guilt finally caught up with him, leading him to snap at his girlfriend and then outright quit school. Eli understandably blows up at the news, both because his kid’s apparently throwing his future away over his friend’s mistake and because it’s obvious Nucky knows something he doesn’t. Eli drunkenly calls his brother out on playing dad to his oldest, slurring, “Nothing ever came from you” and reminding Nucky his wife died trying and failing to give him a kid. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten the details on Mabel’s death before, and Nucky clearly doesn’t appreciate the reminder.

Possibly because he genuinely cares about the kid and possibly to stick it to his little brother, Nucky lets Willy sleep at the Albatross that night. Considering that one of Willy’s main arguments for leaving Temple is that his uncle’s done just fine for himself without a degree, Nucky has to be aware that his influence on his nephew isn’t a good one. Still, with Eddie gone, Nucky needs someone in his life to make him feel admired, and an unsuspecting teenager’s as good a place to start as any.