Yet another episode in which Boardwalk completely ignored all but its most interesting subplots, and man, does it show. Better yet, with the exception of Margaret and Rothstein’s strange encounter, almost every storyline has been helpfully corkscrewed together just in time for all-out war between Nucky and Narcisse. Willy’s family initiation, Eli’s betrayal to the feds, Lucky’s heroin, even the Florida gambit — it’s all accounted for, and it’s a welcome reassurance that we can trust the Boardwalk writers to choreograph a season exceptionally well, no matter how slow its start.
Boring things first: at the rate he’s going, Al is on his way to death by cocaine overdose within the month, but someone wants to help him get there just a hair quicker. That someone is probably Johnny Torrio, who realizes that his protégé’s impatience runs the risk of becoming full insurrection when he promotes his brother and Van Alden without Torrio’s say-so. As a reminder that he’s not quite retired yet, Torrio commissions a hail of bullets that misses its mark thanks to Van Alden. In the long run, the assassination attempt will likely backfire and speed Al’s ascension to the top of the Chicago gang hierarchy; in the short run, it brings Van Alden even further into Al’s inner circle than O’Banion’s “retirement party” did. Mueller’s come a long way from almost shooting his new boss in the back.
Then there’s Margaret’s little venture into insider trading, as strong a case as there ever was for turning Boardwalk into a series of one-on-ones with Rothstein and every other character. Defanged slightly by his recent losses, AR politely-but-firmly asks Margaret to tip him off about the goings-on at Anaconda Real Estate. Much to his surprise, she doesn’t just agree, but cannily negotiates an exchange for information in return for a safe, rent-free apartment where she and the children can stay while she gets her start in New York. “Mrs. Rowan” then spells out for Rothstein what she’s hinted at all along: it wasn’t Nucky’s shady dealings that broke their marriage; it was the dependence that comes with being a gangster’s wife. All Margaret wants is her own life, and she’s got no compunctions about double-crossing her smarmy, anti-Semitic boss to get it.
Back to the main event: thanks to Sally’s discovery of the Patricelli heroin stash and Chalky’s failed gangland shootout of his own, we’ve got a war on our hands. Honestly, I’m extremely confused about Meyer Lansky’s role in all this, but his never-ending “let’s be civilized and talk about this” act in the face of both a crazed Prohie and a gun to his head is an episode highlight. Seriously, though: he was in on the heroin? I thought Lucky and Masseria were in it on their own after Lucky cut his bestie out of the booze deal. Or was Meyer just covering for Lucky very, very convincingly? Are they still bros? Someone tell me they’re still bros.
When Nucky demands a sit-down with Masseria on account of the narcotics all up in his convoys, he realizes he’s got a problem. Masseria brings along his partner, who also happens to be the same African nationalist doctor Nucky booted out of the Onyx mere hours ago. (To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Nucky’s neutrality doesn’t hold up long; he appears to have something of a “well, I tried” attitude about it.) The duo proceed to make Nucky an offer he can’t refuse: make millions off of heroin in exchange for Chalky, or face the displeasure of two thirds of New York’s organized criminals. Nucky says yes, although far too quickly and easily to give us any real doubts about his loyalties.
Good thing, too, because once Nucky’s hand is forced, his relationship with Chalky takes on a candor it’s lacked since last season’s climax. Considering that magnificently nasty “Who the fuck do you think you are?,” I doubt our hero’s motivations are less than un-racist, but at the very least he comes through for Chalky when he needs it most. “I don’t want the trots either, but when I get them, I deal with it,” Nucky shrugs, ever the pragmatist. With that charming analogy, he arranges for Chalky and Daughter’s escape. Too bad Mayor Bader’s now on Team Narcisse, though I can’t imagine why. Probably cash, considering I don’t see him being on board with the whole Libyan-power thing.
Thanks to Chalky’s wariness, however, he manages to pick up on and overpower his chauffeurs before they get a chance to shoot him. Blissfully unaware of this, Narcisse is already doing a victory lap at the Onyx Club. He’s in a surprisingly benevolent mood when Maybelle stumbles on him, fresh from a breakup with her fiancé. It’s probably because he thinks her father’s dead, but Narcisse gives a shockingly moving mini-speech about the profound loneliness of trying to get by as an African-American. Whenever I think about Narcisse for more than a few seconds, I keep coming back to this paradox: he’s genuinely aggrieved at his people’s suffering, even as he continues to feed it via the heroin trade.
It’s too late to save Chalky, but Nucky’s decided to pull the trigger by calling in the troops from the American Legion, which apparently functions as Atlantic City’s backup army as well as a veterans’ support group. When Eli shows up to do his lieutenant/federal informant duties, however, he’s greeted by his son, who helpfully tipped Nucky off to the Bader problem in the first place. Considering Eli’s been doing his utmost to keep Willy far away from the family business — to the point of tolerating veiled threats from an FBI agent inside his own home — the realization that Nucky’s been gradually drawing his nephew under his wing comes off as doubly wrenching. Sure, booze and racketeering and impending gang wars are just “what we do” for the Thompson clan, but now that Willy’s part of the family, he’ll be going down just like everyone else. Which is exactly what his father wanted to avoid.