Of the three Boardwalk Empire episodes that make up the season thus far, this is the one where the flashbacks came together for me. That’s partly due to the sudden shift from the Thompson household’s miserable, mundane poverty to the surreality of the vintage boardwalk. Everything suddenly feels off in a way that perfectly captures what memories feel like when they’re warped over the decades and turned into personal mythology. The effect is almost dreamlike, from Mabel and Mr. Beckert’s abrupt, creepy dialogue to the slow pan from a barren beach to Mabel’s sleeping parents.
The flashbacks also work this week because they pivot from telling us what we more or less already knew to filling in a massive gap in Nucky’s psyche. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that poverty plus opportunity plus human levels of greed gave us the underworld striver we know today. But Mabel, Nucky’s first wife? Boardwalk Empire‘s told us nothing about her, beyond the fact that Nucky prefers to mourn her by keeping his memories to himself. Better yet, “What Jesus Said” makes us care about Mabel by contrasting her with the women currently in Nucky’s life (the ones who’re still alive, that is).
Back in the 1880s, Nucky’s been promoted from porch sweeper to general-interest boy. He’s supposed to do whatever the guests tell him to, whether it’s hold up an umbrella for a lady or tell a guest if he’d “hazard everything” for love. Kid Nucky’s enthusiastic yes doesn’t exactly jive with Adult Nucky’s habit of starting conversations with his girlfriend by asking about their business partner, but seeing a brutally mutilated corpse laid out with the flowers you left for her will do that to you.
Meanwhile, Mabel’s much more of a Sally than a Margaret, a straight talker who calls Nucky out for spying and his crappy Bible-interpretation skills (“Maybe it’s too hard for you!”). In a classic act of #misandry, she also gets him to kiss a pony before walking off to hang out with her parents. I like her, though I like the post-daydream reunion scene where Nucky mistakes Margaret for her even more.
Because while Nucky’s stuck in a reverie on his first wife, his second is set on a crash course for him by none other than Mrs. Rothstein. The horrible irony of the situation is that it’s Margaret’s attempts to get herself away from the wrong side of the law that comes back to haunt her. The bank’s discovered that her former boss had been mucking around in Arnold Rothstein’s accounts, and the paper trail linking her to the transactions (and AR’s real estate holdings) has his widow Carolyn on the warpath.
She’s forced to go to Nucky for help, and the sad smiles they can’t help but make are my favorite moment of the season to date. Nucky and Margaret have never been the best of couples, in spite of—scratch that, because of—Margaret’s perfect understanding of Nucky’s character. But the resigned, honest quality of their post-breakup relationship was a highlight of season four, and I can’t wait to see how her reappearance will jive with all the introspection that’s come with Joe Kerry’s visit to Atlantic City. Nucky clearly sees some appeal in the idea of a teetotaling family man driven by the desire to “leave something behind” and not a sharklike need to just keep swimming. Let’s see how Margaret, and the kids he apparently still thinks of as his, plays into that.
Part of why “What Jesus Said” works so well is that it splits nicely into two thematic halves. Where the average Boardwalk episode has four or five loosely related threads, Margaret, past Nucky, and present Nucky’s stories all bleed into one another this week, creating a unified narrative around Nucky’s strange, strained relationships with women. The other chunk of the episode, meanwhile, revisits each side of the rivalry that made up the centerpiece of season four. Spoiler: everybody lost.
On the one hand, there’s Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a performance that Jeffrey Wright continues to wring for every Emmy-snubbed drop. Case in point: it takes about five seconds to see, from body language alone, that seven years as a gangster/FBI-informant have squeezed most of the fire out of the onetime liberationist. Narcisse can barely muster the energy to turn down Lucky and Bugsy’s offer for “protection” in return for continuing the Masseria heroin deal with Maranzano’s organization. “I’m sorry…you came all this way…for nothing,” he mutters perfunctorily, and it’s unlikely that this is a man who’ll respond to Lucky’s brothel shootout by putting up a fight.
Then there’s Chalky, whose time with Milton, Marie, and Fern is a sort of bottle-episode-within-an-episode. Milton and Chalky break into a house and raid its pantry in complete silence, making for my favorite opening scene of the final season. Then they run into the house’s owners, a mother and daughter, and for the next few hours Chalky’s self-loathing and Milton’s pent-up, frustrated rage play out until Milton ends up dead.
Unpredictable, irrational, and ignorant as he is, Milton’s motivations for breaking into the house are fairly straightforward. He staffed a party there once, and now he’s come back to take some money from those who exploited him. Unfortunately, the Depression’s already laid them low; the father’s gone, leaving the mother and daughter with nothing but liberty bonds. That still leaves them miles above a black, mentally incapacitated escaped felon, though, and thus doesn’t do much more than make Milton even more incensed. The economy may have brought his would-be targets a little closer to his level, but that doesn’t mean he’s any further from the bottom.
Chalky, meanwhile, lets Milton do more or less what he wants—up to a point. This is the kind of guy who, in a past life, Chalky would have ordered around, or more accurately, would have ordered around someone who ordered around someone who ordered Milton around. Part of torturing himself about his role in Maybelle’s death, though, seems to be sitting back and watching while Buck wastes hours looking for a safe. After all, who’s he to put his foot down and say he knows best?
But it’s ultimately Maybelle, or rather the parallels between Maybelle and Fern that get pointed out early and often, that leads Chalky to step in and kill Milton when he finally goes so far. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for a man as utterly without option as Chalky’s fellow prisoner, but his death finally frees Chalky to head for Atlantic City—and whatever’s left for him there.