‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 5 Episode 5 Recap: “King of Norway”

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“Nobody cares about your problems,” Van Alden spits out towards the end of “King of Norway.” But in the moral universe of Boardwalk Empire, that isn’t strictly true; this episode sees characters who’ve avoided their problems for years on end coming face to face with them, whether by choice or by force. The motif’s the most obvious, and the most fun to watch, in Eli and Van Alden’s long-delayed confrontation with the feds (and each other). Three episodes away from the grand finale, though, Boardwalk is putting pretty much everyone in a room with their past, with wildly varied results.

Nucky, of course, has been in a constant dialogue with his former self all season long. In “King of Norway,” we switch gears from Young Nucky to Older-But-Still-Relatively-Young Nucky, a sheriff’s deputy played with the perfect amount of smarm by Marc Pickering. Nucky in his 20s hasn’t experienced either real loss or real risk yet, and it shows: Pickering’s performance lacks the world-weariness of Buscemi’s, and the result is a social-climbing little shit who no one except Mabel trusts as far as they can throw. The Commodore calls him a “mooncalf,” while Sheriff Lindsay tells him to mind his own business and deal with washed-up corpses instead of making them. But it’s Mabel’s father who’s really got Nucky’s number: “I think you have a nose for figuring out what people want to hear. But I don’t think you know who you are.” Nucky’s barely in his twenties, but the emptiness he’ll spend decades throwing money, power, and vengeance into is already there in spades!

Baby Nucky may be desperately trying to throw himself into the organized crime game, but ever since the end of season three, present day Nucky’s been trying to back away from it in some way or another. Now that he’s attempting to become a full-blown legit businessman, though, he’s found that quitting his chosen profession is easier said than done. On the one hand, there’s Joe Kennedy, who Nucky hates as much for his condescension and straight-world success as his rejection. That’s handled easily enough: Nucky can’t join Joe, so he sets out to beat him, sending newly enlisted partner-in-crime Margaret to short the Mayflower Grain Corporation. (Carolyn Rothstein’s taken their settlement without much of a fuss, freeing the happy-ish couple to move on to bigger and better things.) Interestingly, Margaret’s tactic for dealing with her past is embracing it; as demonstrated by her exchange with her former boss, the DGAF Margaret who came out to play next week is here to stay.

That still leaves the gangsters who still consider Nucky a threat, a group that’s expanded to include the supposedly retired Johnny Torrio. I don’t understand Torrio’s motivations for helping out Luciano and Lansky, and something tells me the show won’t do much to enlighten us, but the assassination attempt gives Nucky a direction for the home stretch that’s a lot more compelling than his negotiations with Bacardi Rum. It’s also a clever way to work Maranzano’s real life death-by-protegé into the show. On the other hand: notice how perfunctory that “your girlfriend’s dead, BTW” phone call, and Nucky’s subsequent grief drinking, comes off? Notice how much it says about how isolated Sally was from the rest of the show, and the degree to which her death was simply a way to tie up a narrative loose end? RIP, Sally. You deserved so much better.

That’s not exactly everything that went down in Atlantic City this week, but I desperately want to talk about Chicago, so we’re going to do that now. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any Terrible Suburban Marriage drama will contain at least one Dinner Party from Hell, and the Muellers certainly don’t disappoint. Turns out those boozy fever dreams Eli’s been having aren’t just Boardwalk‘s cheesy way of signaling the younger Thompson’s descent into despair. In fact, they’re Eli’s repressed blackout memories of schtupping Sigrid Mueller!

That’s when Prohibition Agent D’Angelo busts in, not quite in the nick of time—June’s able to land a pretty solid punch in the nuts, advanced pregnancy be damned. Eli and Van Alden are taken to a sort of Room 101, Untouchables style, where Capone lackeys are confronted with their worst fears. Compared to the accountant with cockroaches all over his face, our guys get off pretty easily; still, ten years in hiding (Van Alden) and a half decade on the run (Eli) blowing up in one’s face can’t be pleasant. Plot-wise, the takeaway is that they have to break into Capone’s account room to help with the feds’ tax evasion case, but the star of the show, as always, is Michael Shannon’s line readings. “Am I making you uncomfortable?!” is, in my opinion, a fine four-second Emmy reel.

With the Chicago boys forced to reckon with problems they’ve either been putting off for years or forcibly suppressing, Gillian is something of a thematic outlier. Stuck in a mental hospital where she clearly doesn’t belong, Gillian’s told the doctor plans to keep her around until whatever’s “inside her” is rooted out and destroyed. The problem is that Gillian’s affliction has never been internal; it’s everything outside her that’s the problem. She killed someone, of course, but in Gillian’s twisted circumstances, that was an act of perfect sanity, not mental illness. A lifetime of abuse and powerlessness isn’t an acceptable diagnosis for Dr. Cotton, though, so Gillian remains in the ward.

Chalky’s reappearance in Atlantic City, the final major arc in “King of Norway,” initially seems like yet another problem for Nucky to deal with. We see his arrival through Nucky’s eyes, and their meeting ends in the most Nucky way possible: with a wad of cash in hand. All Chalky wants in Atlantic City, though, is Narcisse’s whereabouts; with his wife and son in St. Louis, revenge is pretty much all that’s left for Chalky in the tri-state area, or so he thinks. Two revenge plots in a final season is a little much, however, so Chalky runs straight into Daughter Maitland instead, along with a little girl who’s almost definitely his. Looks like we’re not done with the Maybelle guilt just yet!