“Get yourself ahead,” Nucky Thompson muses after a drink or seven. “For what, though? For what? No one ever talks about that.” Boardwalk Empire, like so many other antihero shows, is not exactly known for celebrating high-minded idealism over moral ambiguity—which is exactly what makes “The Devil You Know” such a standout episode. Character deaths are hardly unusual, and par for the course in the run-up to a series finale. But characters asking what’s worth dying for, and who deserves to die, and for what? For a show centered around someone as stubbornly amoral as Nucky, that’s as far off course as it gets.
Before I go any further, though, I’d like to put myself on the record as being very, very wrong about Boardwalk Empire‘s treatment of Sally’s death. I’d thought the show was letting Patricia Arquette leave quietly, fast-forwarding through the grieving process to give more space to sexier stuff like the coming showdown between Nucky and Luciano. Mea culpa: the news pushes Nucky into a full-blown moral crisis. He heads to the rough part of town, because what’s the point of being rich? He ditches his body guard, because what’s the point of staying alive?
Sally turns out to be something of a trigger for the guilt Nucky’s been repressing, on and off, for more than thirty years. Because as we learn in flashback this week, our man’s first atrocity isn’t getting in on the corruption game. It’s the unspeakably horrifying act we’ve technically known about for years, but hits hard when shown onscreen: Nucky’s betrayal of Gillian Darmody (AKA mysterious correspondent “Nellie Bly”), and his complicity in her rape. Unable to break into the Commodore’s inner circle, Nucky also takes note of his taste for underage girls. The two details are unrelated until they suddenly aren’t: a boy thief Nucky finds in his custody turns out not to be a boy at all.
Only the most hard-hearted of viewers won’t feel sick when they figure out where all this is going. Still, Young Nucky has the excuse of actually having a reason for doing what he does: “I have you,” he tells his pregnant wife. “I know what I’m doing it for.” As we know, he won’t know what he’s doing it for in just a few months, when Mabel dies in childbirth, and he still won’t well into middle age. And Nucky’s need to provide for his family doesn’t justify the pain his betrayal will cause—pain he sees written all over the face of the Commodore’s latest victim’s mother, forced to wait outside while her daughter endures horrific abuse. Present Nucky knows that, and he knows the cash he throws at everyone from Chalky to Joe Harper doesn’t make up for any of it. The money’s just another selfish act, taking the edge off of Nucky’s guilt.
But while Nucky can (barely) live with himself under normal circumstances, Sally’s demise raises all kinds of questions about life: why does Nucky deserve it when Sally doesn’t? The episode’s remainder raises questions about death: how do you die on your own terms? How do you give your death meaning, even when it’s inevitable? Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White, two characters who have virtually nothing else in common, offer surprisingly similar answers.
Eli and Van Alden know their plan probably won’t work before they even walk into Capone’s suite, but with their home lives destroyed and their professional lives a joke, neither has much to lose. They’re caught, of course, and Van Alden realizes within minutes that he won’t be able to talk his way out of it. So he chooses to die not as a man who turned on Capone because he had to, but as a Prohie who went after Capone because he wanted to bring him down. It’s a lie that turns into the truth: shaken, a paranoid Capone turns his ledgers over to D’Angelo; Van Alden gives the government what it needs by pretending he’s working for them. And he does it by identifying himself as Nelson Van Alden, not George Mueller.
Names are actually something of a motif in “The Devil You Know.” Van Alden’s last act is to choose his name, and thus his identity. Nucky hates his name, seeing the diminutive as a sign of disrespect (he’d rather be called “Enoch”). And as Valentin Narcisse explains, Althea’s name means “healing,” a move that a lesser show wouldn’t be able to pull off without sounding treacly. In the slow and steady buildup to Chalky’s death, however, it lands like a sucker punch.
Daughter Maitland says that death “isn’t what you came here for,” but she’s not entirely right: Chalky walks into the Harlem cathouse expecting to die, just not for her. As Narcisse realizes, he doesn’t care what happens as long as Narcisse doesn’t walk out alive either. Daughter and Althea’s appearance, fortunately for Narcisse, changes things. Chalky may not care if he dies, but he doesn’t want to be responsible for the death of another one of his children—and despite himself, he still loves Daughter. So an implicit bargain is struck between the three parties; Narcisse will live, Chalky will die, and Daughter gets her singing career back, along with her ability to provide for her child.
There’s no guarantee Narcisse will actually keep his word, yet the deal still provides a kind of redemption. Van Alden dies for justice, not for his own failure; Chalky dies for love, not revenge. And he dies with Daughter’s voice in his ears, ensuring none of us will ever listen to “Dream a Little Dream of Me” dry-eyed again.