[This is a review of Boardwalk Empire season 5, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
As the final season winds its way toward what looks like a bloody conclusion, Boardwalk Empire is wisely closing out as many threads as possible before the final two episodes. In that sense, episode 6: ‘Devil You Know’ brings the stories of Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White to a close, while paving the way for Al Capone’s downfall in such a concise, matter-of-fact way it makes the unfolding Nucky plotline (and his flashbacks) stand out for all its lingering sentiment of old sins and inescapable guilt.
There’s something about the way Boardwalk depicts its characters on the edge of ruin and how they either quietly yield to the pressures surrounding them, knowing their time is up, or rise up in a futile effort to sway things in their favor that makes the portent of doom more sensational than ocean’s color signaling a bad sign for summer. At this point it’s hard to tell which path Nucky is traveling on, but the trepidation builds as his thoughts turn to his past actions, trying to get a foot in the door with the Commodore and his run-in with the very young Gillian, who has most of the boardwalk thinking she’s a young boy.
Nucky spends most of the episode in a dive bar, mourning for Sally Wheet. His feelings about her death becoming more complicated and opaque the more rotgut he pours down his throat. There’s a heavy sense of guilt in his demeanor, even as he chats up two working girls and fails to impress them with a scattered recitation of ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ His inability to call anyone to account for Wheet’s death has left him feeling powerless, which, with the added weight of Luciano and Lansky bearing down upon him, makes Nucky’s first impulse to find a place where he can be Francis X. Bushman and the most difficult thing he has to accomplish is remembering all the lines to a Longfellow poem.
It’s not so much honoring Wheet’s memory as it is Nucky proving his own vitality at a time he’s questioning who he wants to be and where he belongs. And if the overlap between the character threads is anything to read into, then questions of where Nucky Thompson belongs won’t be a bother to him much longer.
Between Van Alden and Eli’s prohibition predicament and Chalky White’s discovery of Daughter Maitland and her daughter, last week’s ‘King of Norway‘ was flush with cliffhangers. To its credit, ‘Devil You Know’ is quick to pay those situations off in bloody and beautiful fashion.
Matters of identity and belonging weave through both threads, as Van Alden and Eli’s attempt to steal Capone’s ledgers at first leaves them in Mike D’Angelo’s hands, and then, in a darkly comic twist of fate, they wind up at the mercy of Capone’s turbulent, unpredictable behavior. Writer Howard Korder balances the tension with the comedy of Michael Shannon’s line delivery so well that when it erupts in and unsurprising geyser of violence, Van Alden isn’t just coming clean, he’s announcing himself; proudly reverting back to the man he was in the moments before his death.
Van Alden’s apoplectic rage is so great that when his head finally does explode, as he’s towering over a defenseless and justifiably frightened Capone, the first thought isn’t that the cause was D’Angelo’s gun, but rather the years of frustration and righteous anger built up inside his head, apparently just behind his left eye.
Eli survives the encounter thanks to D’Angelo, who is literally handed the key to Capone’s demise by Ralph (Domenick Lobardozzi), proving some people are just lucky enough to be exactly where they are meant to be. D’Angelo leaves Eli to his wrecked life (and probably worse off liver), having wrung the last drop of usefulness from the younger Thompson in the suite upstairs.
As for Chalky, his exit from the show manages to be more poignant, as it involves a reconciliation of sorts between him and Daughter, even though he came in search of vengeance against Narcisse. Like it was when Capone caught wind of Van Alden and Eli’s betrayal, the confrontation between Chalky and Narcisse carries with it an immense air of inevitability. And yet that inevitability does not detract from how satisfyingly elegiac the encounter becomes as it slowly unfurls.
Chalky’s calm demeanor as he accepts his death sentence in exchange for Daughter and her child to have a chance at a life that amounts to something more than “being someone’s maid” is as brutally effective as his parting words to Narcisse, who has convinced himself he’s content to merely survive. But Chalky’s words ring true for everyone still drawing breath as the series heads toward its final two hours. No matter what they rationalize, as long as they’re still living, nobody’s free.
Boardwalk Empire continues next Sunday with ‘Friendless Child’ @9pm on HBO.