[This is a review of Boardwalk Empire season 5, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Despite the enormous gap it left in the narrative, the time jump implemented by Boardwalk Empire in its final season has led to some dramatically altered circumstances for the show’s core characters. And in ‘What Jesus Said,’ the show capitalizes on the distorted state of affairs by establishing just how far removed many of the characters are from where the series last left them.
It has been six years since the end of season 4, and even though the audience hasn’t had the opportunity to witness everything that transpired during that period of time, in this particular instance, it is the end result that matters most. Aside from Rothstein’s death – which becomes more of an issue here as Margaret’s problems stemming from her association with him quickly multiply – specific events that occurred between season 4 and season 5 seem to have less impact on the current narrative than the question of what’s around the corner.
For the most part, these early episodes have been concerned with establishing how everyone has gotten older, and how the weight of wondering what mark they will leave on this world is, in some form or another, bearing down on them.
And while the first two episodes were centered on Nucky Thompson, ‘What Jesus Said’ successfully splits its focus between Nucky and Chalky’s threads in a way that strengthens them both.
Although wildly different, both situations carry a similar tone of desperation and desire, especially from certain parties who want to be taken seriously – or, at the very least, seen not as who they are, but as who they want to be. It is a unique position for both men to be in as they were, over the last four seasons, in positions granting them much more in the way of power, wealth, influence, and freedom.
Now, however, Nucky and Chalky find themselves dealing with the fallout of their glory days. Those days have not only left them behind, but the result of having lived them has left both men in positions where they are no longer insulated from the judgments of others – or can afford not to be concerned with what others think about them.
For his part, Nucky is so eager to be seen as a (potentially) legitimate businessman in the eyes of Joseph Kennedy, he superficially alters his usual behavior, foregoing drink after drink in order to agree with Kennedy’s own abstention from alcohol.
But Kennedy’s reason for teetotaling stems from his desire to invalidate the pernicious perception that all Irish Catholics are drunks, making Nucky’s actions appear to be all the more disingenuous. The way Kennedy points this out by condescendingly pouring Nucky a drink after leveraging their brief back and forth into some sense of moral superiority (where the law is concerned, anyway) places Nucky in an interesting position where his usual tactics of persuasion are of little use to him.
Before, Nucky could intimate such an arrangement would be in Kennedy’s best interest, either through a demonstration of his power or through an offer that was simply too good to pass up. But Kennedy’s in a unique position of being immune to either approach. Nucky can neither risk the damage a show of force would do to his already spoiled reputation, nor can he offer his would-be partner anything he hasn’t already acquired through more socially accepted (but no less rigged) means.
And as it was with last season’s strong Chalky-centric storyline, the issue of race and social privilege is addressed in the juxtaposition of the former associates’ current state of affairs. While Nucky’s thirst remains unquenched and his character questioned, Chalky has been partnered with a mentally unstable partner and reduced to holding two women hostage.
Chalky still carries the weight of Maybelle’s death with him, and the echoes of that event are punctuated by Fern and her mother’s insistence that he’s not the same kind of man as Buck, a man whose impatience for a husband and a father who will never return turns into rage toward those who repeatedly deceived him in order to hold on to what little they have.
That resentment by the have-nots for those perceived as “having” makes for a strong throughline connecting Chalky to Nucky. But it also succeeds in addressing the two other threads involving Margaret’s meeting with the widow of Arnold Rothstein and the massacre at Narcisse’s brothel that was in response to the doctor’s refusal of by Luciano and Siegel’s proposal on behalf of Maranzano.
In the end, Nucky is left drunkenly recalling a time when he was distinctly one of the have-nots, both in terms of money as well as affection. Things begin to look up at the episode’s end, however, as he wakes to find Margaret in his room and a small smile breaks through the normally sour look on his face.
It is another dramatic change in a character’s circumstances, but this time it may be one that demonstrates what it is he really wants.
Boardwalk Empire continues next Sunday with ‘Cuanto’ @9pm on HBO.
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