[This is a review of Boardwalk Empire season 5, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
The young Nucky flashbacks have been a point of contention since the final season of Boardwalk Empire began. They have often felt unnecessary to the point of distraction, and what they offer to the narrative – which is now primarily about Nucky's decision to retire or not – has, up to this point, felt like very little. In 'King of Norway,' however, there is an interesting throughline running across the various threads that not only allows the flashbacks to reflect some of what's going on in the story's present (i.e., 1931), but it livens up the stories of George Mueller and Eli as well.
Of course, the big draw for the flashbacks in 'King of Norway' is that young Nucky is no longer pre-teen Nucky, but early-twenties (?) Nucky, and Marc Pickering (the actor hired to play him) has a knack for reproducing not only Steve Buscemi's facial expressions and mannerisms, but his particular cadence of speech as well.
It's something of a risk, as the kind of work being done by the actor can find itself drifting quickly into parody – which it feels like it does at a few points – but, thankfully, there is a strong supporting cast to help legitimize his admittedly very accurate representation of Buscemi. This allows one to appreciate the nuances of his performance and not simply gawk at the appurtenances put in place to help sell the transformation.
This time, however, the flashbacks have more of a direct association with not only the events of the episode, but also with the overall tone of the final season, and the episode is made stronger because of that. In young Nucky's terse dinner conversation with Maybelle's father, the two discuss what kind of man Nucky is going to be, and the idea of a person knowing who or what he or she is becomes the episode's common theme. It's even mentioned overtly during Gillian Darmody's discussion with Dr. Cotton about her possible release from the psychiatric hospital she's been locked up in.
Mostly, though, the young and present-day Nucky storylines tend to demonstrate what exterior forces currently compel or have compelled him in the past to act a certain way. That is, like a criminal. There were those who perceived the attention given to Nucky's childhood as a reason for his criminal behavior later in life, but that never really seemed to be the intention of the flashbacks until now. Once again, Boardwalk Empire makes allusions to Horatio Alger and his novel 'Ragged Dick' as an influential device in Nucky's life, and then we see why, as something similar to the plot of an Alger novel continues to plays out.
In this instance, young Nucky's pursuit of identity and acceptance with Maybelle's father, by hitching his wagon to the commodore's star, leads him to proposition Sheriff Lindsey (who has seemingly become a surrogate father to him) to be more involved in the kind of shady work that leaves men hogtied and dead underneath the boardwalk. It feels like this action, more so than the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, serves as the catalyst to Nucky becoming the man we all know.
There are ramifications to such decisions and Nucky is feeling them now, as he finds himself betrayed by Torrio in yet another failed attempt on his life by Luciano and Lansky. To make matters worse, Nucky is informed about the death of Sally Wheet and that no one will be held accountable.
That notion of accountability, then, carries through to the other storylines. Chalky White goes in search of Narcisse, only to find Daughter Maitland and a young girl (possibly Chalky's?), while Mueller and Eli have been outed by the undercover prohibition agent and tasked with stealing Capone's ledger.
While Chalky's plot is left to simmer, Mueller and Eli find themselves with a great deal to account for. Both characters murdered federal agents and then ran to Chicago – the one place crawling with feds looking to bust Capone – in an attempt to hide from their past misdeeds. Things are made trickier by the fact that Eli's wife is expecting their ninth child, and the realization that he's been sleeping with Sigrid while George was at work, which caps off one the most uncomfortable family dinners since Jesse Pinkman dined with the Whites.
As far as endgame construction goes, pushing the characters toward some kind of accountability is not exactly a new idea, but it does offer a welcome sense of structure for the remaining three episodes to play off of.
Boardwalk Empire continues next Sunday with 'Devil You Know' @9pm on HBO.