TV Recap: Boardwalk Empire, “The North Star”

Written by Bill Bodkin and Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs

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The Low Down: Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has had his world rocked by the suicide of Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) but instead of mourning he sets off to Florida to complete his rum running deal. Before he heads down he has a brief meeting with his estranged wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald). With Kessler dead, Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty) is told by J. Edgar Hoover that his operation is dead. The ever persistent Knox persuades Edgar for one more chance and starts working on a grief-stricken Eli (Shea Whigham) as his new “in” to Nucky’s empire. Luciano (Vincent Piazza) has second thoughts about the Nucky/Florida deal and it might lead to the end of his partnership with Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) is falling hard for his new singer at The Onyx Club which could lead to complications with Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) returns to Atlantic City and is faced with some serious questions.

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The Body Count: Surprise, surprise no one dies.

Favorite Performance: Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White. Steve Buscemi got the better lines, Shea Whigham got to cry, but it was MKW who stole the episode. The scene where Chalky melts as the object of his affection sings onstage was just awesome to watch. He utters not one word but just the minute changes in his expression speak volumes. Only Michael Kenneth Williams can pull this off. This season the writers of Boardwalk Empire have taken the gloves off with Chalky and are really letting Williams take risks with the character — making the character more than just a smooth-talking thug. Yet at the same time they haven’t gone overboard with Chalky, which is great (unlike how they overdid it with Van Alden in the first two seasons). Chalky in the right dose is perfect for the show. –BB

As Agent Knox, Brian Geraghty has been one of this season’s brightest points, effortlessly switching back and forth from his golly-gee, naïve but crooked prohi persona to the cunning, manipulative, and viciously tenacious federal agent. By convincing both Mickey and Eli he’s not worth being taken seriously, Knox is easily able to earn Eli’s off-hand confidence, garnering even more information about Nucky’s dealing. When he needs to retrieve the contents of Eddie’s safety deposit box, however, he easily steps into the role of forceful, intimidating law man with the frightened bank manager. Beneath these personas, it’s hard to tell exactly who the real Knox is, so that when he translates Eddie’s note, the audience doesn’t know whether it’s the truth or something he made up to cover that note’s actual contents. The slippery duplicity keeps us guessing and makes Geraghty’s Knox a fascinating character, and a truly worthy foe for Nucky and crew. –KRF

The Supporting Scene Stealer: Kelly MacDonald as Margaret Schroeder-Thompson. MacDonald’s character suffered greatly last season from some pretty weak writing. Her story arc with the hospital was snore-inducing, her love affair with Owen Slater (Charlie Cox) was too short, her reunion with her family was awkward but at least her falling out with Nucky was solid. This character was so much better in the first two seasons but then again so was the show. Anyway, it was awesome to see her return to Boardwalk Empire and despite the brief time she was on screen, she captivated. Her line about Eddie, “No one knew how to take care of you better,” was a vintage Margaret line — it cut to the core. I’m very intrigued to see how her character plays out in the fourth season. –BB

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Mark Borkowski’s role as Paul Sagorsky has generally been that of drunken bully, but Borkowski brought some depth to the character this week, as he learns he’s dying of cirrhosis and condones Richard’s whorehouse massacre as an act of heroism, while sharing a chilling story of his own wartime deeds in the Philippines. –KRF

The Best Part of The Episode: As uncomfortable as it was (and should’ve been), the reintroduction of Margaret Thompson was the best part of the episode. First, it was something I was not expecting (maybe I missed this in the trailer, who knows) this to occur. It was very weird that Kelly MacDonald’s name has been in the credits all season but we hadn’t even heard her character mentioned. When we first see her with her back to us, I figured this was Nucky hallucinating again like he did last season. When she turns and reveals herself, I was stunned. The conversation the two had was brief but telling. Nucky, despite his propensity for marital indiscretion, still cares deeply for Margaret. Margaret is much tougher to read as you can tell there’s emotion there — but is it love, hate or flat out pain? These questions leave things open-ended for her role in the rest of the season. Hopefully she won’t be relegated to this brief cameo performance as there’s lots of fertile ground with this character. –BB

Eli’s breakdown in front of Agent Knox was my favorite moment this week. After cringing through his earlier interactions with Knox, as he seemingly unwittingly played right into the duplicitous agent’s hands by openly sharing the information Eddie tried so desperately to keep secret, I thought for sure the show was setting Eli up as the FBI’s next victim. Yet when Knox hands him that monogrammed hanky, Eli seems to come to a realization about Knox’s true identity. Nothing is said outright and the moment is just conveyed by Shea Whigham’s expression, but it’s an intriguing development in what has so far been a strong storyline. –KRF

The Part We Could’ve Done Without: Chalky White’s make-out skills are more like mauling skills. Yikes. That’s more tongue than we needed to see. –BB

The return of Margaret felt uneventful and ultimately, like a waste of time. Kelly MacDonald is a wonderful actress, but in the short time she was given here, she wasn’t able to elevate Margaret beyond the disapproving scold she’s become since the end of season two. Margaret was a great character at the onset of the series – intelligent, ballsy, proud, and somewhat shady – and I hate to see her – and MacDonald – continually wasted. I did, however, love both her pointed, cutting remark about Eddie knowing how to take care of Nucky and her recoiling at Nucky’s painfully awkward comment that, “I wouldn’t put anything alive in a box.” –KRF

The Little Thing We Loved: “Do you really think I would put a living thing in a box?” A nice but stinging callback to last season when Margaret’s former lover Owen Slater was delivered to the Thompson household murdered and folded up inside a box. –BB

Whiny Nucky (in full-on Tony Soprano-in-therapy mode) getting snuck by Patricia Arquette’s Sally Wheet was like audience wish-fulfillment. I laughed even harder when he hit her back.–KRF

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Final Thoughts: “The North Star” didn’t pack the emotional punch of last week’s “Erlkonig”, but it was the perfect way to follow up such an emotionally packed episode. Instead of trying to hit us with another wallop of drama they instead laid out miles upon miles of plot line for the rest of the season. Richard Harrow is back in Atlantic City and must deal with the whole Tommy/Gillian drama. Chalky White is entangled in an affair which all could be a Narcisse ploy. Agent Knox has found a way back into the Thompson empire. Nucky’s secured his Florida deal and brought on a new partner (Patricia Arquette).

This episode is the official “half way” mark of the season and if this show’s history has shown us anything it’s that right about now things are really going to start steamrolling quite soon. The violence is going to be ratcheted up, the drama is going to get a lot more intense and the plot twists are going to come without notice and at a breakneck pace. Business, as they say, is about to pick up. –BB

“The North Star” was a bit of a turn-down from last week’s stellar installment. As I’ve noted before, thanks to its massive supporting cast and often seemingly disparate storylines, Boardwalk Empire traditionally feels a bit scattered early in the season, but usually succeeds in tying everything together as the season wraps up. As such, a lot of episodes seem primarily concerned with table-setting. While “The North Star” offered some interesting moments – the beginning of Chalky’s inevitable affair with Daughter Maitland (also, Margot Bingham’s vocal performance was truly captivating), Harrow’s return to Julia and Tommy, Eli’s accidentally getting entwined with Knox – other plot threads felt pointless, rushed, or were excluded altogether. Margaret’s reintroduction was disappointing and even though I enjoyed their drunken brawl / hookup, we still know very little about Nucky’s new partner and prototypical Florida chick, Sally Wheet. Again, watching this show requires a bit of patience, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t starting to get antsy about finally seeing the bigger picture. –KRF

photos credit: hbo

Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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