TV Recap: Boardwalk Empire, ‘White Horse Pike’

Written by Bill Bodkin and Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs

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Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The Low Down: Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) clues Nucky (Steve Buscemi) into the shipments of heroin Lansky (Anatol Yusef), Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Maseria (Ivo Nandi) and Petrocelli are running in the rum cargo. Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) declares war on Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) by shooting up his social club, but Chalky takes a bullet to the shoulder which sends him on the run. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), now working at The Onyx Club, hides Chalky out until Nucky can secure safe passage. Nucky, meantime, confronts Lansky, Maseria and Luciano about the heroin only to find out they are working directly with Narcisse. In order to keep the peace and make money off the heroin, Nucky must promise to deliver Chalky into Narcisse’s hands. Meanwhile, Knox (Brian Geraghty) puts the squeeze on Eli (Shea Whigham) to give up information on the Thompson organization.

Elsewhere…Margaret Schroeder/Thompson/Rowan becomes Arnold Rothstein’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) insider at the investment firm she works at which is currently trying to scam Rothstein. In exchange she’ll receive a rent-free home for her and her kids. In Chicago, Torio (Greg Antonacci) isn’t amused with Al Capone’s (Stephen Graham) rise to power. There’s a mysterious attempted hit on Van Alden and The Capones…was Torio behind it?

The Body Count: This was one of the bloodier episodes with probably close to 10 people taking bullets all over Atlantic City and Chicago.

Favorite Performance: This is probably one of the toughest episodes to call since we started doing this column on the regular. Narcisse, Knox, Eli, Chalky…all really killed it in this episode. But if we have to pick one person, it’s going to have to Brian Geraghty’s Agent Knox. Knox is such a chameleon and conundrum — he’s a ruthless killer but is a hound of justice, he’s a company man but hates the fact his boss isn’t showing him the proper attention, he’s a moral man but isn’t opposed to lies, deception and manipulation. Brian Geraghty’s unflappable portrayal really makes these facets of Knox’s personality even more intriguing. No matter the situation Knox never looses his cool, even when pushed to the brink there’s a semblance of composure. Right now he’s a the puppet master of Eli and seems to really be in control of the situation, however one really has to wonder if, come seasons end, he’ll finally come undone whether at the hands of the Thompsons or his boss J. Edgar Hoover. –BB

Over the course of the past four seasons, Shea Whigham’s Eli has evolved from Nucky’s jealous kid brother to one of the show’s most fascinating characters, as he’s acquiesced to his secondary role, but still grapples with both resentment and a sense of familial loyalty. Whigham really sells Eli’s emotional turmoil at being forced to rat out his brother and when the sight of the sailor at the diner reminds him of his father and thus his brotherly bonds to Nucky, his eyes are those of a broken man. The moment where he finally comes to terms with Willie’s following in the family footsteps was also great and his resigned, “Let’s sort this out,” hints at perhaps a renewed allegiance to his brother, despite the increasingly unstable Agent Tolliver’s continued pressure. I also loved the two symbolic images of coffee, first swirling in Eli’s cup at the diner as he stirs in cream and sugar while feeding the Feds useless intel and later after Tolliver’s unexpected visit to his home proves that tactic won’t fly, spreading a dark brown stain all over the family’s white tablecloth. –KRF

The Supporting Scene Stealer: Jeffrey Wright continues to amaze. If Bobby Cannavale can win an Emmy for his absurdly over the top antics last season, then there’s no reason why Jeffrey Wright shouldn’t have his Emmy mailed to his house before Thanksgiving this year. He was great throughout the episode tonight, but there were two parts I enjoyed the most. First, when we see him completely flustered — something we’ve never seen before. Watching him violently come unhinged when talking to Nucky was just such a necessary and powerful moment. Narcisse can’t be cooler than ice all the time and now we’re seeing what Narcisse at his worst is like. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when he confronts Chalky’s daughter I really thought we were going to see him a.) have sex with her or b.) harm and/or kill her. Narcisse, despite his velvety voice and calm demeanor is a dangerous man and in this scene every syllable sounded threatening and predatory. Outside of Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Wright has been the best actor this series has seen in its run. He brings so much to a character that, in lesser hands, could’ve come off campy and cartoonish. –BB

Jeffrey Wright’s Valentine Narcisse is the best Boardwalk villain to date because, in addition to posing a very serious threat to both Nucky and Chalky on an immediate, physical level, Narcisse’s very presence as an empowered and independent African-American in Jim Crow 1920s Atlantic City threatens to render Chalky – and thus, a very influential pocket of Nucky’s empire – obsolete. While Chalky’s carved out a powerful niche for himself while playing within the rules of a racially discriminatory and segregated society, Narcisse has garnered perhaps more power and certainly more respect while rejecting those rules entirely. It’s nearly as impossible to imagine Chalky daring to sit up front with Nucky in his own club as it is to imagine Narcisse allowing that obnoxious Onyx patron from earlier in the season to rub his head for good luck. The resulting acrimony between Narcisse and Chalky creates a tricky dynamic, as we as the audience should applaud Narcisse’s nerve, intelligence, and refusal to accept the role or limits society has placed upon him, but instead view him as a villain, since rooting for him would mean rooting against our anti-heroes Chalky and Nucky. Narcisse is absolutely correct in his assumption that he is the intellectual equal of his business partners and deserving of his rightful place at their table (as evidenced by his sly outmaneuvering of Nucky by flipping Mayor Bader) and yet, we’re still rooting against him in favor of the status quo. Narcisse has so much greater significance than last year’s scenery-chomping Rosetti and Wright thoroughly sells every facet of this rich character, from his bristling pride (neither blinking an eye nor backing down from Nucky’s racially charged “Who the fuck do you think you are?”), his pragmatic business approach, to his fits of violence. Narcisse is clearly a dangerous man and nowhere was that more evident than in his scene with Chalky’s daughter, where Wright infused every line with both charisma and menace, the potential for violence lurking beneath the surface making their conversation one of the episode’s most tense moments. –KRF

The Best Part of The Episode: The car sequence was the highlight of an episode filled with great moments. First, I thought Daughter Maitland was going to get killed whether it be from a bullet or she’d eat it because the car would crash. So there was that bit of suspense. Also, I was wondering how a one-armed Chalky would be able to take two sheriff’s deputies out. Well, he did and he did it cleverly and with Maitland’s help. The tension in the sequence was great and I’m wondering if Chalky is going to put the blame on Nucky. When he gets word of Nucky’s “handshake” with Narcisse will he suspect his longtime ally of setting him up in order to make money off of heroin? –BB

As soon as the sheriff deputies arrived at Chalky’s hideout to safely escort him out of Atlantic City, I was filled with a sense of dread, particularly when Daughter began singing the funereal “River of Jordan” as they drove down that dark, narrow country road. One should never underestimate the cagey Chalky White, however, whose quick perception of a missed turn and keen instincts lead him to go all Vincent Vega on one deputy’s Marvin and then strangle the next while the ride or die Daughter takes the wheel. A riveting, heart-pounding scene and one with potentially huge implications for the remainder of the season, as it’s very likely that Chalky believes that Nucky had set him up. –KRF

The Part We Could’ve Done Without: This episode was free of any really negative aspects. –BB

There was no dead-weight this week, as every scene felt necessary and mostly riveting. Even the quieter moments, like Margaret’s politely struck deal with Arnold Rothstein, were fun to watch. –KRF

The Little Thing We Loved: I really loved the little scene between Chalky and Harrow. Chalky is not one for prejudice, so when his men start ridiculing Harrow he will have none of it. He sticks up for his friend and calls for his men to treat Harrow as an equal. The handshake between the two really was a nice moment and I like the fact Chalky turns to Harrow in his time of need to help him tend to his wounds and hide out. –BB

I loved the annoyed and dismissive manner in which Agent Tolliver is treated by his colleagues at the FBI. Tolliver’s kind of a deranged boy scout and while his ruthlessness in his single-minded pursuit of Nucky Thompson’s criminal empire has effectively intimidated Eddie and Eli, his coworkers just seem bored by him and are much more interested in derailing the revolutionary and racially threatening Marcus Garvey. Their complete disinterest in Tolliver’s project bodes well for the Thompsons down the line and I could see Tolliver shifting his focus from Nucky to Atlantic City’s resident Garveyite, Dr. Narcisse, in order to gain Hoover’s approval. –KRF

Final Thoughts: Boardwalk Empire has entered “end of season mode.” This series, as we’ve stated numerous times, is a slow starter but once you get down to the wire it really clicks on all cylinders. I like that the show hasn’t yet resorted to the “all out war” story mode it has over the past three season. Yes, we did end the episode with Nucky surrounded by armed men, however we haven’t gone back to the well of Nucky having to recruit Chalky and Capone to save his neck. I enjoyed that last season, but mainly because it salvaged a wayward season. In hindsight the move came off as very forced. Two episodes remain in this season and I’ve got to wonder if the show will take out Knox and Narcisse or will one/both of them carry over to next season. I’d actually enjoy it if they had a longer storyline with either of them carry over into Season 5 (which has been commissioned by HBO). I’d like to see where the Margaret/Rothstein angle goes and how it will apply to this season. Also, one has to wonder how they’ll tie Chicago into the overall plot. Either way, with two episodes left, I am in eager anticipation for next Sunday. –BB

It’s really very masterful how the Boardwalk writers always pan out to reveal the big picture at season’s end, so that the larger significance of all the little moments that seemed superfluous earlier in the season – for example, Masseria and Luciano’s discussion about the Petricelli / Nucky booze smuggling operation – is eventually revealed in ways that never feel random or deus ex machina, but earned and organic. “White Horse Pike” saw a lot of the season’s earlier plot threads begin to pay off – the reveal of Narcisse as Masseria’s partner, Rothstein and the former Mrs. Thompson’s mutually beneficial business arrangement – and set the stage for a big penultimate episode next week, traditionally the most pivotal episode of the season. –KRF

photos credit: hbo

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