Plot Summary: Chalky and his fellow prison escapee and travel companion “Buck” find their attempted burglary of a well-to-do home quickly escalate into a hostage situation. Luciano and Bugsy attempt to do business with Narcisse on behalf of new boss, Maranzano, but Narcisse’s refusal results in bloodshed. Margaret finds herself taking the fall for the deceased Mr. Bennett’s unscrupulous handling of Arnold Rothstein’s account and, after receiving no sympathy for Rothstein’s angry widow, turns to another unlikely source for help. Nucky attempts to strike up a new alliance with Wall Street businessman and proud Irish-Catholic, Joe Kennedy, while flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood reveal his first glimpse of the seedy dark underside beneath Atlantic City’s beachy, genteel veneer and the early days of his relationship with doomed first wife, Mabel.
There’s a moment early in “What Jesus Said” where Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Sally (Patricia Arquette) pause from discussing business to listen to “Happy Days Are Here Again,” taking the song’s appearance on the radio during their conversation as a good omen of fortuitous days ahead. The song was popular during the Depression and was famously used by FDR as his campaign song during the 1932 presidential election, seeking to raise the spirits of the downtrodden public by promising a swift return to the golden days of yore. And while, as we open season five, much has certainly been lost since the Halcyon days of the Roaring 20s, “What Jesus Said” repeatedly points out that, rosy glow of nostalgia aside, the past wasn’t so happy, either and good times ahead are far from assured.
For example, the episode opens with Chalky (Michael K. Williams) and Milton (Warner Miller) breaking into the wealthy home of a family Milton claims to have worked for in the past. Though the home initially appears empty, the mother and daughter who live there are soon discovered and an increasingly erratic Milton demands to be taken to the basement safe he remembers from delivering ice for a party the family hosted many years ago. Though the women insist he’s mistaken, Milton recalls the lavish spread at the party and bitterly recants the fact that the man of the house watched him haul a hundred pound block of ice to the basement with no assistance or tip, just a “That’ll do.” Though the home still bears the vestiges of better times (the fine – though aging – furnishings, the telephone, the ill-timed delivery of Fern’s spring formal dress), it’s clear that those days – and the aforementioned man of the house – are now long gone. For someone like Milton, however, who was never a true participant in those boon times, just a lowly servant condescended to amidst the opulence around him, Fern and her mother still represent that unreachable wealth and he refuses to leave until he gets a piece of it.
I loved how these scenes were framed to initially make it seem as though the unstable Milton was either mistaken or just purely insane and how the women’s misdirection and cagey attempts to protect what little they have left, even under the threat of violence, became clearer as things played out. Though Chalky was quick to resist being cast as the good cop to Buck’s unhinged, gun waving bad cop (I loved Chalky’s intimidating and cold affirmation that he’s just as dangerous as his partner, snarling, “Yes, I am ma’am. I absolutely am.” Though we often sympathize with Chalky, Williams is so good at never letting us forget the viciousness that lies just beneath the surface) he ultimately couldn’t sit by and watch Milton harm Fern (who cannily drew comparisons between herself and Chalky’s deceased daughter, Maybelle) and is thus on the road again, solo but with nine dollars in his pocket.
The hard times wrought by the country’s dire economic circumstances are evident throughout “What Jesus Said,” and while the mother and daughter mentioned above are still able to carry on in relative comfort, the hungry men sharing hobo soup around a garbage can bonfire leap at the chance to make a few bucks unloading trucks for the ever-obnoxious Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks). Even those in the criminal underworld are feeling the pinch and Charlie Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Bugsy Siegel (Michael Zegaen) try to muscle in on Dr. Narcisse’s lucrative dealings in drugs and prostitution on behalf of their new boss, Maranzano. As Luciano points out to Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, in his first appearance of the season), “People are losing things all over. Holding on to what you have, that sounds like a good idea.” Holding on to what he’s got without having to kick up to Maranzano is exactly what Narcisse has in mind, though his refusal to accept the offer results in a brutal massacre at his brothel when Bugsy, possibly the show’s most effective killing machine since Richard Harrow, returns and kills everyone in sight. Though he was only on screen for a few minutes, I was excited to see the return of the magnetic Jeffrey Wright as Narcisse and am looking forward to see how this thread plays out in the weeks to come.
Meanwhile in New York, things at Margaret’s (Kelly Macdonald) firm have gone from bad to worse after an investigation reveals that Abe Redstone’s (aka Arnold Rothstein) account had been active long since the man’s death in 1928, thanks to the shady business practices of the late Mr. Bennett. Rothstein’s widow is suing the firm to recoup the vast some of money stolen from the account and in light of Bennett’s suicide, Margaret is poised to take the fall. When Margaret meets with Rothstein’s widow, Carolyn (Shae D’lyn), she finds yet another hardened victim of the Depression and one who refuses to turn her a sympathetic ear. In wake of her husband’s death, Carolyn’s been left with little of the man’s wealth and a great deal of public humiliation. Carolyn cuts right through poor Ms. Rohan’s protestations of powerlessness by pointing out that she knows exactly who she really is and threatens to sue her estranged husband, adding icily, “Let’s see how you like reading your name in the paper next to ‘notorious husband.’” Though Margaret is typically pretty quick on her feet and adept at taking care of herself, she’s really backed into a corner here and her subsequent reunion with Nucky should prove interesting for the remainder of the season. Macdonald’s Margaret was initially a fiercely intelligent and surprisingly strong counterpart to Nucky and I really enjoyed their relationship dynamic early on, but as the series went on and the character went from bored, wealthy housewife sniping at the maids to pursuing hospital reform and Owen Sleater, she seemed to have less and less to do with the central story and her screen appearances began to feel tedious. Here’s hoping that her reunion with her estranged husband gives Macdonald some meatier work in the remaining few episodes.
Back in Atlantic City, Nucky wastes no time ruing the loss of the senator whom he was trying to court in hopes of repealing Prohibition and strikes up a new, possibly very lucrative relationship with Wall Street player and future patriarch of American royalty, Joseph Kennedy (a spectacular Matt Letscher). Nucky’s admiration of the man and his way of doing business is evident right away, as once it becomes clear that he can’t ply the man with fine booze (“It’s hard enough doing business as an Irish-Catholic. I try my best to thwart the notion that we’re all drunkards,” Kennedy explains), Nucky follows Kennedy’s lead in eschewing alcohol for the rest of their dealings. Kennedy is a man who admittedly rigs the game, but does so while following the letter of the law, a crooked, yet legal and therefore prudent approach that Nucky admires despite the fact that he’s never been able to keep his hands truly clean himself. While the two men seem to see eye-to-eye on matters of business, Kennedy is dubious about Nucky’s motivations. As a father of nine, Kennedy strives for legacy and the future success and greatness of his ever-growing progeny. While in Nucky’s office (or, “the crow’s nest of the HMS Thompson”) he notices the lack of family photos and mementos and asks who or what Nucky is doing all of this for. “To leave something behind,” is Nucky’s response and though it seems to satisfy Kennedy for the time being, it doesn’t ring entirely true and doesn’t serve to satisfy the very same question for the audience as we’ve often wondered about Nucky’s hazy motivations throughout the series’ run.
While what drives Nucky is still somewhat unclear, this week’s flashback scenes are a little more illuminating in regards to how Nucky became the man he is today. We see another large chunk of young Nucky’s (Nolan Lyons) childhood innocence torn away when he learns the love-struck young man paying him to deliver fresh flowers to his paramour murdered the woman in her hotel room and then witnesses the Commodore’s (John Ellison Conlee) quick cover-up of the crime for the sake of carrying on business as usual. I loved the how the staging of Nucky’s only two glimpses of the young woman, both framed through a quickly closing door, first as a beautiful, artfully posed nude like something out of Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass,” and then as a shockingly brutalized corpse, captured the juxtaposition between the seemingly idyllic world of the resort community and the dark, criminal undercurrent running through it in such a strikingly visual manner. We also learn that the wealthy little girl who flirts with Nucky is none other than Mabel, his tragic first wife and mother of his deceased only child. The fact that Nucky awakens from his reverie calling for Mabel (only to be greeted by Margaret) is perhaps telling of the real significance and impact this seldom-mentioned character has had on his life and her role in making him the Nucky Thompson we see today.
Overall, “What Jesus Said” was a solid installment of Boardwalk Empire and one that shows the beginnings of this season’s far-flung, both character-wise and chronologically, plot threads dovetailing towards a cohesive finale. Jeffrey Wright’s Narcisse made a brief, but welcome, return and new addition Matt Letscher’s Joseph Kennedy stole the show, as his scenes with Buscemi were easily the highlight of the episode. Michael K. Williams also delivered another strong performance as Chalky, though a bit too much time was devoted to the ongoing hostage situation. Thanks to this week’s particularly strong flashback scenes though, we finally are starting to get a sense of just how this season is coming together and I’m really anticipating seeing the ultimate payoff a few weeks down the line.
Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs is a Senior Writer for Pop-Break, regularly covering Game of Thrones, Louie, Futurama, and Boardwalk Empire, as well as other delectable nuggets of TV, film, and music throughout the year. Since graduating with Highest Honors from Rutgers University with a degree in English, Kimberlee currently finds herself in a financially comfortable, yet stifling corporate environment where her witty and insightful literary and pop culture references are largely met with confused silence and requests to, “Get away from me, weirdo.” Still, she’s often thought of as a modern-day Oscar Wilde (by herself) and one day hopes her wit, charm, and intellect (again, self-perceived) will make her a very wealthy, very drunk woman. She’s also the mother of a darling little boy, Charlie Miles (aka Young Chizzy) who she hopes will grow up to not be too embarrassed of all of the baby pics she relentlessly shares of him on various social media sites.