While this week’s episode omitted certain storylines and character arcs in an effort to narrow Boardwalk Empire‘s wide lens, the main focus was undoubtedly on Chalky. It’s great to finally see Michael Kenneth Williams get screentime worthy of his ability, a multifaceted ability which defines both the episode and the show itself. The Old Ship of Zion brings this season’s second act to a tense and chilling close, and in pure Boardwalk style, the board is set (for the most part) for an explosive final act.
Although I will admit that Willie’s inclusion as a major plot point is quite a cliche given the Jimmy Darmody Jr. route he is taking, I am not as vehemently opposed to it as some. Now that the college aspect of Will’s life has been left behind, his future has the potential to be quite interesting, and this show certainly has the writers to make this a reality. How ironic that a mutually loved family would be the dissolution in the renewed relationship between Nucky and Eli as we know it. If nothing else, Will’s college plot this season has instigated a growing tension, and it was inevitable that Eli would eventually find out. The manner in which he finds out, and his ensuing return home to a returned Will with an oddly paternal Nucky, is tragedy at its finest. Shea Whigham continues to impress, and his facial expressions both in the diner with Tolliver, and after betraying Nucky, accepting and embracing Will, speak more than pages of script ever could.
Speaking of Tolliver, his frustration with Hoover, combined with his colleagues’ failure to take him seriously has turned him desperate. The extent of his desperation is neatly summed up by his own words, “We’ll get the crooks, then we’ll find the law.” In one way or another, his dedication almost parallels Van Alden’s from the first season, although in a less-exaggerated manner. I also doubt we’ll see Tolliver turning to the dark side (is there even a dark side?) either, given his forcing Eli to turn Nucky in. Exactly how this side of the story will play out to its conclusion is still up in the air, along with how Hoover will tie into it. Somehow, I don’t see things ending all that well for Jim.
Mickey Doyle was at his comedic best, but his seemingly random appearances were not simply an attempt to inject a bit of humor into the bleakness. With a giggle here, a giggle there, he pops up on numerous occasions, each time in possession of Eddie’s cane. He is a conduit for Eddie’s death, after a fashion. The aftermath of Eddie’s death may be argued by some as not having enough of an effect on anyone, or that it was simply glossed over. But really, what did you expect? Eddie existed solely as Nucky’s assistant, swearing himself to a man who’s finest ability is keeping sentiment and business alien to one another. Yes, Nucky is aggrieved by the death of his servant-cum-confidante, but for the most part he will not let that grief interfere with what is important to him. Doyle’s annoying interjections exist as such for that exact reason. The tragedy of Eddie’s death is something that Nucky can’t quite shake, no matter how hard he tries. Once it starts to interfere with his own selfish interests (exemplified by Doyle’s flirtatious “rendezvous” with Sally Wheat), he finally decides to firmly embrace it (wrenching the cane from Doyle’s grasp), and dispense with the annoyances once and for all (striking Doyle). He understands that in order to deal with a human problem, he must deal with it in a human way, an idea which is also reflected in his dealings with Willie.
Finally, we come to the crux of this episode, and also what seems to be the main focus of the season as a whole, the brewing hostility between Chalky and Narcisse. It is in cases like this where the slow burning formula of Boardwalk Empire can be seen at its finest. Week after week we have witnessed this rivalry growing, yet never quite reaching the point where action may be taken. Now, we have reached that point.
Dunn Purnsley has served as the go-between in this relationship, not in terms of playing both sides, but in terms of being a loose cannon we knew would eventually go off, but never knew quite when. Erik LaRay Harvey has proven time and time again that he has the acting chops to stand and compete with the best, and his sendoff was as spectacular as his character deserved. The fight between him and Chalky was wonderfully shot, as were the soft close-ups of each contender before the brawl erupted. The soft operatic music provides an interesting counterpoint to the ferocity of the fight itself. Judging from both Purnsley’s final words to Chalky (“Kick my face in, and I say, ‘Yes sir?!'”), and LaRay Harvey’s interview with HBO, his initial jailhouse resentment for Chalky had been subdued, but never abolished. His emerald suit and golden smile will be missed.
Margot Bingham’s Daughter Maitland is yet another stunning addition to the ever expansive cast, and her scenes this week were some of her best. The “melancholy” scene between her and Narcisse was chilling, and added yet another element to the sinister relationship between them. Her soothing reprise of the titular gospel classic to Chalky was comforting, while greatly saddening, and spoke a lot to the depth and quality of the writing in this show. However, her future looks quite bleak, and I can almost see her death being used as the final straw for Chalky to descend into the full-on thug he so desperately tries to keep contained within.
Chalky’s upstaging of Narcisse almost simultaneously existed as one actor upstaging the other. As much as we may love Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal, Michael K. Williams is just as good. In one of the best scenes in an episode full of great scenes, Chalky interrupts Narcisse’s original Ominira (the Yoruba word for independence/freedom), while at the same time severely damaging the doctor’s untainted public position. Even Narcisse knows he has been bettered by what he would perceive as a “lesser Libyan”, grimly acknowledging so; “It’s your performance, sir.” Torchlight by Harlem, indeed. As a sidenote, I thought it was a wonderful feature that amongst everything else, Narcisse is a failed playwright, yet sees it as a way of spreading his glorious supremacist ideals.
Narcisse’s best and most useful tools are respectability, civility, shrewdness, and subtlety, and they have served him very well thus far. Indeed, his entire personal demeanor and outlook on the “Libyan race” are based on such. Now, however, the rivalry between he and Chalky has descended into chaos, a territory that Chalky is more than familiar with. Narcisse’s shit is in the street, as it were. Ever since the first season, Chalky has been on a continuous journey in an attempt to better both his own standing in the community, and keep his family’s feet from treading too close to his own footsteps (an ambitious and noble outlook not too dissimilar to Eli’s). He craves being respected not as muscle, not as a convenience, but as a reliable leader who people, both black and white, can trust and look up to. No matter how much Chalky despises the existing external perception of himself, no matter how much he wishes to achieve betterment, muscling is where his former home was rooted, and muscling is where he will excel in the upcoming conflict. Muscling is his very own ship of Zion.
While you’re pondering the final act of season 4, here’s some food for thought – the preview for next week’s episode, Not Asking.