Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 6 review: The North Star

Review Michael Noble 15 Oct 2013 - 14:00

This week's episode of Boardwalk Empire is dedicated, once again, to the lost. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.6 The North Star

Four minutes and nine seconds. It’s taken half a season for Margaret to reappear, both on screen and in Nucky’s life, and when she does, it’s for precisely four minutes and nine seconds. However long it was, it closed an unprecedented gap. As of this year, she had appeared in all but one of the thirty-six episodes, recusing herself only for the penultimate instalment of season three when, as you’ll recall, everybody was rather busy.

Even then, her last, brief return in Margate Sands felt stolen, like mere aftershocks of the trauma that she’d been through in that eventful year. We shared her moment in the abortion clinic, as she readied the removal of the baby that she had conceived with Owen Sleater, and then her brief, dismissive goodbye with Nucky, himself still grieving for Billie. They were painful insights into her fragile and troubled state. Unable fully to express what she was feeling, she could only bring herself to tell the doctor’s wife that she was "lost. Completely lost".

As I have mentioned before, Boardwalk Empire is a rich enough canvas that it can handle character absences, even protracted ones, without losing pace or touch. In the case of Margaret, it is particularly effective, deliberate even, as she, paradoxically, is present in her absence. Nucky may feel that he is doing well, that, post-Rossetti, he has hit a nice groove and is able to enjoy life as Atlantic City’s kingpin but the Margaret-shaped hole in his life is becoming more obvious and he, like his estranged wife, is now completely lost.

It’s a pattern for him. His first wife, ‘played’ by Deadwood’s Molly Parker in a single framed photograph, is also present in her absence, the mere ghost of a life now gone. The powerful, wealthy and charming Nucky has no shortage of female company but the girls who have entertained him since, Lucy Danziger, Billie Kent, cannot provide him with the nourishing support he needs.

In this bereft state he fails to reconnect with Margaret. Adrift without Eddie’s steadying influence, he can’t even recall why he called her. As Margaret tells him, "no one knew how to look after you like Mr Kessler". Too true. This is a man who is capable of negotiating complicated financial and political deals, of controlling several batteries of allies and enemies, but utterly incapable of putting on matching socks without assistance. Ha cannot operate alone. Sally Wheet is, unlike Lucy or Billie, earthy and capable, but she is no substitute for Margaret and the consummation of Nucky’s relationship with her is corrupt, desperate and violent.

Nucky is far from unique in possessing superb skill in some areas of his life, while adrift in others. Eli, who proves himself swift, decisive and capable in the presence of Agent Knox (even if he cannot see right through him), is reduced to tears by talk of Eddie and cannot sleep at night for worrying about his teenage son.

Perhaps it’s something of a late realisation for Eli. He didn’t even know that Eddie had kids (Eddie had been working for Nucky for eleven years, we may assume that he’s known Eli just as long) but is startled by his own reaction to his death. His sentimentality is useful, while Mickey Doyle is making his typical nasty wisecracks and playing jokes (German, really?), it’s Eli’s concern for the caged birds that hands him the key, literally. This rewarding of emotion is an important motif, especially in a fictional environment that incentivises its suppression.

For which, we have Meyer Lansky as a case in point, with the deal in Tampa providing a useful lesson in contrasts. Lucky Luciano, who has always been jittery and, let’s be frank, rather juvenile, is particularly so here. His first words upon entering the room are "what we miss?" It’s said in a petulant manner, steeped in the anxiety of the child who fears he’s missing out on the big kids’ party.

Lansky is calmer, more assured and obviously the better partner, understanding the emollient effect of money. He knows that as long as Masseria gets his cut, he’ll be fine with whatever his juniors are up to. He won’t bail out just because somebody told teacher and the half a million dollars of buy-in money? Not a problem. He can afford his seat at the table not just financially but temperamentally. The real Meyer Lansky had one of the most interesting life trajectories of any of his generation of gangsters. This composed and patient self-assurance was his engine.

Chalky remains adrift between two worlds. He is still lost and alone at his own packed dinner table, nonplussed at talk of "serial thirds" and dismissive discussions of "the primitive". "It her table", he says, retaining his African American Vernacular English, in stark and deliberate contrast to his wife and children. He uses it with Daughter Maitland too, telling he "it open" when she knocks at his door. She, the light-skinned emissary of the dictionary-wielding Valentin Narcisse, is, in Chalky’s view, "too fine" for all this, but he can do nothing but stare as she performs an exquisite rendition of The Saint Louis Blues, rendering him a tourist in his own club.

The club scene is a reminder of how Boardwalk Empire excels at telling its stories visually. This week we also had a repeated image of a circle. The first in the overhead shot of Nucky's coffee and the second time in Paul Sagorsky's sickened eye. It appeared as a little tag or label, showing how the events are connected, not to each other, but to Margate Sands, for which The North Star may be seen as a companion episode. Alongside Nucky’s failed reconciliation with Margaret, we’re given the real aftermath of Richard Harrow Travis Bickle-ing his way through that brothel.

Sagorsky’s cirrhosis, the drinker's disease, provided him with both motive and opportunity to reconnect with Richard and plead with him to help Julia and Tommy. Drinking through his boozewrought doom, Sagorsky spoke to Richard almost as nihilist to nihilist. Both men shrug their way through the world in the manner of souls so convinced that they are going to hell that it's not even worth arguing the toss. and yet, there is something, there is that ‘almost’. Richard didn't just "kill those men"; he rescued Tommy, and not for nothing was he crowned by a halo when Sagorsky came round (another neat visual touch). There may be redemption for him yet, and if there is, surely it lies with Tommy, who, in one of those moments of accidental wisdom that dramatists like to give to children, tells his erstwhile protector that the North Star helps all those who are lost. No matter how lost they are. 

Read Michael's review of the previous episode, Erlkonig, here.

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A fine review. In fact, part of me is tempted to read the these reviews before viewing the relevant episode, just so I can appreciate the depths of characterisation and storytelling Mr. Noble illuminates so well. But I won't do that.

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