This review contains spoilers.
4.10 White Horse Pike
Meyer Lansky is twenty-four years old. Al Capone is twenty-five. Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano, twenty-seven. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, even four seasons deep, every member of this particular set has yet to see his thirtieth birthday. Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, who made a handful of appearances in seasons two and three, is still only eighteen. Their youth is an easy thing to forget, especially given the wealth and power that they already enjoy.
Seeing these characters before they attained the notoriety that still attends them has been one of the biggest appeals of Boardwalk Empire since the beginning. It is, however, more than simply an unofficial prequel to The Untouchables. Their respective ascents of the criminal ladder, interesting though they are, are given additional depth and context by the sense of generational change.
Cast your mind back to the very first episode and to Nucky’s dinner party at which he entertained Big Jim Colosimo, Johnny Torrio and Arnold Rothstein. Luciano, a prodigy, was there too, but very much as Rothstein’s apprentice. Capone, whose name now echoes with greater volume than all others combined, waited outside, nothing more than Torrio’s driver and muscle. And where are they all now? Rothstein is on his uppers, Torrio is being encouraged to retire and Big Jim? He didn’t even make it to the end of that episode.
Every generation has to confront the one that follows it. Fathers, even adoptive ones, have to accept that times change and that the world that they helped to create has become better suited to their sons. Acceptance is rarely easy, the transition is rife with tensions of different types and White Horse Pike gave us several reasons why.
In some cases, the father doubts that the son is ready for the promotion. Look at Eli’s anger that Willie is involved in Nucky’s criminal enterprise, demanding, with incredulity, “is this the life you want?” and receiving’s Willie’s desperate, though accurate, reply, “Pop, isn’t it what we do?” The conflict between Eli and Willie has been a constant thread this season and the father’s final acquiescence, though grudging, is natural, even if it comes laden with foreboding.
For some, the promise of change can be more assuring of survival, especially if the junior can see rising trends that his set-in-his-ways seniors cannot. Lansky may have been begging for his life, but his thoughts, like any young man, were still on the future. “There’s a fortune to be made in heroin,” he tells Nucky. “Millions of dollars”. The insight saved his life and he was still around to take in Nucky’s glance as he takes the youngster’s advice and joins the narco business.
Torrio’s nurturing of Capone has been going on for years but now, just like the son of a legitimate businessman, Al feels ready to take over and wishes that the old man would just pick up his golf clubs and leave him to it. Having set up his own succession, Al just needs to shift the man ahead of him, even if he isn’t yet ready to hang up his hat. “No…of course” replies Al, “but eventually…someday”.
That eventual someday may be a little heavier than the days that preceded it. We’ve had violence before; there have been shootings and shankings, stranglings and stabbings. But, as the heavy assault on the Capone den shows, the new generation are ready to take things even further. The killing of Dean O’Banion has ignited the bloodthirsty war that would etch Al Capone’s name into the consciousness of the twentieth century. The class of 1924 will make more money, achieve greater notoriety and wield more power than their adoptive fathers ever did, and they’ll do so with more bloodshed. The generational handover isn’t just a transition, it’s an escalation.
If there’s a general trend towards escalation, there’s a proximate one too. The conflict that has flared between Chalky and Narcisse has spilled out into the Northside, causing the episode’s other armed assault on a building and creating a headache for Nucky as his web of connections gets caught in the machinery of warfare and starts to unravel. It threatens several of the delicately balanced alliances that have been created over the course of the season, even as new ones are being made. There were three significant handshakes this week, Chalky and Richard, Rothstein and Margaret and Nucky and Narcisse. These associations, some more temporary than others, are an essential tool of survival, but there is another, even more useful implement. Espionage.
Nucky’s connection with Sally Wheet is what tips him to Masseria’s piggy-backing, while his judicious placing of Willie in Bader’s office lets him know that Narcisse is trying to play him. Whether successful or not, it’s a repeated theme for the show. In addition to Nucky’s little birds, Rothstein makes excellent use of Margaret (and she him), while Agent Knox thinks that he has a useful source in Eli. Daughter Maitland was spying for Narcisse until she fell for her subject. Espionage is a natural corollary of mistrust, and therefore natural for this show, but it’s the way that it’s handled that impresses.
The scene transitions are made gently, almost, though not quite fading, into one another. Several scenes open from an odd angle; we enter the Onyx Club from below and fist see Eli via an overhead shot of his coffee cup. The camera tracks in slowly at the beginning of scenes and tracks back at the end, notably in the final seconds of the episode. It’s a slow track that reveals Willie in the front seat of Bader’s car. The wordless presentation of information is one of Boardwalk Empire’s hallmarks. Another, possibly its signature shot, is having two people talking in one room while being filmed from another. This week’s best example was of Rothstein and Margaret but it happens again and again. It’s deliberately staged, mannered even, but more than that. It makes us feel like we’re eavesdropping, like we’re the spies. Which, as we safely steal glimpses of these violently changing times, is exactly what we are.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Marriage And Hunting, here.
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