Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 11 review: Havre de Grace

A period of grace before the finale? Here's Michael's review of Boardwalk Empire's penultimate episode of the season...

This review contains spoilers.

4.11 Havre de Grace

“I didn’t know my real name. He called me Daughter and that’s who I am.” It’s strange to consider that Dr Valentin Narcisse didn’t even appear until the second episode of this season and yet, by this penultimate instalment, he’s made enough of an impression to be described in simple pronouns. That diabolic He doesn’t even have to appear in person this week and still his presence is everywhere. 

It’s the threat of the doctor that sent Chalky and Daughter on the lam. It was his skill at building improbable alliances that put paid to their original Nucky-sponsored escape plan and it is his incredible reach that violently destroys even their Plan B. 

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Their temporary hideout is at Havre de Grace, Maryland, a place that took its name from a certain port in France and which now lends it in turn to this episode’s title. As ever, it carries multiple meanings, here referring not only to Chalky and Daughter’s location, but their condition too. They found a brief haven, a momentary period of grace before everything must, and does, go wrong. It’s an apposite title for a penultimate episode in which several storylines are given time to pause and reflect before the inevitable explosions of the finale. 

Chalky has always been a man lost. We’ve seen his unease at the chasm between his taste and temperament and that of his family. He’s shown himself to on the outside when dealing with Nucky and other power-players. This season we’ve also seen him unable fully to reconcile his desire for Daughter, even now suggesting that they run away together without understanding what it is they’re running towards. As his mentor Oscar Boneau tells him “The day come, everybody gonna run out of road”.

He would know. Oscar is now almost completely blind, unable even to see his hand in front of his face, but he has seen so much that eyes barely matter. He knows every sound of his house, even the leaving kind, later he senses the incoming threat and its origins. Such senses seem contagious. Even his sighted boys don’t need to see the road. 

Giving Michael K. Williams a blind mentor, a shoulder injury and a shotgun invites comparisons with The Wire. The Maryland setting almost confirms them. Having him tell the story of how Oscar saved him from some ‘corner boys’ seals the deal. The surprise advent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency later on in this episode recalls Deadwood. By now, references to The Sopranos are beyond count. These details are not merely flash for fans to spot, (though they undoubtedly are that too) they are likely attempts to ‘pantheonise’ Boardwalk Empire, to align it with the cream of HBO’s output. It’s almost gilding the lily; Boardwalk Empire has long proven itself on its own terms. 

It’s done so largely through demonstrating its embarrassment of riches. The single-episode appearance of Louis Gossett Jr. is a case in point. In what was essentially a cameo, he offered a richly characterised performance, full of tiny gestures and behavioural tics, held together by a brilliantly earthy vocal delivery that perfectly captured the weary, aching Oscar and his almost-too-tired desire to save Chalky once more, this time from himself. 

His counsel, that Chalky should stay in Maryland, away from the nest of vipers, and build up again, falls on deaf ears. Unlike Oscar, Chalky still has the full use of his eyes and looking about the place, at the condition of this ‘haven of grace’ and of crumpled, decrepit old Oscar himself, he has to ask ‘what’s the point?’ Better to flee with Daughter, if she could only be persuaded to run with him. He’s still wracked with despair when the arrival of Narcisse’s shooters (the result of a probable tip-off from Oscar’s man) renders such contemplations moot. 

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The doctor’s dread hand is felt elsewhere too. Agent Knox is incredulous that Nucky would be “taking orders from a ‘coloured’, but that’s just his naïveté talking. He’s sharp enough to recognise that a national crime syndicate exists but still sufficiently wet behind the ears to fail to see that it’s not as simple as ‘taking orders’.  Narcisse’s method is to create a situation and then present it as being of value to whichever partner he desires. Giving orders? No. He’s studied long enough to forego anything so vulgar. 

Knox could perhaps be forgiven for misunderstanding the now irrevocably soured relationship between Nucky and Narcisse. A company man, he’s used to a rigid hierarchy and cannot recognise any more fluid arrangement. We make no such allowances for Nucky, nor do we need to. Still making use of informants, he gets his partial tip-off from a typically singular Gaston Means. The fragment is enough. Means may be a loquacious buffoon but he is no fool and Nucky takes the nod seriously. 

Compare Knox’s self-regarding assembly of his case with Nucky’s careful suspicions of the ‘skunk’ in his basement. Knox approaches his material like an enthusiastic schoolboy while Nucky quietly considers, tests and observes. 

He’s had reason to doubt his brother in the past; it’s not too much of a reach to do so again. Still, there’s a sense that he doesn’t want to, that he’d rather not believe it. But he has to. It’s notable that Knox’s overconfidence in paying a home visit to Eli provided the precise means for Nucky to make his discovery and that it was Nucky’s cautious knowledge of his brother that allowed him to see it for what it was. 

The traditional reason for siding with blood is that the mutual history suggests trustworthiness. Here, it’s reversed and Nucky uses a tale from their shared childhoods to test Eli’s feelings towards him. The story of Mary Anne Nolan is usually enough to “get his goat” but Eli blithely takes it, perhaps better disposed to his brother after betraying him, but also revealing that his dinner table outburst was not due to a general irritability. It’s another example of Nucky’s skilful use of spies, by which I don’t just mean Gaston Means or Willie. Here, he is his own spook, using his intimacy with his family to realise who the skunk is.

It works particularly well because of Nucky’s success in tempting Willie over to his side. A division must now appear between the brothers and, on present form, it seems likely that Willie will choose his uncle over his father. It’s been a shallow transaction, a cynical severing of a sacred bond, and perfectly captured here by Allen Coulter. Look again at Nucky and Willie talking on the beach and look again at the sign standing between them. What does it say? ‘For Sale’. 

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Such framing is ever important in this beautifully shot show. Earlier on we saw the Thompson brothers talking on the porch, together but apart divided by a post. Earlier still there’s the diner meeting between Eli and Knox, the former crushed into a ball of guilt, the other leaning forward in earnest enthusiasm, his ego already getting the better of him.

And then of course there’s Gillian. Halfway up (or halfway down?) the stairs, midway between Leander Whitlock and her lawyer. She’s trapped, once again crushed under the weight of male power. As she was once the subject of the Commodore’s whims, so she is now that of Whitlock, who sold her out while pretending to be her protector. Much the same can be said of Roy Philips, who we now know to be a Pinkerton, who has played the long game in order to corner her like an animal. That impression is cemented by our final view of her from above as she shrieks and wails like a wild thing being forced into a cage. It’s probably the last we’ll see of poor Gillian, a pathetic mess who never stood a chance. She’s done some appalling things but has had worse done to her, and there’s a particular cruelty in Philips’ scheme, using her final reserves of sympathy and humanity to trap her and leaving her now, as ever, the victim of forces she cannot even see. Not even when they are right before her face. 

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, White Horse Pike, here.

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