Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 2 review: Resignation

This episode of Boardwalk Empire is about race, loyalty, and money. Like every episode, then...

This review contains spoilers.

4.2 Resignation

‘When you see your kids remember they didn’t cost you anything’. He might have a tendency towards the sentimental, but Richard can’t half make a point when he wants to. He had, quite literally, a captive audience, but his statement about money stands. It’s a lesson that most of his fellow characters have yet to heed. It’s a natural result of the focus on gangsters, politicians and wannabes (sometimes all three in the same person) that money is the first thing reached for to fix things. It is, in so many cases, wholly inadequate. Perhaps they’d benefit from having their fingers trapped in a drawer for a bit.

For the most part, money remains the grease to everybody’s wheels and goes beyond mere transactional fulfilment. Nucky demands his cut from Bader, even though he’s not involved in his latest development. He is owed simply because he is involved in everything, even Eddie knows this much. The first and usually also the last thing to which Richard’s victims have recourse is money. It invariably fails.

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The difference has very little to do with money itself, and more to do with the situation of the principals concerned. When velvet-voiced newcomer Dr Valentin Narcisse runs his game, 10% of the Onyx Club is his price. Nucky, that most seasoned of players, reaches calmly for the solution while Chalky still seethes in a soup of his resentment. Like much of Boardwalk Empire, this episode is a study in contrasts. Compare the easy manner with which Chalky’s hand slips to his wallet when the band members ask for money up front, as Mr Pastor used to do. A few dollars here and there is one thing. It makes Chalky feel like Prince Largesse, but a slice of his club? That’s a different game and Dr Narcisse is a different player.

The scene between them, with Nucky acting as chaperone, formalises the differences between the two men. Although they are, according to the Doctor, both of the ‘Libyan Tribe’, they take opposing responses to their rising status, a difference that could be custom designed to engineer conflict. Whenever his identity is challenged, Chalky accentuates his blackness, as he frequently does in the presence of his son in law. Faced with the mannered gentility of Narcisse he does so again, despite, or perhaps because, it marks him as the odd man out in the room.

Narcisse shares his counterpart’s hyper-consciousness of racial identity, but his response is in opposition. Playing Stringer Bell to Chalky’s Avon Barksdale, Narcisse has a manner that is deliberately soft, delicate and precise and he wears his education with pride. ‘Mr Narcisse?’ asks Nucky. Doctor Narcisse, he is corrected ‘I spent too long studying to forgo it’. It’s not simply the pride in a doctorate as an insistence on status he earned for himself. He shares his studied observations with all who will hear it. The Onyx Club is owned by black people, staffed by black people and offers black people as entertainment but no black person may enter as a customer. If Chalky believes that his growing wealth really is the same thing as an increasing status, then Narcisse is only too willing to burst his bubble.

The relationships between and within Boardwalk Empire’s various communities has been a theme from the beginning but it looks set to be particularly so this season. It is a difficult path to tread, many of the wounds inflicted in the 1920s have yet to heal and several of the tensions remain unreleased. Even though the show does not balk at giving its characters a mouthful of brutal epithets, sometimes words are not enough. Fortunately, we’re given more than that.

I noted last week that some of the scenes are arranged with the fixed beauty of paintings but as any number of Nucky’s discarded showgirls could tell you, good looks will only get you so far. Like all the shows of the first rank (and Boardwalk Empire has an increasingly solid claim on that status), it uses its visuals in the service of the narrative. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the pair of linked scenes at the end of this episode. The shot of the Widow Pastor being dragged by a rope has an obvious historical connotation that served to underline the seriousness of the intent with which the writers want to examine race relations, while the final shot of the broken corpse, face frozen in a rictus of terror beneath the sign proudly proclaiming THE FUTURE, was a startling way to frame an argument. This is tremendous stuff, writing, acting, direction and production design all working together in the service of the story and in the transmission of ideas. You could watch this programme with the sound down and still take something of value from it.

Feeling somewhat undervalued, meanwhile, is Eddie. Oh Eddie Kessler, what are we to make of you? As his limp and quivering hand testifies, he has been through a lot for his boss, and usually without a note of appreciation. He’s been something of a comic relief over the past three seasons, a fact often played with in the silent pantomime between Steve Buscemi and Anthony Laciura. They’re great at silent physical comedy, coming across like a muted music hall act, clumsy clown and his exasperated straight man. But there’s always been a little bit more to their relationship, a solid underpinning to the longevity. By now, Eddie has served Nucky for eleven years, in that time seeing ‘other men, lesser men, duplicitous men come and go’. He, he reminds his boss, ‘is still here’. Eleven years of close service and he still cannot abjure the formality of a written resignation. ‘Can’t you just tell me?’ asks a confused Nucky. He can, but he’ll stand to attention as he does so.

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Eddie is based, very loosely, on a real man. Louie Kessel was Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson’s valet during the Atlantic City kingpin’s golden age. A squat man, who somehow managed to squeeze 18 stones in weight under just five feet five inches in height, he’d been a professional wrestler before taking on the valet work. A classic factotum (to use a word that gives Al so much trouble) he served his boss loyally, driving him, dressing him and even giving him a reviving rub down at the start of each day (which, for Johnson, meant around three in the afternoon). The most notable thing about their relationship was its longevity. He served Johnson loyally and unwaveringly for twenty years. That same solid attachment has been transferred into his fictional counterpart. The look of pride at being given a proper task and of being asked to use his own name on the safety deposit box was palpable. Good work Eddie.

While we’re dealing with the errand boy fraternity, let’s nip over to Cicero where George Mueller is doing solid work in the congratulations/commiserations/punch in the mouth business for Dean O’Banion. He’s clearly still suffering from the after-effects of whatever breakdown/trauma he went through. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had actually started to believe that he is George Mueller. It’s always been a repressed performance, but these days he displays such a flattening of affect that he comes across like an automaton. It will eventually demand expression, a taste of which we had in that momentary, guttural snarl that he unleashed at the rally. After taking the summer out to destroy half of Metropolis it looks like Michael Shannon might be gearing up for another bout of ultraviolence. If so, his involvement with the Capone brothers’ brand of democracy-by-truncheon may prove explosive and something that no amount of money will fix.

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, New York Sour, here.

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