Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 8 review: The Old Ship Of Zion

Boardwalk Empire delivers yet another great episode, showcasing the character's performative aspects...

This review contains spoilers.

4.8 The Old Ship of Zion

‘The Jazz Age’, they called it. The term came to mean rather more than music, but, like so much of culture, songs were at the heart of things. It was the era of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong; the decade of George and Ira Gershwin, Scott Joplin, ragtime, the Charleston and of course, the blues. It was the age of Bessie Smith and Chalky’s beloved Ma Rainey, whose Farewell Daddy Blues will yet resonate through our fictional world.

In that world it’s also the age of Daughter Maitland, whose exquisite, sensual performances have become standard features of this current run of episodes. Part of Boardwalk Empire’s success as a period piece has been achieved through an evocation of mood that has been powered by the use of music. It’s been an essential element of the show since the beginning, from when the Onyx Club was still Babette’s, and when we were treated to repeat visits by Eddie Cantor, whose speaking voice carried the rhythm and cadence of song. It’s small wonder that the show has, so far, spawned two official soundtrack compilations.

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The addition of Maitland has been a well-made one, not merely because of Margot Bingham’s musical talent (that’s her own singing you’ve been hearing) but also her acting and the emotional tension she has brought to her character’s duplicitous mission. Her scenes with Chalky have taken on such an intimacy and tenderness that her violent shift to his defence, effectively a betrayal of her master, feels natural and earned. The sudden intervention of the third person in the room trick appears so frequently in fiction that it’s become a rather hoary trope, but here it works, especially because the groundwork has been put in over the past five episodes.

Structurally speaking, it shows just how well Terence Winter and his team are using the extended running time that TV affords. Emotional weight is added over several patient hours, while tiny deviations in allegiance are given room to shift and develop. It also means that we’ve got plenty of room for Daughter Maitland’s performances. These songs are not merely entertaining in isolated terms, they also add to the period mood, deepening the focus on entertainment as a key source of power and money (even its racially-tinged texture) but above all else they reveal the important of performance to the show itself.

There is an explicitly performative aspect to so many of Boardwalk Empire’s characters, but this week’s episode demonstrated the tendency especially well, and particularly in the Chalky versus Narcisse storyline. There were almost too many examples to choose from; the funeral service for the Pastor, conducted with a tearful sermon and plaintive rendition of The Old Ship of Zion to name just one. Edward Bader’s deliberate and obvious ‘amen’, performed as a naked attempt to curry favour with an essential constituency being another.

Bader was at least correct in identifying performance as the best means of making his point, he was just not as good as Chalky in the execution. Mr White did well here. Watch him in the street, calling his audience to attention, his trashcan lid like a signal drum, before making his passionate, demonstrative point. If the bootlegging and nightclub business fails to work out, he could always take his chances on Broadway, as his improvised ‘Harlem by Torchlight’ showed, he has a talent for the theatrical. He has the natural flourish of the stage magician, holding the packet of heroin aloft and giving every eye the chance to see before casting it down and burning it in an effort to publicly taunt Narcisse.

‘It’s your performance, sir’ returned the doctor, a man who had just been interrupted from his own. It’s a wonderfully established scene, brilliantly controlled by Tim Van Patten, whose enviable resume includes such heavily-populated epics as Rome and Game of Thrones. It entertained on its own terms, but it also gave us the opportunity to see more of the Northside, a district with a political importance that remains totally at odds with its economic condition.  Once again, the narrative drive is bolstered by the excellence of the production design, silently describing just how cheap, rundown and dilapidated the district is.

The most poignant performances were private. Chalky’s nocturnal request for a quieter rendition of The Old Ship of Zion from Daughter Maitland, describing it as the one ‘sung at his Daddy grave’, converted the public to the personal and drew an intimate performance that ached with regret. It was too much for Maitland for whom the singing of the song provided the precise moment that her allegiance transferred. When Pernsley arrived on the scene, bringing with him a flavour of Jacobean stage combat, there was only one way that it was going to go down. In an echo of his first appearance, and with a brutal finality, Pernsley be done.

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The performance of the Thompson family was marvellous and rather sadly amusing to hear how well they harmonised given the rupture that had just begun between Eli and Nucky. It was a bitter irony, not lost on Eli, that the very moment of his reconciliation with his son was shaded by his likely betrayal of his brother. Willie, whose first appearance, ominously, was in the windblown room recently vacated by Eddie.

Willie’s every appearance now seems freighted with symbolism, and here we have a continuation of the Erlkönig theme first explored a couple of weeks ago. Innocent of the danger that surrounds him, Willie cannot help but be sucked further into the temptation of the high life he has seen in his uncle’s company. The hungry glances he gave the disarmingly forward Sally Wheet and his stuttering attempt at conversation told us as much. His unavoidable eavesdropping on her night with Nucky sealed the deal. Sadly naïve of the likely cost, he wants in. Nucky, recklessly, lets him.  

A true innocent abroad, Willie’s only real insights come in spite, not because, of himself. ‘My father used to be Sheriff,’ he reminds Nucky. ‘you were County Treasurer. I remember everything’. It’s a painful truth. Eli possibly wasn’t the cleanest of Sheriffs, and Nucky certainly wasn’t the most honest treasurer, but they weren’t quite this. What is Eli’s actual occupation these days? Bootlegger? Bagman? In all likelihood, he doesn’t even know himself.  Nucky spent most of last season wrestling over his dual identities of politician and gangster. He’s involved in politics, sure, but only in a slightly more sophisticated manner than Al Capone, getting out a block vote for his preferred candidate.

He was once a corrupt public official; he’s now simply a criminal with a public profile. If the transformation is a sign of the dangerous times in which he’s living, his awareness of it comes from another source. There’s something about Sally that brings it out in him, and it’s for this reason that he always seems two steps behind her, uncertain of her next move and blind to her motives. Back in Tampa he told her that prior to Prohibition he was ‘an ordinary, run-of-the-mill crook, corrupt, but happy, until plenty was no longer enough’.  The demands of this corrupted Jazz Age have drained him of the spirit he once had, leaving him a hollow shell, a walking emptiness for which ‘Nucky’ is mere performance.   

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The North Star, here.

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