Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 9 review: Marriage And Hunting

This week's Boardwalk Empire is an answer to the unfairly levelled criticism that the show moves too slowly. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.9 Marriage and Hunting

You’ll recall, those of you who have been kind enough to keep up with these recaps, that several weeks ago I commented on the strength of Boardwalk Empire’s hand when it came to quiet, buttoned-down characters. Back then I made specific reference to Valentin Narcisse and Arnold Rothstein and, in passing, to George Mueller and Richard Harrow too. All of them exhibit a tendency to repress, and without getting too Freudian, it’s not healthy. Like pressure cookers that have been left too long on the burner without release, the energy must find a way out. All that pent-up pressure must go somewhere. And this week it did, for all of them.

Rothstein’s been having a bad season. His luck at the tables has left him (and whatever he says, it is luck) and his few appearances have invariably shown him in a state of weakness. This week he appears, once again, in a few revealing glimpses, asking his valet why he doesn’t share his master’s taste for games and, perhaps cracking a little, telling him the story of his own youthful conversion to cards. Like many for whom gambling becomes rather more than a casual pursuit, young Arnold’s career began with a fatal win. Whenever the beginning, even the longest lucky streak must end sometime and now that Arnold’s has, he goes, for the second time this season, cap in hand to Nucky. His insurance scheme, despite using the hated Mickey Doyle as collateral, is borne of desperation. There are no fireworks from Rothstein, no violent theatrics, just the pathetic squeak of pressure being released through begging.

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A quiet release is appropriate for both character and show. Boardwalk Empire has been criticised, unfairly, for being slow, or for carrying too great a burden of inconsequential detail. This is a myth and Rothstein’s current storyline demonstrates why. His terrible 1924 has been outlined through a handful of vignettes, his bad night at the tables, the decline of Nucky’s Tampa investment offer, his desperate pseudonymous Wall Street fraud attempt, each one largely meaningless when viewed in isolation. When we look back, it’s easy to see the larger picture constructed by this scattering of biographical fragments and to understand that Boardwalk Empire’s omniscient narration is doing more than keeping tabs on four or five cities at once. It is taking these events and creating a powerful thematic argument. It is, if you’ll forgive the dry theoretical language, a kind of ‘gestalt narrative’, in which the parts are unremarkable until they are viewed as part of the whole. This is not easy to pull off. Very few shows can do it, fewer still do it well but it’s for this reason, above all else that Boardwalk Empire deserves to be ranked in the uppermost tier of modern American television.

While we’re addressing the season in the round, let’s remind ourselves that we’re about to hit the final quarter and it’s time that some of these disparate stories begin to entwine. And, our faith in Terence Winter’s plan rewarded, they do. Narcisse has to try to deal with Joe Masseria now that Rothstein’s difficulties have removed him from contention. And how is Masseria’s dope getting to the north east? Through Nucky’s rum channel. These seemingly unrelated, though topically similar, storylines are beginning to blend as fate and the demands of business draw the characters inexorably into each other’s orbit. This is solid writing, the product of a skilled team (this episode alone had three writing credits) but held together by a firm hand at the tiller.

The second of our pressure cookers, Mueller, has been so bottled-up, even repressing his repression so much that the metaphor feels inadequate. He’d perhaps be better described as a volcano, long believed dormant but kept that way more through blind hope than the cold assessment of geology. His daily exasperations, familiar to anyone trying to raise a family in bad times, are comingled with the aggressive demands of the Capone brothers. Their bullying is stacked upon the suspicions of Dean O’Banion and the whole mess is topped off with the beating he receives from his revenge-thirsty former colleagues.  Having shot them and left them for the flies, Mueller’s O’Banion problem handles itself and he leaves, a grand to the better, ready to fix things at home. It’s not the release of violence so much as the emotional bloodletting of confession that helps him here. His faith having long since departed, he cannot confess to god, only himself, that he killed Agent Sebso, his real name is Nelson Van Alden and that he no longer believes in anything at all. He has never been the easiest of men to like, but it would take a heart as stony as his face not to sympathise when he finally releases the pressure in the traditional manner.

If Mueller’s marriage can ease his burden, let’s hope for the same for Richard, our third pressure cooker. His wedding to Julia was plain and functional, appropriate for a marriage of convenience, but the soft trilling of churchbells as they muddled their way through the proposal was a reminder that, whatever our cynicism, the seed of love there. Given time to grow, it may yet provide Richard with the domestic stability for which he has ached since his return from Europe. 

Richard, and the brief, doomed return of Ol’ Clothes Iron Face is a reminder of the recurrent motif of scarred and damaged faces. Chalky’s phizzog still bears the marks of his fight with Pernsley and Daughter Maitland wears the wrath of the final of our pressure cookers, Narcisse.

The troubles between Chalky and Narcisse have been percolating since before the doctor even appeared in the show. The context has been deliberately racial in tone, but the conflict is decidedly personal, and never more so than now. The emptiness of Narcisse’s rhetoric has been proven again and again by his interest in drug trafficking and his constant desire for war with Chalky. In a season that has carefully navigated racial politics through the use of imagery, this week’s Onyx Club stand-off excelled as the most powerful visual metaphor that we have yet seen.

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The two men squared off, settling personal scores while ignoring the vinegar glances of white customers who were disgusted by Narcisse’s peaceful arrival, and plain horrified by the advent of Chalky. The two men had wandered out of the safe, segregated bounds of entertainment and service and all the racist jokes, provocative dancing and jazz music in the world would be too weak a distraction for their so-called betters. They looked upon the combatants merely as Negroes reverting to type rather than as people wrapped in complicated and emotional conflict. The fruitless, mutually destructive fight between the two descendants of Africa  was perfectly staged and stark proof that in them we have, for all the clarion calls of political change, two men signally failing to see the bigger picture.

Gestalt, gentlemen, gestalt. Take a step back and look again. 

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Old Ship of Zion, here.

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