This review contains spoilers
5.5 King of Norway
It’s hard not to see this season in a valedictory light, offering a pattern of reunions, score-settling and closure as characters, willingly or otherwise, attempt to find and secure a sense of closure before the shutters finally come down. It comes across like the closing of a circle, or rather several interlinked circles, that bring characters back to where they came from, again whether they like it or not. Such a view places this episode’s reunion of Nucky and Chalky in a similar context to that of Nucky and Margaret last week. In both cases, the exiled come to Nucky, surprising him by their unannounced return. In both cases too, Nucky takes the opportunity to nurture his sentimentality, seeking sweet reminiscences with Margaret and offering money to the needy Chalky as a gesture of friendship rather than a transaction of business. In both cases he’s disappointed. Neither party returned to Atlantic City through a sense of residual affection for Nucky; they came because he, or, more accurately, his money and his connections, are useful to him. For him it’s pleasure, for them it’s strict utility. In this sense, the feelings of farewell are entirely Nucky’s. These returns are to his recent history what the flashback scenes are to his distant past, merely his life flashing before his eyes. And we all know what happens when those flashes stop.
The formal flashback scenes move us forward this week, to 1897 and Nucky in young adulthood, played with frightening uncanniness by Marc Pickering, whose resemblance extends beyond the obviously dental. His tone, his mannerisms, every subtle turn of the head, are exquisitely Buscemi, a wonderful piece of mimicry that suspends disbelief. His twin projects, to secure Mabel’s hand and win the favour of the Commodore are intimately connected and provide us with the means of understanding the dilemma that would accompany him into middle age. He seeks the respectability of a public life, proud that he’s a ‘fully trained officer of the law’ and keen to impress on his putative father-in-law that he’s a young man who intends to make something of himself, but at the same time, he’s developing an understanding that there is a hidden system, literally and metaphorically underneath the boardwalk, in which dirty deeds are done for the good of the town and for the good, he notes greedily, of the men with the stomach to do them. Here lies the seed of his politician/gangster dichotomy and of the inseparability of his personal and professional lives that would mean, thirty or so years later, that when his ‘friends’ and ‘loved ones’ come to call on him, they see him purely as the means to an end.
That is a lesson that Van Alden is rather quicker to learn than the other Mr. Thompson. ‘Why don’t you do it?’, asks Eli of Mike D’Angelo’s espionage scheme. ‘Because we’re the expendable ones’, explains Van Alden, demonstrating his key skills of perspicacity and stony-faced stoicism in the most dangerous of situations. It’s no accident, surely, that the intervention of D’Angelo should come at the moment when the two exiles are simultaneously at their closest to genuine friendship, sharing a meal like a pair of sitcom husbands and also to genuine enmity, with the revelation of Eli’s relationship with Sigrid coming almost as much a surprise to the drunken philanderer as it does to the cold cuckold. D’Angelo’s careful, intelligent plan is a sign of how much the agents of the law have raised their game. He knows the weak points of every man in his orbit, whether it’s the financial arrangements of his quarry, the entomophobia of the hapless Fred Ries or the homicidal extra-curriculars of the two comically put-upon ex-officers. It’s also a sign of how tightly those circles are closing. Three and a bit seasons have passed since Van Alden drowned poor old Agent Sebso and here it is, finally pushing the killer into a situation that he can only escape through his very expandability. Eli, estranged from his wife, from his brother and from his own failing mentality, is already long past any rescue. The ‘allowance’ that Nucky has been paying his family appears to have come with conditions attached. A business arrangement masquerading as helping the family. That’s Nucky all over. Falling for it? Total Eli.
That arrangement demonstrates Nucky’s talent for seeing his own benefit in helping others. That’s also true of the Carolyn Rothstein gambit that he and Margaret have concocted and which she, his best apprentice, delivered this week. Calm, unfailingly polite and utterly resolute, Margaret coolly pressed her arrangement across the table without blinking. The scene served as a neat counterpoint to her meeting in What Jesus Said, and her last use of the timid ‘Miss Margaret Rohan’ persona, now abandoned in favour of the bold Mrs Margaret Thompson one. ‘So you were married all along?’ asks the confused Wall Street manager. Yes. She was a lot of things all along and now, her mettle tested, she can bring them into the light. She spoke clearly and confidently, the shorting of the Mayflower Grain Corporation, whose executives had belittled Nucky, proving that they can still work together to mutual advantage, so long as its purely business.
It’s purely ‘business’ for Luciano and Lansky to want Nucky dead too. He’s an obstacle to their quest for dominance and he, like Maranzano, has to go. We hear for the second time this season, Johnny Torrio dropping heavy hints that Nucky should cash out and retire. If those warnings fell on deaf ears, the tommy guns fell on deafer ones. Retire from what exactly? This thing, this business, isn’t what Nucky does. It’s what he is. He, like Van Alden, like Eli, cannot escape. There’s plenty to escape from but nothing to escape to. As Chalky’s surprise reunion with Daughter Maitland shows, everything returns eventually.
Which leaves us with Gillian, still swimming against the tide of her confinement, estranged from everybody but the cold Doctor Cotton. ‘I’m better’ she says, pleading for release. ‘But are you cured?’ he replies, the distinction his own. His plans for her are inscrutable, even if his means are not, as Gillian’s fellow patient’s (Inmate’s?)brutal hysterectomy scar reveals. She’s as trapped as anyone else in this ensemble but the pairing of her scenes with the flashbacks suggest that a reckoning is coming and that we may meet her again in 1897, where her presence and fate are revealed to be something that Nucky cannot escape. Dirty deeds indeed.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Cuanto, here
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