‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 4 Recap: “Acres of Diamonds”

Like the other Jersey mob boss he’s so often compared to, Nucky Thompson’s a complicated guy. We see glimmers of self-awareness in his character from time to time, but his ability to criticize his own flaws always stops just short of calling it quits on the whole organized crime racket. Last season finale, Nucky decided to take the half-measure of stepping out of public life but continuing to run the show from behind the scenes. This time, we get a frank admission that the bootlegging money isn’t worth the risk — right before our hero agrees to a massive, probably ill-fated offloading deal on the Florida coast. One step forward, two gigantic leaps back.

That offloading deal is the reason for Nucky’s 26-hour train trip down the coast to Tampa, “land of money, cunny, and where it’s always sunny.” That charming schtick comes from Bill, an old buddy who’s working off a debt to the white-trashiest gangster who ever was by talking Nucky into buying a fat chunk of land on the coast where the two bootleggers can land their shipments of booze. Bill lays it on thick, machete-ing tropical fruits and smokin’ Cuban cigars like nobody’s business, but Nucky’s not having it; thanks to a chatty land salesman he meets at the hotel, he knows Tampa’s on the fast track to development, meaning it’s no longer an ideal location for sneakily importing illegal alcohol.

While August Tucker storms Bill’s apartment to express his extreme displeasure and gets a machete to the head for his efforts, Nucky spends some quality time with Tampa’s resident sassy bartender. This season’s been suspiciously Kelly MacDonald-less thus far, but here we get our first (extremely oblique) mention of Margaret, or at least her kids: it’s Teddy’s birthday soon, and Nucky’s considering buying him a gift. But as much as he likes to reminisce about the good old-fashioned crook days or make noises about being a family man, Sally has him figured out. Nucky’s perfectly happy with taking the path of least resistance — and effort — by letting Teddy go giftless, which is why she sends a mummified baby alligator to the hotel. There’s nothing ten-year-old Brooklynites like more than a dead reptile. Or 50-something gangsters, apparently; Nucky decides he’s feeling benevolent and calls up his buddy to let him know he’s taking the deal approximately one murder too late.

Another member of the Thompson clan got a turn in the spotlight this week, giving us a look at Willy’s life at Temple University. In short, he’s got terrible friends and has to attend mandatory prerecorded lectures on the virtues of the rich, but at least his natural (awkward) charm and family connections help him out with the ladies. I’m not sure why the show is choosing to introduce us to Willy now or where it’s going with his arc; for now, it’s looking an awful lot like the Meadow Soprano-type story of the mob kid who’s supposed to do better than his parents and sort of does, but can’t fully adjust to life outside the criminal fold. Or maybe the writers just felt like a good sexual-humiliation-by-cruel-teenage-peers scene — is busting up library trysts what kids used to do before cyberbullying? Either way, Willy owes Mickey a few for letting him make off with a crate of liquor for his basement frat party, a favor that’s sure to be called in sooner rather than later.

“Acres of Diamonds” also finally shows Valentin Narcisse on his own turf, lecturing his “Libyan brothers” on the importance of education before meeting with Arnold Rothstein on the matter of breaking into the heroin trade. Both his conversation with Rothstein and the mini-speech serve to beef up Narcisse’s character a bit; we see why he might look down on Chalky for his considerably less refined style, for example, and just how much the idea of Rothstein not taking him (or his large bills) seriously riles him up. Narcisse’s particular brand of black nationalism may thus be a little less radical than we thought, given that it conveniently allows him to cut deals with a white kingpin while poaching a fellow black gangster’s right-hand man. I’m looking forward to learning more about why Chalky rubs Narcisse the wrong way, especially since it’s bound to spotlight two very different visions of what it means to be black in the 1920s underworld.

As Chalky’s club hosts a talented young singer from the Cotton Club, presumably a gesture of goodwill to cover up Narcisse asking Dunn to jump ship, Gillian makes small talk in the audience with her divorced supermarket executive and his supremely Midwestern boss. The further into this episode I got, the more it kept giving me Blue Jasmine déjà vu: Gillian’s a beautiful, formerly rich woman covering up a dark past by slipping into the role of the lady again. Of course, Gillian’s “dark past” includes murdering a veteran, and her drug of choice is considerably stronger than Jasmine’s Xanax, but the parallels were uncanny. At least her new friend seems to believe her when she claims she doesn’t know her Jimmy body double’s pal.

Finally, there’s Richard, whose story I assumed would devolve back into a multi-episode, vengeance-by-violence affair with the return of his murder-by-hirer. Boardwalk Empire nips that potential subplot in the bud nicely, however, once Emma clarifies that she doesn’t owe any property taxes and shoots the guy dead with her rifle. The big happening for Richard this episode is actually Emma moving out of the family home and in with her rock-lovin’ suitor, who’s better equipped to take care of a pregnant widow. Richard’s now left to assimilate back into home life largely without the help of his sister, meaning his tale will dwell more on the idea that killing is the only thing Richard is good at — according to him. Now that he’s extricated himself from the killing, Richard’s finally dealing with how to come home from a war, almost six years after Armistice Day.