‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 4 Episode 5 Recap: “Erlkonig”

“What was wrong with Brooklyn, huh?” That’s Ralph Capone, sobbing in the aftermath of one of last night’s bloodier moments. He’s got a point; the Capone brothers were small-time gangsters with (relatively) stable jobs and (relatively) happy families, with no reason to move to Chicago except greed. Boardwalk Empire isn’t kind to characters who overreach like that, with the notable exception of its protagonist and his family. “Erlkonig” saw three characters pay the piper for wanting too much for themselves last night, while the only one in Nucky’s good graces literally got away with murder. It’s a good day to be a Thompson.

The most extreme humiliation, and by far the most painful to watch, is the downward spiral of Gillian Darmody. Her decline’s been a long time coming — she hasn’t been at peak Lady Macbeth since she suffocated the Commodore with a pillow — but no matter how many “awful things” she’s done, the suffering Gillian endures goes from karmic retribution to downright cruelty about halfway through the episode. Stood up by Roy Phillips, she’s snorting heroin until she’s safely in a deluded haze, fixated on regaining custody of Tommy not because she cares about the boy, but because she’s desperate to leave something good behind after so deeply screwing up her first opportunity at parenthood.

Attempting to seduce a judge into handing over Tommy should be Gillian’s low point, but instead it’s just the beginning. The Boardwalk writers then send her to Dunn to re-up her supply, the sole foray “Erlkonig” makes into the ongoing Chalky-Narcisse rivalry. Dunn clearly relishes the opportunity to hold a position of power over “Little Bo Peep,” warning her to take it easy even as he tacitly agrees to give her heroin now for sex later. He’s miles away from Mrs. Pastor, and he knows it. But before we get a chance to delve further into Dunn’s psyche, Gillian embarrasses herself by visiting Tommy’s school, begging him to come away and form a nice, nuclear family with her and Roy. The kid is understandably terrified, and his “MiMa” is escorted off the premises as she fixates on giving her grandson a candy bar.

I’m hoping the subsequent scene with Roy, deeply uncomfortable as it was, is a sign that Gillian’s hit rock bottom. Aware that she’s an addict, Roy’s seen her at her worst, but somehow isn’t “repulsed”: “I know about weakness, and I know about sin.” The obvious question is why Roy’s still on board with and even downright excited by the prospect of rescuing a destitute junkie. I expect we’ll find out soon, if only because I trust Boardwalk to give us more than a dark-handsome-stranger-as-savior plot line.

This week’s goings-on in Chicago aren’t much happier. It’s Election Day, meaning Van Alden’s still on tough-guy duty for the Capones. As expected, Al is using the backwoods shooting as blackmail, but Frank seems to realize that Van Alden could be a valuable asset if they come by his loyalty honestly and demonstrate they’re better bosses than Dean O’Banion. To a disapproving Sigrid’s chagrin, Nelson is packed off to make sure the good workers of Western Electric vote Republican “or don’t vote at all.” (Sigrid’s not a big fan of democracy, either for Cicero or for her fussy kid. “He doesn’t know what he wants!”) Side note: I love that Boardwalk’s finally settled on Van Alden as a walking piece of black-comic relief. His deadpan responses to Capone-style bullying — “Guess!” “I can’t” — are hysterical.

After Frank, apologizing on Al’s behalf, drops off Van Alden and his gun, we get a primer in the basic George Mueller Approach to Crisis Management: attempt to be calm and intimidating before inevitably blowing up and going postal on the nearest not-so-innocent bystander. Using reason with a bunch of blue-collar toughs doesn’t work out so well, so before long, Frank and Al show up while the Western Electric guys bring in reinforcements. Al, probably still coked up, opts for screaming “WE RUN CICERO NOW” and daring anyone to fight him one-on-one. Frank tries to bully him into calming down, but in less than a minute a full-blown mob breaks out. Van Alden pulls out his gun and contemplates shooting Al, although I’m not quite sure why — there are still two other Capones to deal with, not to mention Dean O’Banion. But then a squad of Chicago detectives shows up and Frank, the voice of reason, goes down in a spray of bullets. We conclude with Al’s promise that “every thing that crawls is gonna pay,” finally breaking Van Alden towards the Italian side of the Capone-O’Banion tug of war.

The two subplots that revolve around Nucky, meanwhile, are the episode’s heaviest. From the opening scene, the trajectory is clear: Nucky’s too distracted by bailing Willy out of his murder charge to notice that Eddie’s gone missing, abducted by Agent Knox. Nucky exudes icy calm at the Philadelphia police station, gradually getting the lay of the land from his panicked nephew and the assistant district attorney. Willy screwed up, but someone has to take the flak because the dead kid’s dad is a big Republican donor. So Willy’s poor roommate ends up being collateral damage. In a particularly cold twist, Nucky even meets the kid before he’s arrested, acting perfectly cordial in the process.

Nucky doesn’t have the best track record with adopted sons, and Willy Thompson’s fate isn’t looking much better than Teddy’s or even Jimmy Darmody’s. “Erlkonig” is a peek inside Nucky’s ever-inscrutable thoughts, showing him initiating someone else into his criminal underworld even as he convinces Willy (and his own conscience) that his nephew’s going to graduate and “make something of yourself.” We even get the closest thing to a mission statement we’ve ever gotten out of Nucky as he tells Willy, “The rage you feel, it’s a gift. Use it, but don’t let anyone see it.” It’s a foray into the Sopranos-patented “antihero poisons everything he touches” trope, as Nucky strives to help his nephew in the only way he can while virtually guaranteeing Willy will become another version of himself. The bits where he and Willy hammer out a nice-sounding lie and Nucky reassures his nephew he’ll eventually forget this ever happened, clearly thinking of the bullet he put through Jimmy’s head, are particularly bone-chilling.

Finally, there’s the tale of poor Eddie, who’s decidedly not what he made himself out to be during last week’s outing with Ralph Capone. Initially resolute against Agent Knox, who’s the chilling straight-edge fed Van Alden’s personal failings never allowed him to be, Eddie’s finally broken by the demons of his own past. Turns out he came to America because he wanted to start a new life with his mistress with money he stole from the department store he managed. But decades later, all he’s got to show for it is a lackey job with a crime boss who barely notices when he’s gone — and demotes him back to personal valet when he shows up again. “It’s a responsibility that you asked for,” Nucky chides, and Eddie, who’s failed by ratting Nucky out to the FBI, takes it to heart. Having disappointed his wife, his sons, and even his boss with his own ambition, Eddie makes sure everything’s in order before confidently stepping out the window. All that’s left behind is a gorgeous sunrise.