‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 4 Recap: “Old Ship of Zion”

Agent Tolliver’s been on the hunt for the weak link in Nucky’s operation for months. The laughingstock of his underlings and even his superiors at the FBI, Tolliver’s long game finally played out this week, giving Boardwalk Empire the strongest episode of its fourth season by developing a far more interesting reason for Eli Thompson to betray his brother than lust for wealth or power: his family. Nucky, too, is convinced he’s helping his surrogate children this week, but only Eli is making a real sacrifice, and he knows it.

Even as Tolliver smells a rat when his agent clues him in to the whole liquor-poisoning fiasco, Willy is blissfully ignorant. He’s in limbo, cooped up at the Albatross Hotel with nothing to do besides complain about his uncle’s lack of groceries. Nucky, coldly pragmatic as ever, takes his nephew throwing away his entire (presumably legal) future in stride, agreeing that returning to Philly is “not practical,” but urges Willy to “move on.” Nucky obviously sees himself as the levelheaded intermediary in the ongoing war between Willy and his father, yet he’s oblivious to the fact that Eli’s impotent rage is the result of genuine concern for his son’s wellbeing. Nucky may believe he cares about his nephew, but would anyone truly invested in the kid agree to get him started on the track to semi-gangsterdom?

Nucky’s machinations are temporarily interrupted by the surprise arrival of Sally along with his first shipment of Tampa rum. Though she writes it off as just an impulsive hop onto the truck, Sally seems intent on using the visit as an opportunity to assert that Nucky’s patronizing I’ll-take-care-of-you act won’t fly with her. Though her one-liners sometimes veer too close to “I’M SASSY AND INDEPENDENT! GET IT?” territory, Sally’s scenes with Nucky go down easy. Particularly masterful is Nucky’s blatant cockblocking of Mickey Doyle at the Onyx Club, complete with Atlantic City’s resident mastermind literally tearing a cane out of Mickey’s hands. It’s because the cane is kinda phallic! Gotta love subtlety!

Sally’s not just in Atlantic City to put Nucky in his place; she’s also around to play the crazy aunt to her boss/boyfriend’s stern uncle. After fixin’ up a plate of hush puppies, bacon, and other down-home specialties, Sally prods Willy into asking Nucky for the chance to make something of himself by working his way into the family business from the bottom up. Then someday he’ll be a big, strong criminal mastermind, just like his dad! Once Nucky pays some lip service to the idea that Willy’s doing this to become the person Willy, not Nucky, wants to be, he’s on board, putting him in Mayor Bader’s office to keep his eyes and ears open. Now everything’s tied up nicely, except it so, so isn’t.

Speaking of Mayor Bader, the guy may be a figurehead, but the man can smell job insecurity from a mile away. Now that the deacon is dead, the drugs and violence on the North Side are boiling over into serious political unrest — and continuing with this week’s theme of heavy-handed visual symbolism, Chalky’s too fixated on Daughter Maitland at the funeral/in general to notice that everyone’s “looking at”/fed up with him. Once things are bad enough that Nucky’s forced to drop by and give a few helpful hints, however, Chalky sees it’s time to get his house in order.

First order of business is busting up the junkie den Dunn’s been running underneath his nose. Next, it’s time to interrupt Narcisse’s morality play about the virtues of embracing African nationalism with a good ol’ fashioned heroin burning. And then it’s Narcisse’s turn to make a move, asking Daughter to keep Chalky around until “another visitor” can show up, presumably to axe Chalky now that gradual political usurpation’s not working so well. And that’s when we get the single best scene this show’s had in recent memory.

From the moment Daughter practically begs Chalky to stay, there’s a sense of bone-deep dread that soaks into every line of dialogue. Instead of just going back to bed, Chalky takes the opportunity to get intimate. He asks Daughter how she’s able to pour so much sadness into her voice; she responds that her songs are about having no home, no matter how hard she searches. It’s a powerful summation of the African-American experience, but Chalky takes it personally, recounting how he knew Texas wasn’t for him anymore once he heard the episode’s title spiritual sung at his father’s funeral. For some reason, that’s when Daughter changes her mind about the bait-and-switch. It’s also the second Dunn knocks at the door.

At this point, the tension dials up from extreme to unbearable. Daughter’s sent out of the room to get a plate of cold chicken. Dunn’s not carrying a gun in his hands. Chalky’s right that Narcisse was behind the heroin, so why don’t they go confront him now? Luckily, our hero’s smarter than that, and with a single one-liner about “how much he’s paying you to fuck me,” Chalky and Dunn are in a fight to the death. It’s long and tense and extremely physical, but ultimately ends with Daughter literally stabbing Dunn in the back, rescuing Chalky from a choke hold. I don’t buy her sudden change of heart after a lifetime of creepy guardianship from Narcisse, but the visual of her praying over his slack body is one that hits hard regardless.

Back in the only other plot that got screen time in “Old Ship of Zion,” Agent Tolliver finally drops the rube from Iowa act and confronts Eli in a luncheonette. He lays out an ultimatum: rat on Nucky to the FBI or have his son go down for murder. It’s the first time Eli’s heard about the whole murder-bailout business, and Tolliver knows it, masterfully driving a wedge between the brothers as an added incentive for Eli to flip. He does, although we never actually see him nod in assent. Then he comes home to Willy leading the family in song and begging for forgiveness. Eli accepts with a hug, only for Nucky to ruin the moment by asking, “Didn’t I say this would all work out?” If only he knew how much it hadn’t.