Boardwalk Empire is a frustrating show, if only because it makes its audience wait two-thirds of a season for episodes like “Marriage and Hunting” or last week’s “Old Ship of Zion.” Deliberate pacing, thorough groundwork, and a refusal to give instant gratification are part of Boardwalk and its peers’ prestige. But did the writers really have to pull their punches for so long? There wasn’t a plot line last night that didn’t see at least some significant action, and while it made for a great episode, back-to-back moments of truth for Chalky, Richard, Gillian, and Van Alden felt like too much at once for a season that’s taken its time (and then some) to pick up the pace.
Packed to the gills as “Marriage and Hunting” was, the brewing war between Chalky and Narcisse continues to dominate. (Actually, now that Chalky’s flipped a table in the middle of his club, it’s not clear if said war is in the “brewing” stage any longer.) In the wake of Dunn’s failed assassination attempt, Chalky finally goes to Nucky, howling for blood and demanding an ally. Unfortunately, Chalky’s ploy to use last season’s events as leverage falls flat, with the unintended effect of revealing how Nucky really sees things post-Gyp Rossetti. According to Enoch “Just Business” Thompson, putting an African-American business on prime boardwalk real estate is fair and square repayment for going to bat against a psychopath. Now that the Onyx Club’s safely open, not even an unwelcome confrontation by Narcisse will make him risk life and limb again, especially now that he doesn’t have to. It’s cowardly and it’s cold, but as his brief consultation with Eli reminds us, Nucky’s due to get his comeuppance soon enough.
Even though Narcisse probably has the upper hand over his rival now that Nucky’s officially washed his hands of the whole affair, both men have their fair share of troubles. Daughter’s tissue-thin cover story — that Dunn simply never showed up — falls to pieces within minutes. But instead of playing it reptilian and menacing like he would with anyone else, Narcisse is, as he puts it, utterly destroyed. He sheds a tear or two before delivering a vicious beating that infuriates Chalky, presumably unable to kill her. Oh yeah, and Arnold Rothstein has stopped selling him heroin and started hocking life insurance policies on Mickey Doyle for easy cash. Gambling’s a nasty thing once it stops paying off.
On Chalky’s part, the ever-present divide between him and his mannered, educated family has widened into a chasm. It’s difficult to feel sympathy after last week’s “as long as I’m paying for everything, she doesn’t get to ask questions” rationalization of the Daughter affair. But Mrs. White is no Carmela Soprano; she’s not just fully aware what’s up, she’s both furious at and ashamed of her husband. He may be footing the bill for the ceremony, but she’s not proud of a man who shows up to his daughter’s wedding with a beat-up face. Picking up on the tension, Maybelle shows up at Daughter’s place to confront her father. If Daughter Maitland’s name was just an excuse for a dumb Daughter vs. daughter pun, I’m done with this show forever, but the look on Chalky’s face after Maybelle storms out is straight-up heartbreaking.
Merging Nucky and Chalky’s stories for the night felt like a good move, a welcome distraction from the family drama and existential angst that’s characterized much of Nucky’s arc when Sally isn’t around. Equally smart was revisiting the ongoing custody battle between Gillian and Julia Sagorsky, a conflict that brings together two subplots that often feel peripheral to the more important goings-on. It’s also a face-off that treats both sides with empathy, not to be confused with the disgrace-porn feel of Gillian’s more recent appearances. Roy is still with his wife, of course, but the real emotional impact comes from Gillian’s story of being dragged before the Commodore the night after her very first kiss. Jimmy, as it turns out, was named after the lucky twelve-year-old in question, the last “pure thing” Gillian remembers. Her description of motherhood is also particularly beautiful, minus the incest: “We lived for each other. A child and a child.”
It’s impossible not to feel for Gillian once reminded of the horrific abuse she’s suffered. But it’s equally difficult not to root for Julia and Richard, doing their best to support Tommy on a meager department store income and Mr. Sagorsky’s pension. After a judge expresses skepticism at Julia’s income and lack of a husband, she sits Richard down for some straight talk: she’s aware her father’s dying and she needs to get married, stat. With a come-on no man could resist (“you’d do in a pinch”), they’re off to the courthouse for a scenic destination wedding. Now that he’s got a family to protect, Richard goes looking for the steadiest form of employment there is: Nucky Thompson’s muscle man.
That leaves us only with Nelson Van Alden, whose Mr. Jekyll comes out to play in unusually fine form this week. Strangely, his scenes in “Marriage and Hunting” are bookended by a couple of Mad Men parallels: he begins impotently trying to fix a sink, a la Pete Campbell, and ends revealing his secret identity and troubled past, a la Don Draper/Dick Whitman. In between, there’s an uncomfortable narrative of overcoming emasculation through violence, complete with sticking it to a shrewish, nagging wife by having sex with her on a pile of money (and next to a gun). But Michael Shannon can sell the bajesus out of even cheesy lines like “I used to believe in God, and now I don’t believe in anything,” and Van Alden still doesn’t get the satisfaction of actually killing Dean O’Banion — he’s betrayed by some other associates, presumably enlisted by Al Capone under the assumption that Van Alden wouldn’t finish the job. Besides, the gun-and-money sex scene isn’t even this week’s coolest scene with a firearm. That honor goes to Sally, who sleeps in bed with her rifle. God bless that woman.