What would you do for love? The question is directed at the younger Nucky Thompson, but it could also be asked of many of the characters on Boardwalk Empire (or at least the ones featured in this episode, “What Jesus Said”). Love, or some variation of it, is the driving force for many of the characters’ decisions, both small and big, on the latest episode of this bootlegging saga.
The show returns to Margaret Thompson in New York City and it turns out that the meeting between her and the late Arnold Rothstein wasn’t quite the dead end that I expected. While actor Michael Stuhlbarg’s presence is still greatly missed, Arnold’s death didn’t neatly clean up all the problems associated with the character. Similar to how Willie Thompson’s ambitions as a lawyer were held back by his criminal family connection, Margaret’s new life has hit a snag.
Her situation is much more severe though, with both the law clamping down on Rothstein’s banking deals (complete with Margaret’s signature) and the spurned Ms. Rothstein looking for retribution after she was left shamed by her husband’s activities. She wants a large sum of money that Margaret obviously cannot pay up, placing Margaret in a supremely difficult position. After multiple storylines that ultimately had little effect on the main plot (Owen Slater aside), it looks like the show is working to better integrate Margaret into the show’s drive, so it looks like Kelly Macdonald will have meatier material to chew on instead of remaining a stale “voice of reason.”
This week’s episodic arc belongs to the recently escaped Chalky White and his partner Milton holding up a mother and daughter for food and money at their home. Far removed from the Prohibition drama, the segment serves as a compartmentalized character study for these people in their current situation. Following the death of his daughter Maybell, the season premiere showed Chalky at his absolute lowest as a broken man spending his life in a chain gang. But when contrasted against the tense and possibly unstable Milton, flickers of Chalky’s humanity begin to show themselves.
The mother and daughter try to convince Chalky to turn on Milton a couple of times, but it’s when the daughter, Fern, learns of Maybell (though not of her unfortunate fate) that a shift occurs. This episode has more than a few memorable dialogue exchanges for Chalky in particular, including one where Fern asks what Maybelle would think of her father now. Chalky, in Michael K. Williams’ distinctive snarl, responds, “She knew what I was.” Fern’s interactions with Chalky bring out whatever humanity reserves he has repressed, and perhaps Chalky’s ultimate decision is informed by not wanting to see another family endure the same loss he experienced so long ago.
While old Nucky’s tête-à-tête with Joe Kennedy continues in 1931 (more examples of the sharp dialogue this week from writers Howard Korder and Christine Chambers), the younger Nucky’s acts of obedience for acceptance are brought to the forefront. Nucky’s willingness to do what he’s told is brought out by a lightly humorous montage of various adults in his life crying out, “Boy!” Eventually he comes across Mabel, his future wife, who plays with him in a very Lucy-to-Charlie Brown way by saying she’ll pay him for kissing his horse. Nucky, compelled by her but also timid to react fast, doesn’t get the coin as promised but it’s clear that she’s attracted to him nonetheless.
Nucky’s life path may have started with him taking orders, but now he’s the one (seemingly) in control over his situation, as evidenced by Margaret returning to him in Atlantic City in the last scenes. For a show that’s primarily concerned with business dealings and gangster violence, Nucky’s pleased smile at Margaret’s return shows that occasional displays of genuine emotion are allowed to reveal themselves too. Even though their relationship hasn’t exactly been the most tender or genuine on television (he did have her first husband murdered, after all), there is enough of an attraction that a little smile goes a long way in showing that side of them.