There’s no way to get around it. Yesterday’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, “Devil You Know,” pulled out all the stops in a way that the best late season Boardwalk episodes always do and then some. It’s become an expectation by now that even though the show tends to meander around its world, when it starts back up it will eventually click together as things heat up towards the conclusion. With the foreknowledge that the real end is near, “Devil You Know” clues us in that everyone is fair game for death’s door at this point.
Before we get to the meat of this hour, let’s get the Nucky business out of the way first. Marc Pickering continues his best Steve Buscemi impression as the younger Nucky deals with Mabel’s pregnancy and patrols around the boardwalk on deputy business. There’s not much to it until the end when Nucky catches the child thief he’s been looking for… and it turns out to be none other than Gillian Darmody. It isn’t so much what we see in this episode than it is what we know comes later that makes the connection so disturbingly effective. With Nucky still looking to be in the Commodore’s good graces, he’ll eventually hand little Gillian over to the Commodore and forever change both her life and his. Nucky’s soul is on its way out the door.
Back in the present, Buscemi’s Nucky drunkenly toils around a dive bar with two women. His subsequent fight with an irate man and eventual mugging by the women is little more than a diversion until when Mickey rallies the men for a gang war. With that said, it’s a diversion that has its virtues. After so many long stretches of Nucky working behind the scenes, it’s nice to see him doing the dirty work himself when he trades fists at the bar. Nucky has traditionally been such an uptight fellow that seeing him drunkenly rumpled is a refresher that allows Buscemi’s performance room to play things looser and more freewheeling.
But it’s the Chicago and Chalky storylines that really steal the thunder and make up for any minor slow patches. Nelson and Eli’s attempted scam on Capone goes belly up (did we really expect it to succeed?) and it’s clear that it’s the end of the road for them soon. I was sure Eli, with his reckless attitude as of late, was going to bite it in the end, but Nelson ended up catching the fatal bullet to his cranium. He did it on his terms, though, releasing all his pent up anger in a cathartic religious freak-out on Al that only Michael Shannon could deliver. It also offered Mike D’Angelo a quick fix chance to secure his cover before it could be blown as he ended Nelson’s life in shocking fashion. Eli’s “reward” of a crumpled bill for one train ticket seemed pretty appropriate for his desperate situation.
The lack of Valentin Narcisse, and by extension actor Jeffrey Wright, this season has been generally unfortunate, but his lack of screen time prior to this week is made up for by the extended verbal confrontation between him and Chalky that takes us to the final moments of “Devil You Know.” Rather than go out guns blazing, Chalky decides that he’d rather talk it out with Valentin and accept that his inevitable fate is drawing near. Chalky knows that he’s at the end of his rope, and chooses to ensure the future of Daughter and Althea instead of attaining violent retribution. Michael K. Williams’ weathered face and subdued growl speak volumes for the multitudes of pain and heartbreak that Chalky has been put through in the last decade or so.
Sorrow hangs over his face and performance more so than ever, but it also contains a spark of elation, with the career criminal seeing the light at the end of his tunnel and embracing it after he gets the last word on Valentin. Chalky’s warning that “nobody ever been free” leaves Valentin speechless, though Jeffrey Wright’s subtle disgruntled facial twitch says enough. To drive home the tragedy of Chalky’s death by firing squad even further, director Jeremy Podeswa bucks Boardwalk Empire tradition by stopping the song with the cut to black. For an episode that ended up with not one but two major character deaths, the most emotionally resonant moment of “Devil You Know” came from the minimal sound of a record needle, allowing us to bask in the moment as we say goodbye to the great Chalky White.
EPISODE RATING: 9/10