This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 16 episode of Boardwalk Empire.
Tonight’s episode is all about knowing where you fit and the consequences of refusing or failing to fit into that role — and in one shocking reversal, a usurpation of the role someone else has established for you.
First, there’s Chalky, caught in an impossible situation after he gets out of jail. At first, things seem to be going well as he gives permission for an aspiring doctor to court his daughter and promising to help an elderly woman with noisy neighbors and a younger man with an abusive employer at a community meeting. But then, as that meeting’s almost over, the women of his community challenge not just Chalky’s conduct as a community leader but the very nature of his role. “Those white men cut his throat while he was loading your trucks with your illegal liquor,” one woman tells him bitterly. “You walk around, take a bite out of everyone else’s plate. Don’t get nothing back but a summer clambake and a Christmas turkey.” Largesse is not enough in the face of systematic racism, a point Chalky makes to Nucky later, who responds by insulting him, saying, “It’s always about money, Chalky…you can thank me by being a good boy. I gave you my word. Now save your strength. And enjoy your family.”
Is it any wonder Chalky melts down (after maintaining his composure earlier when his daughter’s request that he help her with her homework almost reveals his illiteracy) at that family dinner he’s supposed to be enjoying when his wife serves duck instead of Hoppin’ John to his daughter’s suitor so the family will look upscale? “It’s my house. And my country ways put the food on this goddamn table,” he curses, before declaring that it’s clear who the field hand in his house is and retreating to the garage while his family plays piano. The roles he’s being asked to play are impossible: his capacity for violence is critical until it’s shaming, his ability to earn buys his family’s passage into a future where he doesn’t have the skills to join them or to fit in. And I still can’t figure out his relationship with Nucky, who seems to regard Chalky as his equivalent, but lesser shadow, in a mirror, lesser land.
An outwardly sustainable relationship, Margaret and Nucky’s, appears tested this week as well. Nucky insists on giving bonuses to the servants despite Margaret’s insistence that they can’t really afford it. But when she gives them the money before warning of a coming pay cut, they aren’t grateful, and she resorts to brittleness with the women she was on the verge of drinking away her sorrows with last week: “I believe it’s customary to say thank you. What is it, ladies? Speak your minds.” When they tell her that a sloshed Nucky promises them raises, Margaret says coolly, “Well, it’s a special kind of fool who relies on the promises of a drunkard.” And later, she asks Nucky for $100, ostensibly for new clothing for the children, but mostly to see if she can get it.