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.Speaking of stealing, Nelson Van Alden’s in trouble at work. Someone’s scribbled “Nelson Van Asshole” in the W.C., but more to the point, his deputies think he’s embezzling money and hanging out with bootleggers. They learn their lesson in a grim fashion I sort of wish we’d been able to see Nelson learn of, if only because I think it would satisfy his sense of righteousness. Go against your superiors, and get the heck bombed out of you by an Irish militant.
And there’s also something ugly but compelling about seeing Gillian Darmody manipulate the Commodore’s heart attackstroke not just so she can ensure her financial security, but so she can achieve a more tangible retribution. “I didn’t spend my life getting groped by a bunch of drunks to end up in a goddamn poorhouse,” she lectures Eli, who is panicking after realizing the extent of the Commodore’s illness, and asserting her right to the stricken man’s financial support. “It’s normal to me, and my son, and his father. And it suited you up to this morning…Louis is unwell. He’s going to recover. You need to calm down.” But that’s not the only advantage she’s taking. She feeds the Commodore what dinner he’s able to eat, then narrates the night that he raped her, and slaps him repeatedly when he won’t answer her. Watching someone who is incapacitated get abused is horrible. But so is keeping a woman in limbo and in sexual servitude to you for years complaining that “I never liked the idea of you parading around in front of other men,” but refusing to legitimize her or your son. It’s the kind of scene that makes it seem as if true affection is impossible.
Perhaps for that reason, the most compelling interaction of the night, and one of the most moving scenes of the night, is the moment of perfect accord between Angela and Richard. The two find a mutual passion for art — though he hasn’t practiced in years, Richard says he found drawing relaxing as a child, and Angela explains, “It can be. It can also be maddening. It took me years to be able to draw hands,” before asking him to sit for her. And as he does so, they reach a perfect accord. “He loves you,” Richard tells Angela of Jimmy. “There’s love, and then there’s everything else,” Angela tells him, inspiring Richard to show her his face, which she draws as handsome, and to tell her about his sister, who cared for him after his injuries, but to whom he can no longer connect. In a world where it sometimes feels like all couples are using and testing each other, that kind of genuine connection feels almost shockingly intimate.