With episode two of Boardwalk Empire, show creator Winter and his crew bring us back, once again, to the good old days of gangsterism.
After an explosive (literally) season last year, we are treated to the reminder that former man on top, Nucky, is still on shaky footing. He may be making deals and patching wounds with bags, satchels, and envelopes of cash, but, as we learned last season cash isn’t king anymore. Muscle and firepower are proving to be an important part to building any empire — especially the Boardwalk Empire. Because of this, we’re treated to a lot more of Chalky (Alfred) White and hopefully more Rothestein, New York’s young Jewish mover and shaker.
The episode offers us a number of clues to keep reminding us that we are returning to the gritty fallout from last season’s attempted coup by new face Gyp Rosetti. This episode, entitled “Resignation,” perhaps has us consider the position Chalky is put in by new character Dr. Valentin Narcisse, or maybe, it asks us to resign ourselves that this isn’t going to be an easy run for anyone and that the taste of violence and loss that was left in our mouths over the off season will once again be fresh.
“Resignation” opens in the same concise and matter-of-fact way season three began. A door, with the promise of violence behind it. In episode one of season three, (anti)hero Richard Harrow stood on the other side and blew away antagonist Manny Horovitz with a shotgun. This time we see disgraced Prohibition officer Nelson Van Alden (now known as George Mueller) behind the door, flowers outstretched instead of a shotgun. After saving O’Banion from an unexpected hit last season, Van Alden has been working for him in his flower shop seemingly delivering sympathy to some, and warnings to pay up to the unlucky others. In this sequence, he delivers flowers to two and a punch to the face of a third.
Over the off-season, it appears that Van Alden/Mueller has been picking up more duties relegated to O’Banion’s thugs and is asked by O’Banion to go to Cicero to keep an eye on Al Capone and his band of merry marauders. Capone has a thing for fixing elections the good old fashioned way — with a lead pipe and a stature complex. At the rally, Capone recognizes Van Alden but he avoids raising too much of Capone’s ire by getting in on the persuasive action and aggressively beating a few members of the rallying crowd.
Much like Richard, Van Alden is a whole lot of messed up that you can’t help but love to watch.
At Richard’s final stop in the first episode, he is greeted with a rifle at his back. We soon find out that it’s his own sister who’s got the drop on him. In “Resignation,” we’re treated to a conversation between the two in the kitchen. Emma matter-of-factly catches Richard up on what’s been going on since he left, seemingly never to return again. While the point of the conversation seems like a pragmatic summary of the last few years, we should wonder if instead Emma is foreshadowing a deeper meaning for viewers. “Orphaned in April, married in May, pregnant in August, widowed in November.” While this might serve as a cool Coles Notes version of her life while Richard was mysteriously absent, I think it better serves as a warning for us.
Richard makes a trip to town following that conversation. He meets a man and tells him that his business associate paid him $1000 to murder the man. But, after a brief and awkward encounter (as only Richard Scarrow can do), Richard has a change of heart because he learns that the man has two daughters. He leaves, this time not blowing the face off of the other man in the room, as he’s typically apt to do.
Soon after, Richard and Emma stand near their senile and ailing family dog. It’s at this point that Richard tells Emma he “doesn’t want anymore of it,” and Emma is left to put the dog out of its misery. As Richard walks away, shots ring out. With this bold affirmation, we’re left wondering if his killing spree that stared last season is over and if he’ll finally stay home. Emma’s warning of what goes around comes around rings in the ears as in the final scene Richard receives a call from what claims to be the tax office calling about unpaid land claims, but who we see is sitting in the office of the man Richard failed to kill earlier. We don’t know who this man is yet, but we’re bound to find out.
What Nucky lacks in power at this point he will soon make up for with his keen sense of intuition. Soon after meeting young Agent Knox — the new head of the local prohibition squad and supposed informant for Nucky’s operation — he can tell that something is fishy with this kid. In episode one, we saw him nonchalantly stand by as his partner lay dying. But, a professional contact of Nucky’s tells him that Knox is a hay-seed of the purest variety and this estimation is confirmed when in a later scene J. Edgar Hoover (yah, that one! new character!) brings down Fred Elliot of the government revenue agency with the undercover help of Knox.
We do get a glimpse though that Nucky still has some power as he meets with the Mayor at the scene of a sod turning and ensures that the Mayor knows that he will be expecting a cut on the brand new development.
In episode one of this season, “New York Sour,” we’re introduced to Chalky’s new endeavour, The Onyx hotel and club, as the meeting place for Nucky to pay off the muscle from last season’s showdown.
The Onyx has so far acted as a visual representation of some interesting considerations of the race relations in the show and of the time period. While everyone in the club is white, Chalky is clearly at the helm. This is a far cry from last season when the only “coloured clubs” were in North Atlantic City and Nucky controlled the pier.
The building is full of black staff and entertainers. But (and yes, it’s a big but), as a patron rubs Chalky’s head for good luck, we see through the veil the novelty and fetishization that’s teeming just underneath the service.
When we meet Dr. Valentin Narcisse, he figuratively rips a hole in the veil just large enough for Chalky to see through. Acting to negotiate on behalf of a white woman — the wife of a now dead talent agent from episode one, he waits in the upper office, overlooking the club floor and seeing the patron rub Chalky’s head. He tells Chalky (as much as he tells us), “You know what I saw? A servant, pretending to be a King.” The woman falsely claims that she was raped and her husband murdered by Chalky’s right hand man Dunn. In reality, (and, episode one), Dunn was held at gunpoint in the center of a fetishistic sexual game of Mrs. Pastor and her husband, after luring Dunn with a crudely drawn cartoon of her and Dunn having sex. Being held at gunpoint, Dunn brutally smashes and then stabs Mr. Pastor to death while Mrs. Pastor jumps out the open window.
Nucky acts as a mediator between Chalky and Dr. Narcisse and Chalky is resigned to giving him 10% of the club earnings as reparations for the murder of Mr. Pastor.
Later, as Narcisse and Mrs. Pastor are driving home, he asks what should be done about Dunn and she suggested a lynching. In what will no doubt be the “set the tone” scene of the season, Dr. Valentin has the car pulled over and tells the woman that “a thing mixed is a thing weakened.” Clearly against “miscegenation” and her suggestion that Dunn by lynched, Dr. Narcisse looks on with disinterest as his drivers carry out her murder.
The next morning, the Mayor and the media stand around her body, found right beside a brightly painted and optimistic sign of “the Future” from the recent sod turning. With that not-so-subtle return to violence and the more subtle cues of the sign, Emma’s warning and the title of episode one, “New York Sour,” it seems we’ll be treated to more of the same as history repeats itself in season four.