While recent episodes have been pushing the themes of a changing of the guard, this episode had us remembering just who controls the empire. Like a line in the episode’s namesake suggests,“Waves were rough but that old ship kept sailing.” There might be a new generation of gangsters and men of the badge waiting in the wings, but isn’t this the same theme we’ve been exploring since season one with Jimmy? That’s because while it’s always a risk, Nucky stays on top. And that’s because Nucky knows how to stay on top.
The episode is really about making sure your house is in order. Those who know who comes and who goes know best.
The door of a stately house is the first thing we see. Chalky’s henchman and new pet to Dr. Narcisse confidently strides up the stairs with a satchel, like a doctor making house calls. Once let inside, we see that the doctor is in for the half dozen heroin junkies lying around the dimly lit den. Purnsley gives the man operating the den his weekly dosage for the patients but tells him to cut it four times if two isn’t enough to make the delivery last. As a last piece of Narcisse business, he hands the man a playbill to Narcisses’ theatrical writing and directorial debut.
On the other side of Atlantic City, an unmotivated Willy is staying with his uncle Nucky in dearly departed Eddie’s apartment, along with his surviving finches. I think the finches represent Willy’s youth, just as they represented Eddie’s two sons, back when Eddie was still important (RIP, buddy). Stuck having to deal with the fallout from Willy and Eli’s fight, he suggests Willy mend fences, but Willy is unwilling to face reality just yet.
The tension is high between Eli and Nucky at the warehouse while they await his first shipment of rum from mr. Petrucelli, part of the deal he made while in Florida. But rather than a shipment of rum hidden in some Florida oranges, Nucky is greeted by a sour Sally Wheet. And, despite his best efforts to feign happiness at the unexpected visit, he’s unable to convince her to stay with him.
Later at the Onyx, after a brief chat with Chalky wherein Nucky says to him, “I need to know your house is in order,” he finds Sally flirting with Mickey Doyle at the bar. Sally, still sour about the chilly reception at the warehouse, makes a passive aggressive comment about how Nucky must have felt like he was slumming it in Florida. Nucky, who we all know is basically unable to be outdone replies, tells her that people have different (higher) expectations (standards) in Atlantic City. With that comment, Sally is about to leave with Mickey, but she changes her mind when Nucky acts out by hitting Mickey hard in the head with Eddie’s cane, which he’s been carrying around. These two really love a little violence mixed in with their arousal.
Chalky, through a brief moment of clarity, takes a step back to look at the situation. After Nucky’s remark, he’s starting to see that things are not quite right. During the Deacon’s funeral, Chalky watches Daughter while she sings a moving rendition of “The Ship of Zion” while everyone else watches him. That cleft of suspicion that Narcisse has put in Chalky’s people has spread apart further.
Acting on his gut, he picks up Purnsley (sitting in the very throne that Purnsley sat in when Gillian found him for heroin a few episodes ago), and they go cause some trouble in the heroin den. To save his ass, Purnsley shoots the den operator, an act that confirms Chalky’s own suspicions. With Purnsley in tow, they interrupt Narcisses’ play. In a dramatic act of his own, Chalky publicly accuses Narcisse of spreading the disease by burning two packets of heroin in an act he calls “Harlem by Torch Light.”
Sensing he has to act quickly, Narcisse goes to Daughter and tells her that she must keep Chalky in her chamber for as long as possible because someone else is coming. That someone else is Purnsley. The two do the dance of false pleasantries and eventually wrestle and brawl on the ground. In the dying moments of Chalky, Daughter saves the day (and his life) by plunging a butcher knife into Purnsley’s back. She’s not going to let someone choke the life out of someone else she loves.
Agent Hayseed (or is it Knox…or, Tolliver? Let’s stick with Hayseed) has spent the better part of the episode relentlessly working the angle on the case that he knows has legs. He once again explains the reach and how important it is that the men in that boardroom make connections with people in Nucky’s inner-circle. (Ever notice how every time they are in this room, Hayseed does the “New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Florida” song and dance? I can’t figure out the reason just yet but I feel like there’s something there.) Eventually, one of the men gives Hayseed the piece of intel he was waiting for, leading to Hayseed sliding three packs of cigarettes across a stainless steel table in exchange for information from Willie’s wrongly implicated former roommate, Clayton.
Hayseed and his partner corner Eli in a diner booth and blackmail him by offering Willy’s freedom in exchange for Nucky’s. Now, we know that that Eli resents Nucky for his life, his fortune, and for taking Willy in, but will he betray him again? Or, will he use this opportunity to put the family back on top? Eli was the person who identified the mismatched monogram on Hayseed’s handkerchief, so maybe he’s on to something smarter than blackmail from a kid.
After the encounter, Eli walks through the door of his house to a warm and happy room full of his children, including Willy. Willy apologizes and asks to be let back into the house. As Nucky walks out, he comforts Eli by telling him, “See? I told you it would all work out,” and he answers, calling him brother. So, did Eli sell him out, or does he merely see this as a bargaining chip for more power?
As the credits roll, we hear a continuation of the song sung by Willy and the family: “Does the Spearmint lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?” We can’t help but wonder if it does. Even though Nucky’s house is back to being his own, Chalky’s house is unscathed and Eli’s house is back in order, can the Spearmint keep its flavor?