The first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire’s final season were sprawling and raucous, with assassination attempts, mob hits, and multiple severed ears. Last night’s episode, “What Jesus Said,” is distinctly quieter and more plaintive than its predecessors. This isn’t to say that the episode is free from carnage. Far from it. Violence—or the threat of it—hangs heavily throughout the entire hour. But the plotlines in “What Jesus Said” are all extended, intimate affairs, allowing time for the stories to breathe and the characters to contemplate their circumstances. The result is an episode that plays like a series of chamber pieces revolving around the same theme: fathers. More specifically, absent ones.
Chalky is confronted head on with his failings as a father when he and his fugitive partner Buck attempt to rob a house Buck had cased before going to jail, only to find the mother and daughter are still at home. Buck, no longer the class clown of the chain gang, still holds a grudge against the man of the house over how he treated Buck years ago. After learning there are no valuables in the house, Buck turns his plans for revenge to the daughter, Fern. Chalky senses this shift and becomes protective of Fern, who is about the same age as Chalky’s daughter Maybelle was when she was killed. When Buck finally snaps and attacks Fern, Chalky plants a hammer in the side of Buck’s neck, saving Fern in a way he didn’t save Maybelle. Consistent with the theme of the episode, we also learn that Fern and her mother were placed in this vulnerable situation by an absent father, who has split on his family.