It’s taken nearly five seasons, but we’re finally close to answering the crucial question of Boardwalk Empire: Why is Nucky Thompson such a wet blanket? I mean, for a guy at the epicenter of the Roaring Twenties with wealth and power, he’s always a bit glum, isn’t he? Take last night’s episode, “Devil You Know.” Nucky’s having a good ole drunken time at a local dive with a couple of bawdy prostitutes, reciting poetry and talking dirty, until his existential side eventually wins out and he begins lecturing them. “Start at the bottom with nothing, you have nothing. There’s an opportunity, you take it. I mean what choice do you have. You don’t have a choice. Get yourself ahead. For what, though? For what? No one ever talks about that. No one ever asks, what’s the point?”
Come on, Nuck. Why do you have to be such a buzzkill? Besides, Joe Kennedy had asked that exact question a couple of episodes ago. Don’t you remember? Apparently, you do, because it’s still nagging at you. And after the events in last night’s episode, I’d say that not only has it been nagging at you for years, but it also explains your perpetual melancholy.
This lack of purpose wasn’t always the case for Nucky. In the flashbacks, we see a more focused Deputy Thompson. Despite feeling passed over by the Commodore, Nucky remains undeterred, telling Mabel that he will find a way to make it for her and their unborn child. Unfortunately, last night’s episode also foreshadows the heartbreaking way in which Nucky will advance up the Commodore’s corporate ladder. After witnessing the Commodore’s sexual proclivity for girls earlier in the episode, Nucky apprehends a young Gillian for petty thievery. We don’t have to connect too many dots to figure out that the flashbacks will culminate in Nucky handing over Gillian to the Commodore, an act that will affect Nucky (not to mention Gillian) for years to come.
“Devil You Know,” though, will ultimately be remembered as the final episode for both Chalky and Van Alden. Unlike Nucky, who remains lost, Chalky finds a new sense of purpose in the short time he has left on earth. Intent on killing Narcisse, Chalky has a dramatic change of heart after learning that Daughter’s child is his and that Narcisse has blackballed Daughter from pursuing her singing career, even in the lowest “honky tonk and barrel house.” In order to free Daughter, Chalky agrees to work for Narcisse, though he knows making this deal is signing his own death certificate. Narcisse, right before slaughtering Chalky, implies he might not hold up his end of the bargain with regard to Daughter, but this double-cross isn’t as important to Chalky as Narcisse thinks. Chalky was already on a suicide mission—there was no way he was getting out of Narcisse’s house alive—but at least he now dies in the hope that his death will do some good. At the very least, it allowed Daughter to walk out of the house alive. Much as Nucky tells Joe Harper to take his money “because it’s helping me,” Chalky takes Narcisse’s deal as much for himself, to feel selfless one last time, as he does for Daughter.
Van Alden and Eli undertake a suicide mission of their own trying to steal Capone’s ledgers for D’Angelo. When their half-baked plan predictably goes awry, Van Alden snaps, conjuring his early persona. Spewing Old Testament verses while choking out Capone, D’Angleo shoots him before Van Alden blows his cover. Unlike Chalky, who believes he died for a greater good, Van Alden is not given this grace. A shame given that his confession results in D’Angelo being given the ledgers by Capone as a show of trust for killing Van Alden. Not needing Eli anymore, D’Angelo cuts him loose, giving him money for a bus ticket out of town. Though we don’t know Eli’s final destination, it’s not much of stretch to think we’ll find him back in Atlantic City to help in the upcoming war with New York.
Just as Van Alden and Chalky die in suicide missions, it appears that Nucky, in his war with Luciano, might be engaged in one as well. While Chalky and Van Alden were driven by guilt over their past sins, it’s been unclear what has been driving Nucky’s death instinct. “Devil You Know” goes a long way in answering that question. When Nucky wakes up delirious from the beating he takes from the prostitutes, he mistakes Joe Harper for Gillian and asks, in a clear allusion to his complicity in turning Gillian over to the Commodore, “You stupid fucking child. Why would you trust me?” It’s always been hard to conjure sympathy for Gillian given her own transgressions. But with these flashbacks, as well as the ominous promise of her psychiatrist to root out the insanity inside her, Gillian’s life has taken on a tragic air. Given that it was Nucky who set her on this path, it seems likely he will pay for this sin in the two remaining episodes.
Maybe Nucky has had a good reason for being such a wet blanket all along.
Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970's San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at The Rogue Reader.
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