We’re getting pretty close to the end of this season of Boardwalk Empire and, true to form, things are really starting to heat up. Everything that has been slowly building over the course of the season is now coming to a head: Nucky’s business dealings in Florida, Chalky’s feud with Dr. Narcisse, the fallout from Willie Thompson’s brief stint at college, and the team up between Capone and Van Alden in Chicago. The only subplot that wasn’t touched this episode was Gillian Darmody’s, and let’s be frank: it was not missed.
In fact, if you look at the quality of this season from episode to episode, it is generally the Gillian-free episodes that have been the strongest. That’s not to say that nothing interesting will happen with her subplot, but it sure hasn’t happened yet. She is not a sympathetic character, despite the show’s attempts to make her more sympathetic this season, and when she’s not engaged in nasty plotting and scheming she’s not a particularly interesting character, either. That’s why episodes like “White Horse Pike” seem all the stronger for her exclusion.
But enough about what this episode isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. It’s the point in the season when all the various, seemingly disconnected subplots start to coalesce into one, and they do so in ways that are often surprising. Sally Wheet’s discovery down in Florida that her shipments of rum up to Nucky were also hiding a little something extra lead to a confrontation at the titular White Horse Pike between Nucky’s New Jersey crew and Masseria’s New York crew.
This in turn leads to the revelation that Dr. Narcisse is in cahoots with Masseria, which eventually leads to another confrontation at White Horse Pike, this time between Chalky White and his would-be killers, who were dispatched to do the job by Narcisse’s other newfound collaborator, Mayor Bader. The meaning of this convergence of the Florida subplot and the Narcisse subplot at the same geographical location is clear: Nucky’s fate and Chalky’s fate are inextricably linked, no matter how much Nucky has tried to pretend otherwise until now.
The subplot concerning Agent Knox/Tolliver and Willie Thompson comes into the mix, too, as Tolliver is present for the first clash at White Horse Pike, and he certainly makes his presence there felt. His presence also looms large over Eli Thompson, whose house he shows up at when he feels that Eli is being somewhat less than forthcoming with his insider information. Whereas just a couple scenes earlier Tolliver is playing the part of good cop, telling Eli encouragingly, “You’re a good father,” his appearance at the Thompson residence is a return to his bad cop persona, which is a whole lot more convincing. “You should thank your father,” he tells Willie. “He knows that in an instant, tragedy can strike and everything a man’s worked for, everything he loves, everything he holds dear can be gone.” Not exactly subtle.
A little more subtle is the shot that closes out the scene, wherein the spilled coffee spreads across the tablecloth much like the corruption of Tolliver’s presence spreads throughout Eli’s life, now darkening the very place that he lives. It’s the kind of wordless shot, pregnant with meaning, that the show has used to great effect on numerous occasions now.
Similarly, the corruption of Margaret Thompson’s former life with Nucky continues to spread through her new home in New York as she becomes entangled in the affairs of one down-on-his-luck Arnold Rothstein. Margaret isn’t doing anything too unethical, more like evening the playing field between two swindlers who are trying to out-swindle each other, but she appears to have forgotten the lesson she should have learned from her past mistakes: that once you’re in bed with people like Nucky Thompson and Arnold Rothstein (whether literally or figuratively) it’s hard to get back out.
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