“I wouldn’t put something alive in a box,” Nucky Thompson says to his ex-wife Margaret during their meeting in New York at the beginning of this week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, titled “The North Star.” It’s a meeting already strained by undertones of awkwardness and distance, and when Nucky speaks those words it sucks any remaining air out of the room entirely.
The writers of Boardwalk Empire trust their audience enough not to spell out exactly why Nucky’s words make Margaret flinch almost imperceptibly, but for attentive viewers it’s pretty clear: they were a painful reminder to her of Owen Sleater, the IRA goon with whom she had had a passionate love affair and whose corpse turned up in a box at the Thompson residence toward the end of last season.
There’s a world of difference between Margaret and Nucky’s newest love interest, the somewhat enigmatic and clearly unstable Sally Wheet. Sally is played by Patricia Arquette, and is certainly not made up to look glamorous and beautiful like the girls of Atlantic City. She’s a rather grizzled-looking, tough-as-nails, shotgun-wielding southern woman who orchestrates brutal alligator fights and has a uniquely aggressive approach to foreplay. She could not be less like Margaret, a woman who dressed well, hobnobbed with the upper crust, and tried very hard to convince herself she was a good and moral person despite being complicit in a whole host of immoral goings-on.
It’s no coincidence that Nucky ends up hanging around Sally down in Florida after his friend and confidante Eddie Kessler jumped to his demise and Margaret was cold to his transparent, half-hearted attempt to reconnect with her. Nucky is feeling lonely, and he’s undergoing a bit of an existential crisis.