Boardwalk Empire Review: “The North Star” (Season 4, Episode 6)

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Back home, Nucky’s brother Eli is having an existential crisis of his own. He sees something of himself in the plight of the birds Kessler left behind. The birds also happen to be harboring a secret: the key to Kessler’s safe-deposit box at the bank, which contains something he and Nucky would very much like to have back.

Eli encounters some difficulty in accessing the safe-deposit box and enlists the aid of Agent Knox, who has an agenda of his own. Knox is certainly the most interesting new character introduced this season. The level of menace he brings to the table is not far off from that of former agent Van Alden’s, and he seems to fill the same role Van Alden used to play by providing a looming threat to Nucky’s empire. He may have made his first slip, though, in the handkerchief he hands to Eli toward the end of the episode. Eli catches something when he sees the initials on the handkerchief: JTM. There’s a look of recognition on his face, and no doubt that will lead to some important developments in future episodes.

Meanwhile, in what has been this season’s most meandering subplot so far, Chalky is feeling more and more marginalized. Whereas in previous seasons Chalky was the symbol of black power in Boardwalk Empire’s world, working to make himself an equal partner with Nucky, he has been entirely undercut this season by the arrival of Dr. Narcisse, whose refusal to be subservient to any white person puts Chalky’s various compromises in stark relief. His frustration spills over into his home life, and in a move that is sure to come back to haunt him, he ends up “fraternizing with the help” in a way that surely must violate a number of The Onyx’s H.R. policies.

Elsewhere, Richard Harrow’s reunion with little Tommy Darmody provides the episode with its title as Tommy uses a telescope to get a beautiful view of the night sky. Richard’s attempts to run away from his past have failed, and the North Star reference raises the question: in which direction is he going now? Harrow’s sabbatical out on the farm did not exactly make for riveting television, so let’s hope that his return to Atlantic City means his story won’t continue to get lost in the shuffle.

There was a lot to take in with this episode, as there is with any episode of Boardwalk Empire. It didn’t quite pack the action of last week, but it’s a general rule of thumb that any episode with Al Capone in it is automatically going to have more violence in it, and this episode was sorely missing his unique people skills.

This is one of the problems with the show: some subplots work better than others, and with so many to keep track of, it can be disappointing when one of them is just starting to pick up steam and then loses that steam when it is skipped during the next episode in order to focus on other subplots. There are few other shows out there as ambitious in scope (Game of Thrones comes to mind), and while there are pluses to that ambition there are also some definite minuses if it isn’t occasionally kept in check.

Thankfully, the overall plot was advanced in “The North Star,” even if it was only in bits and pieces. Boardwalk Empire can be frustrating in just how long it takes to get anywhere, and while this episode was not exactly fast-paced, it did provide some memorable moments. If nothing else, it’s worth watching just for Sally saying “Let’s do this, Sparky. I’ll give you something to cry about,” which was probably one of the most laugh-out-loud moments of the series to date. The show could stand to incorporate a bit more of that kind of levity.

The episode also offered something else that has been sorely needed: an emotional underpinning to Nucky. Even though his character is the lynchpin of the show, much of the time he seems to be going through the motions as he drifts from one plot point to the next. If his increasing sense of loss can lead to some real character development, the show will be all the better for it.

Tell us, what did you think of this week’s episode? Let us know in the comments below.

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