Entertainment Weekly added “Boardwalk Empire” to the lesser half of its “Fall TV Winners & Losers” section in the magazine this week, The Hollywood Reporter griped about the show at the beginning of the season, and, to be totally transparent, this writer did the same. But what’s become incredibly apparent with the 4th season of HBO’s engrossing Atlantic City-based mobsters and bootleggers drama is that, sure, while the show is typically slow to get moving, once the momentum begins to build, the carefully crafted narrative begins to tighten and all the pieces fall into place. Once this occurs, you can get as hooked as Gillian Darmody was to smack. Those without the patience to absorb the full breadth of what has revealed itself to be a terrifically played-out season are poorer for it. So full mea culpas all around.
Which brings us to “White Horse Pike,” one of the best episodes in the show’s history thus far, and with
three two more episodes to go, it’s only going to get gnarlier, nastier, and more engrossing. Where to start? Let’s try Tampa. Keeping her eyes on the prize, Sally Wheat (Patricia Arquettte) proves her worth to business associate and occasional lover Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). “That wop you’re in business with?” she says, “He’s pulling a fast one.” Sally spies Vincenzo Petrucelli (Vincenzo Amato) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) stacking heroin into Nucky’s hooch shipment to Atlantic City, and they’re not alone. In tow is Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), who had putatively dropped out of this Florida deal. Sally rings up Nucky to tell him the news: he’s being swindled by the very men he’s in business with.
Enraged, Nucky goes to his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and instructs him to get their FBI man on the inside, Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty), to help bust the shipment when it hits New York. Lansky pleads ignorance to it all, but in the morning he finds himself on his knees, a gun to his head and an empty ditch next to him for his body. Incensed Lansky had betrayed him, Nucky is about to have him buried, but the young Jewish gangster pleads for his life. He says the New York Italian boss Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi) found out about their deal by shaking down Luciano and then forced his way in for a piece of the action. Nucky spares Lansky’s life on the condition that he forces Masseria to come explain himself (and presumably to give up his share in the profits from here on in).
Meanwhile, contemporaneously, some heavy shit is going down. “I know this is difficult, but what you’re doing takes courage. You’re a good father,” Agent Knox says to Eli Thompson manipulatively. Knox has Eli’s son William Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) in a pinch, so he’s leveraging it to force Eli to squeal on his brother Nucky and his illegal bootlegging business. Eli’s complying so far, because he has no choice, but he surely doesn’t like it. And Knox makes what may prove to be a fatal miscalculation. When some intel Eli gives him turns up to be bunk, the FBI agent show up at his house posing as an insurance man. Vexed, Knox threatens Eli, reminding him he has the upper hand in this scenario, but a seething Eli is even more outraged that the FBI man has come into his home where his wife and children live. While Eli will do whatever it takes to protect his son, Knox may have crossed a line.
Working in Manhattan, Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly MacDonald) is making ends meet by working as a secretary in a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She’s also recently made the acquaintance of her estranged husband’s rival Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). She announces to a friend at work that she is hoping to move, and, like white on rice, Rothstein—who is in financial straits of late—appears, having heard the whole exchange. He can help her move alright, probably to extremely fancy quarters. In exchange, however, he’ll want whatever insider trading info she can glean from her boss. Considering she lives in a hellish Brooklyn walk-up where the drunken neighbors beat their children and wives, it doesn’t take her long to make up her mind. She nervously meets with Rothstein to set the terms of the deal. She lives rent-free for five years in one of the posh buildings he owns and in turn provides info on what her boss and company are up to. It’s a done deal.
In an episode with tons of backhanded deals and double-crosses brewing on everyone’s minds, over in Chicago something is also smelling fishy. Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is celebrating the death of his rival Dean O’Banion, who he believes was killed by one of his armed muscle George Mueller (Michael Shannon). The reality is, last episode O’Banion was killed by unknown assailants, and Mueller took the credit. While they imbibe in ignorance to what’s transpired, Capone’s boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) gets a little irked when the fledgling and now ego-inflated gangster says he has plans for the future when Torrio’s retired. There’s always been a tacit tension between the two men, Torrio thinking Capone’s a hot-headed liability, Capone believing his boss is getting old and soft. Torrio dismisses Capone’s “plans.” He’s not retiring anytime soon and basically tells him to run along and play. Before the younger man can feel completely disrespected, the brothel this Chicago gang lays its hat in is under siege. Armed gunmen cut the club down to ribbons with tommy machine guns, and Capone, Mueller and Capone’s brother Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi) are miraculously unscathed (and it’s the quick-witted Mueller—who would love to put a bullet in Capone’s head—who instinctively saves him, making their relationship all the more complex). In the wreckage, Capone wonders aloud that it’s a lucky thing that Johnny Torrio left when he did. Could Torrio have ordered the hit on his own men, trying to get ahead of a problem he knows is coming down the road? Or in further long tail planning, is the New York posse of Masseria and co. trying to proactively clean house? (After all, it was the Chicago crew who came to Nucky’s aide at the end of last season, wiping out a dozen of Masseria’s men in the process.)
What’s going on with Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and his now out in the open blood feud with Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright)? There’s too much to recap (most of the drama occurred in “The Old Ship Of Zion,” but there was also violent retribution in “Marriage & Hunting”), but suffice to say the two men who had played truce all season are now at each other's throats going in for the kill. Though warned by Nucky that he wouldn’t back him in a war, Chalky decides to go ahead anyhow, going to the North side of town and trying to put a hit on Narcisse. It’s a sloppy, mishandled affair that actually leaves Narcisse totally unharmed and Chalky with a bullet in his shoulder (if ever anger blinded one to poor planning, this is the nee plus ultra of examples).
Losing his own cool, having just almost been assassinated, Narcisse barges into the Onyx Club in Nucky’s office demanding the gangster hand over Chalky on a platter. Narcisse has the balls to come in with armed muscle and threaten Nucky, but the bootlegger is the one in possession of cool sangfroid. “Your leaving on your feet or on your back is entirely up to you,” Nucky snarls to Narcisse before kicking him out of the club. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), back in the mix after coming to Nucky hat in hand for a job last episode, patches the shot up Chalky White and Nucky comes to meet him. Where do they stand now? Well, Nucky’s been insulted and while he’s never been kosher with Chalky’s plan to make war, he now knows Narcisse is a full-on enemy. Nucky tells the debilitated Nucky to lay low while he figures out a plan. While he doesn’t say it in so many words, the message is clear: while he’s been on the fence until now as these beefs were not his concern, he’s got Chalky’s back in this.
“Whitehorse Pike,” named after a Jersey toll road that comes up later in the episode, is like an intense poker game where you think a full house is more than enough to win the hand. But in a major twist akin to a straight flush, out of nowhere Masseria shows up to the meet with Nucky and reveals that he has a partner in the heroin trade, Dr. Narcisse. Nucky, thinking he was coming in with the upper hand here, is nearly bowled over by the turn of events. Yes: they’ll cut in Nucky on the heroin trade, however there’s one non-negotiable term: Narcisse gets to put Chalky White down like a dog without the Atlantic City mobster’s interference. Nucky agrees, but quickly tries to alert Chalky to give him a head start so he can get out of town.
All seems well until William Thompson shows up, informing Nucky that he spotted the mayor meeting with Narcisse today. It’s a trap. The mayor’s police officers that are ostensibly here to escort Chalky out of town to Philadelphia for safety until things cool down are actually gun men. “This is the life you want?” Eli says to his son, perhaps suggesting what he already knows all too well. His family is in too deep here. In what is one of the most visceral, nerve-wracking and heart-stopping sequences of the series thus far, Chalky White escapes death by a fraction of a hair. The police officers miss the turn onto Whitehorse Pike, tipping their hand to something being amiss. When the gun men try to turn Chalky’s lights out, he’s ready, but the raw knuckle tussle to hang on for dear life is excruciatingly nail-biting. Chalky somehow makes it out alive with Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) in tow. Will he think that Nucky has sold him out? With two episodes in the season left, there’s countless ways this could go down, and it’s intriguingly and surprisingly much more unexpected and brutal than we could have predicted.