The point has been made, “Boardwalk Empire” can be a deliberately paced show, but on tonight's episode “Resignation,” it appears at least one of the fourth season’s key elements is in place. That would be Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), the brewing antagonist, whose striking demeanor and decisive words cut to the core of every character. Narcisse, at the very least, would make a worthy adversary for any character on this show.
Conspicuously absent from the Season 4 opener, as Terence Winter and his writing crew are likely well aware, former FBI agent Nelson Van Alden turned muscle for the Chicago Gangs under the assumed name George Mueller (Michael Shannon), is front and center this week. He’s an errand boy, but one that Northside Chi-town gangster Dean O’Banion (Arron Shiver) recognizes has a brain. Mueller delivers flowers from O’Banion’s shop, but also puts down a beating or two when the boss needs it. More importantly he’s being used to spy on O’Banion’s Chicago rival Al Capone (Stephen Graham). But Capone, despite his hot temper, is no dummy, and recognizing George, quickly turns the assignment back on his boss. Meanwhile at home, George's wife Sigrid Mueller (Christiane Seidel), is overspending at home and he isn’t sure how he’s going to make ends meet.
Killing spree completed, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) has made it back home to his sister Emma (Katherine Waterston) in Plover, Wisconsin. They deal with old family wounds literally and figuratively, even putting down the family dog with a bullet. Harrow had been hired to kill a Plover County Associate Carl Billings by his own partners, but the disfigured war veteran takes mercy on him when the man reveals he has two children. This proves to be mistake when another mystery figures kills Billings and then calls up the Harrows demanding they pay the three years of taxes that Emma is behind on.
Dimwitted hayseed FBI Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) is brighter than he looks. While he was introduced as a corrupt Prohibition Agent that met Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and bootlegger Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), it turns out he’s been working for J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) and now, supervising Government Revenue agent Frederick Elliot (Peter McRobbie), who has been in cahoots with Nucky and company, is screwed. What’s interesting about this is Knox narc-ing on Elliot is false. Yes, he’s corrupt, but Knox’s “proof” is totally fabricated. A means to an end, I guess. Meanwhile, Nucky’s already essentially confessed what he does to this undercover agent, so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out and how much of a force Hoover ends up becoming on the show.
Shot up badly last season, when Gyp Rossetti’s men tried to assassinate Nucky, his dutiful manservant assistant Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) appears for the first time this season and he’s in rough shape. Out of sorts physically from his wounds, Eddie’s not really up to snuff any longer, spilling the coffee he serves, barely able to get his boss dressed. Worse, Eddie’s feeling the sting of pride. He’s not really up for this assistant task any longer physically, but he still wants respect from Nucky who is becoming impatient with his hapless servant. Embarrassed with himself and yet still angry, Eddie serves Nucky an ultimatum: promote him or fire him. Surprisingly, at the end of the episode, Nucky shows his gratitude (Eddie essentially took bullets for him last season). He informs Eddie he’s going to Florida to check on business opportunities and leave him in charge to hold down the fort. Someone else will be filling in for his assistant duties from now on, much to the surprised, but beaming look on Eddie’s face.
The meat of the episode by far however is the introduction of the aforementioned Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Wright). A sharp, educated African-American businessman, he doesn’t mince words and is quite effective at getting under Chalky White’s skin (Michael K. Williams). In “New York Sour,” the season opener, Chalky’s lieutenant Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) made a mess of things, killing Dickey Pastor (Jeremy Bobb), a famed entertainment agent for the colored actors, who were auditioning at Chalky’s Onyx Club (Dicky’s bored wife seduced Purnsely and the twisted Pastor barged in to watch at gunpoint, but things quickly turned out the worse for him). And now it's revealed that Pastor worked for Narcisse. With his eye-for-talent agent dead, the way Narcisse see’s it, Chalky owes him a big debt. Nucky’s in the room ostensibly as a negotiating friend for Chalky, and Narcisse is happy to exploit the white man slaver/house negro metaphor that makes Atlantic City racketeer irate.
For his troubles, Narcisse, a savvy businessman, parley’s himself into a 15% cut of the Onyx club earnings much to Chalky’s outrage. But this is the cost of Purnsley’s mistake to keep the peace. Narcisse, a doctor as he reminds Nucky often, is even bold enough to bring Mrs. Pastor (Jo Armeniox), the woman Purnsley was having his illicit affair with, and the one Purnsley was trying to track down and kill to prevent that crime causing any more damage to Chalky’s establishment. Part of the deal is that she goes free, but a vague racist comment in front of Narcisse on the way home ensures she’ll never be seen again, let alone have another adulterous moment.
Bits And Pieces:
— Still absent is Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald). We do know she’ll turn up later in the season, but how or when, we don’t know.
— Stories do have to take a backseat each episode, so this week it's Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and her custody battle with Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt) over her grandson Tommy (Brady Noon). Her would-be “friend” and possible financial backer Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) is also not around.
— Two storylines that look like they’ll pop up again also take a breather: 1) Eli Thompson’s (Shea Whigham) eldest son coming to Nucky for advice (read: wanting to join the family business) and 2) The two new Capone brothers, Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire”) and Frank (Morgan Spector), introduced last episode. It feels inevitable they’re going to have a run in with Al’s Chicago mobster boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci).
— Small tease/potential spoiler: Narcisse and Chalky should come to blows, no? One man is “free,” the other works under the white man. Narcisse talks a good game and Chalky is emotional. But watch the season 4 trailer closely. Is that Narcisse and Chalky eventually on the same side now addressing Nucky? If so, there may be a two-pronged reach for the Atlantic City throne this season.