In the blink of an eye, fortunes change. One week you’re up, the next week you’re down. It’s strange to see a seemingly unassailable man like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) down on his luck, but that’s exactly where we find the Manhattan gangster in this episode. It’s perhaps a shock just to hear through dialogue that Rothstein’s empire is crumbling, but the writing has been on the wall for a few months now, especially as revealed in “All In,” the episode where the gambler lost his shirt in one of Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi’s) Atlantic City clubs.
"Why is it you don’t gamble?" Rothstein asks his valet Peter while at home, playing billiards in an introspective mood. “Because I don’t have the stomach for it,” the man responds. Rothstein tells a story of how he won the first time he gambled as a little boy, but now he’s not quite so sure he’s still lucky. While we don’t see exactly how it happened, we’re told that Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), Rothstein’s former partner in the heroin trade, has squeezed him out.
"The Jew, like the Libyan, must remain pliable to survive," Harlem gangster Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) says after he hears of Rothstein’s plight. Sensing an opportunity, Narcisse sets out to meet with Masseria in hopes that the connection can further the good doctor’s own burgeoning heroin trade. Hat in hand, Rothstein visits Nucky Thompson in Atlantic City. Once affectionately nicknamed "The Big Bankroll," Rothstein has now had to lower his sights; he’s noticed through his various dealings that Micky Doyle (Paul Sparks), one of Nucky’s bootlegging lieutenants, has a million-dollar life insurance policy. The beneficiary is a company under Rothstein’s control and he offers to sell it to Nucky for a cut. Nucky, who never cared for Doyle, and cares for him even less since watching him pal around with his Florida gal Sally Wheat (Patricia Arquette), is happy to oblige the ailing Rothstein. But it’s not to spite the low-level nothing that is Doyle. The Atlantic City gangster and savvy strategist knows that having his adversary Rothstein in his pocket for a favor down the road will be beneficial one day in the future. These gangsters play dirty, but they do stick by certain codes of honor and their word.
“Boardwalk Empire” hasn’t spent a ton of this season in Chicago—with the storylines of disgraced prohibition agent-turned-thug Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and gangster Al Capone (Stephen Graham). As a result, the main narrative in Atlantic City hasn’t been diluted, and the writers have given us enough to make us feel like we’re not in the dark. And arguably, this is Van Alden's (going by George Mueller) episode. The man has been torn between two warring factions for some time. Working at a flower shop (and as part-time muscle) for Northside Chicago gangster Dean O'Banion (Arron Shiver), he’s also secretly working as Capone’s eyes and ears. But the mental strain, knowing either man could kill him in an instant, is taking its toll. Worse, his wife Sigrid Mueller (Christiane Seidel) is constantly chiding him for not having enough income to fix the shoddy house that Mueller made. This all hits an anxious crescendo for Mueller as Southside boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) has finally given Capone the ok to put a hit on O’Banion. Desperately in need of money, Mueller promises Capone to kill his rival for $1,000, but the job proves difficult when Muller is sidelined by old co-workers out for blood. Capone's patience is tested and he vows to kill Mueller if the job is botched once more.
"I wasn’t asking," Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) vehemently states when Nucky says of his rival Narcisse’s fate, “you’re asking me to impose a death sentence.” Glaring across the room at each other, Chalky wants war and retribution against the negro doctor whose assassination attempt failed last episode. More importantly, Narcisse discovers that his mole, Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), not only failed him, but betrayed him. The doctor had planted her at the Onyx club with hopes of seducing his rival Chalky White. The plan worked, but Narcisse didn’t contend with Maitland falling in love with the man she was supposed to spy on and manipulate.
In anger, and as punishment, Narcisse beats her within an inch of her life, and when Chalky (who has also fallen in love with the woman despite being married) finds out, shit is about to get real. So a livid Chalky tells Nucky, as a half-courtesy, that war is coming—but Nucky, who’s been through his share of enmity and barely survived it, tries to reason with his partner. Narcisse pulls off a brazen move; showing up unannounced at Nucky’s all-white Atlantic City club and warning the gangster that Chalky White’s day is over. Chalky, in attendance and already out for blood, almost ends everything right there, but trying to allay the violent situation (especially since this melee is all out in the open), Nucky forces the conflict to subside for at least that very minute. The key moment, however, is perhaps Narcisse overhearing Nucky say to his partner, if he’s going to make war, he’s going to have to shoulder the burdens of all hostilities by himself.
Back in Chicago, Mueller comes clean to his Norwegian wife: his real name is Nelson Van Alden, he’s a former FBI man that is on the run for killing his partner and he’s killed many men. Then he throws $1,000 dollars at her feet and fucks her with the ferocity of a lion that’s just made a kill for the pride. But Mueller/Van Alden didn’t actually pull the trigger. While on take number two, he did go to the flower shop with the full intention of killing his boss, O’Banion, but the deed is actually done by an unknown group of men. Who they are and what their motives are will have to wait another week.
Bits & Pieces:
— Now why would Sally Wheat (Patricia Arquette) need to sleep with a shotgun while talking to Nucky Thompson? Is Florida that hot?
— Nucky comes to his brother to Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) for council earlier in the episode. He has to refuse Chalky’s entreaty to back him against Narcisse, right? After all, they are business partners, but they’re square and Nucky doesn’t need this kind of heat. Eli agrees, but more tellingly doesn’t reveal to Nucky that the FBI recently approached him with a do or die deal. It’s probably too late for this to go another way.
— Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt) makes her case in court to win custody of Jimmy Darmody’s orphaned son Tommy (Brady Noon). But Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), the boy’s grandmother, has finally cleaned up her act and kicked heroin. More importantly, as Julia is not married, the judge in the case warns her that custody for orphaned children generally falls to blood relatives. This puts Julia into action with a Hail Mary plan: she asks Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) to marry her, and while initially stunned, the disfigured WWI veteran would like nothing more. Whether that plan will work remains to be seen, but Tommy, Julia and Richard do make quite the cute little family.
— Meanwhile, in Gillian’s world, all does not appear to be well. Unfortunately, she doesn’t see it coming. While the layers of this mystery still need to be revealed, it appears that her knight-in-shining-armor beau—Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston), the seemingly kind and well-to-do businessman who helped her kick drugs—has some kind of backhanded sinister plan. And feeling empathy for Gillian’s plight all season, we can only hope she discovers what it is before she’s blindsided.