Previously on Boardwalk Empire: Hoo boy. Well, Chalky got into a tangle with Valentin Narcisse which wound up with Chalky on the lam and his daughter accidentally getting shot to death by Richard Harrow, who died shortly after, making new bride Julia a widow. Margaret started a new life in New York, working for some sort of scam, by the sound of it, and crossing paths with Rothstein. Eli was blackmailed into helping out a creepy federal agent, and then had to go on the run after killing the guy, and Nucky explored new business opportunities in Florida.
I have to confess, I actually wasn’t planning on recapping Boardwalk anymore after last season. It’s not that the season was really bad it’s just…I dunno, I didn’t really love it. Watching every episode was starting to feel like a chore, and once they killed off Harrow I felt like I was just done. I didn’t really care about anyone anymore. But then they announced this was going to be the final season, and I figured I might as well stick it out to the end. So, here we are.
We open on a woman reciting ‘Be Honest and True’ as money tumbles, glinting, through water, soon followed by a bunch of boys, diving after it. One kid keeps juuust missing out on a coin, and finally, he has to return to the surface.
Once there, we see a huge crowd of people so rich they can literally throw money away gathered on the pier, surrounding the governor (Leon Abbett, for those trivia fans out there). It’s 1884. The governor officially declares the summer season begun and everyone prepares to go start drinking. But first, the gov throws one more coin, and that one unlucky kid misses yet again.
In the present, Nucky watches some kids playing in the ocean. But it’s not AC, he’s in Havana, and it’s now 1931. Holy timewarp, Batman! That’s a huge chunk of time to skip over on a show like this. He’s joined by Sally, so apparently that’s still a thing, and together they go inside, where every last thing just screams CUBA! A mariachi band in ruffly shirts, drinks being shaken in time to the music, there’s even a conga line later (though it’s not led by Joan Holloway, so it’s kinda lame).
Nucky and Sally start dancing and he admits he hates all this and wonders where the guy they’re meeting is. Sally’s laid back about it. Nucky’s just a bit tense because he’s got a big deal on the table and he doesn’t want any hitches. The man they’re waiting for is spotted off to the side and Nucky goes over and welcomes him to Havana.
From that sun-drenched paradise, we cut immediately to Chalky, dressed in prison stripes, riding in a truck with the rest of the chain gang, including one obnoxious guy who sings and taunts him a little, because he has no idea what happened to Dunn Purnsley when he did just that a few seasons ago. The truck stops and everyone save Chalky gets off. A guard tells him to get a move on and Chalky descends, stopping to tie his shoe. The guard kicks him and tells him to keep moving. Chalky gets his ‘I’ll be killin’ you later’ look on for just a second before limping off after the others.
Back in Havana, Nucky and Sally are sitting down to do business with a senator. They chat about the utter stupidity of the Volstead Act, the possibility of its repeal, and how it’s going to cost the president the next election (he ran with the drys and has to toe the party line, it seems). With the whole country very much in need of a drink, it’s only a matter of time before liquor gets legal again. The senator points out that Nucky’s hands aren’t the cleanest, and Nucky reminds him that he’s never been tried or convicted of anything, except for something super minor back when he was a kid. Sally distracts the senator by bringing over a date she’s hired for him for the evening. Nucky nods his approval.
In New York, we watch some guy jackhammering the street for a few seconds before moving into that bank/scam place where Margaret works. Her boss has gathered everyone together so he can tell them how he went to see a movie the night before, and before the movie was a short with Mickey Mouse that found Mickey stranded on a deserted island. But did Mickey let that get him down? Oh no! He persevered and got off the island, and everything was fine! Just like everything’s going to be fine for them! And then the guy pulls out a gun and blows his brains out. Right.
Flash back to 1884. That unlucky kid—oh, hell, it’s Nucky, let’s just get that out of the way—approaches his home and is intercepted by Little Eli, who asks him to fix a slingshot. Lil Nucky does before they head inside. Their mother’s tending their bedridden little sister. Once she’s done, she asks Nucky to provide her with some wish fulfilment by detailing what the rich ladies were wearing. Their father returns home, casting an even greater pall over the place than there already was, which is really saying something. As they sit down to eat, dad asks Nucky what he managed to catch at the pier that day. Nucky admits he wasn’t quick enough, so dad sends Eli away so he can physically and emotionally abuse his firstborn. He tells Nucky about how it took his mother three days to give birth to him (lady, I feel your pain). Stroking Nucky’s face, he remembers coming home and finally finding a son there. And then he punches his kid in the face and reminds him he’s the son of a fisherman. And he should get up and finish his lunch. Nucky does, with an automation that depressingly indicates this is a regular occurrence.
Cuba. Nucky and Sally discuss business. Nucky’s sure Roosevelt is going to get the nomination and Volstead will be repealed, and he wants everything ready to roll on his new venture the day that happens. Seems Nucky wants to go legit. Their morning coffee is interrupted by a protest, and when Nucky goes to check it out, he’s surprised to run into Meyer, who claims he’s there on vacation with the wife. Also, he’s now married and has a son, which he says makes a man concentrate on the future. That’s kind of an ouch to a man who lost his only son. There’s some idle chat about Rothstein’s funeral (he died in 1928, which makes me sad, because I actually liked him on this show) and totally fake ‘we should get together sometime’ before they part. He’s replaced by the Senator, who’s late again, but this time it’s because he’s dealing with a raging el presidente/night of professional sexing hangover.
1884. Nucky and the other local urchins hide out in the tall grass near the road, and when a cart full of tourists goes by and a breeze takes off the men’s boaters, the kids dash to pick them all up, accepting coins as a reward. Clever. Nucky, again, comes up emptyhanded. One guy in a brown suit asks where his hat is and Nucky, not too quick on the uptake, tells the man he doesn’t have it. The guy urges him to go look, and Nucky does a really cursory job of it. The guy offers him a couple of pieces of candy and gets back on the cart. As it moves off, Nucky finds the hat with a $50 bill stuffed inside. Woah. That was a hell of a lot of money in 1884.
Chalky and the other convicts slave away in the thick mud. Chalky asks for some water and the guard calls for the bucket. He then asks Dunn 2.0 (whose name is Milton) how he got a ‘dent’ in his head and the guy goes on into a colourful story that I think basically boils down to ‘courtesy of my daddy.’ The bucket reaches Chalky, but it’s empty. The guard doesn’t care. Because having your labour drop from dehydration is a great way to get the day’s work done.
1884. Late at night, Nucky goes to see and tend to his sister, who asks him if he ate oysters, because she could just imagine him doing so, along with all the ‘swells’. He tells her those people aren’t so special, they just have money, and the way to get that is to be the first person to get to something. He gives her one of the pieces of candy Brown Suit gave him earlier and she says she likes it.
Back in his own bed, Nucky retrieves the hat and looks at the $50 bill.
Brooklyn. Lucky shows up at his usual restaurant for a meeting with Masseria. It’s been cleared for the occasion.
Margaret’s boss’s name is being chiselled off his door. I’d accuse the company of being rather callous so soon after the man’s death, but they are, at least, providing work for someone during the Depression, so…wash. Peggy is called into the office of the big boss, who asks her, a little coldly, how she’s doing. Highly traumatised is probably the honest answer, but she makes the right noises about being shocked and saddened. Apparently she was the dead man’s secretary. The big boss non sequitors that, no matter what the economy’s doing, you can always make money somehow as long as you don’t get turned around. Clearly, he’s not at all listening to what she’s saying and is just thinking out loud. He confirms that Margaret’s not married and tells her she should go out and find herself a husband. She takes that as a hint that she’s about to lose her job. He neither confirms nor denies but asks if she has the key to the dead man’s filing cabinet. She does not. He orders her to call a locksmith and then asks if he asked how she’s doing. She says yes. ‘Good,’ he sighs. Man, people in upper management on these prestige shows tend to be so strange.
The chain gang’s taking a break and Milton starts chattering on and on to Chalky, who says nothing, just concentrates on tying his shoe. Milton asks what he’s in for and Chalky says he got caught. My guess is that’s everyone’s response to that question. Sort of like how everyone in Shawshank’s innocent. Chalky’s lace breaks and he looks like he’s about to try and blow someone’s head up with his mind, he’s so pissed off, and just to ice that particular cake the jerk guard comes over and starts taunting him. And right on cue, another prisoner loses his mind and sinks a pickaxe in a guard’s chest, getting shot in response by another guard. See, the guards here are learning the same lesson the police in Ferguson learned not too long ago: you act like complete assholes towards one particular group of people just because you like to feel you have a little bit of power over them, and eventually, they’re going to get seriously angry and man, years of pent-up rage can be ugly when it’s unleashed. But unlike the Ferguson police, these guys don’t have an arsenal of military weapons to treat like their toys, so they are quickly overpowered. Chalky gets to blow the head off that guard who’s been bothering him all day before stealing the guy’s keys. Prisoners flee through the woods as fast as their chained-together legs can go. Chalky is eventually brought down by Milton, who pulls a pistol, who bizarrely asks if Chalky’s ever talked on a telephone. He has. Milton says other things, but I have to be honest, I can’t really understand what this guy is saying. Maybe it’s my sound system or his accent or whatever, I have no idea. Really sorry about that. Anyway, whatever it is he mumbles, it convinces Chalky to unlock both of their leg irons so they can run off through the woods together.
Nucky and Sally sit down with the guy who makes Bacardi Rum to hopefully work out a deal to exclusively distribute Bacardi in the States once Prohibition is repealed. The senator’s on hand to be prompted to agree that Volstead’s on its way out, and Nucky comes in to say that he’s got an entire distribution network in place already, just waiting for that sweet, sweet rum to start running through it.
In drab New York (they’re really loving juxtaposing sunny Cuba with overcast everywhere else this episode), the workers at the bank clear out at the end of the day. Once on her own, Margaret opens that locked cabinet and goes for Rothstein’s file, but then the big boss comes back for something and she hurriedly slams the drawer and tells him she found the key after all.
Masseria and Lucky are having their sit down. Masseria talks about how he had to work his way up while Lucky looks bored. Another boss is causing problems, and Lucky offers to take care of it. Masseria asks what he wants in return for that, and, as the phone begins to ring, Lucky reminds him he’s been loyal. Masseria seems unsure, so Lucky excuses himself to go to the restroom, and Masseria lets him, because The Godfather hasn’t come out yet and taught everyone that when a mobster goes to the bathroom, bad things happen to those left at the table. Sure enough, two guys come in just as Lucky’s going into the bathroom and we hear a hail of gunfire back out in the restaurant. Lucky emerges and bitchily asks the guys what took them so long. Traffic. Apparently, NYC traffic was hell even back in 1931. Lucky looks dispassionately down at Masseria’s oozy body and says the fight is over.
1884. Nucky takes the hat, wrapped in a cloth, to one of the shorefront hotels and sees Brown Suit sitting on the porch. Nucky listens to him and some other guy (who will turn out to be the Commodore) talk about running a rail line to AC, but then he’s caught by the sheriff and yelled at for hanging around. Nucky unveils the hat and hands it back to Brown Suit who shows the other men the bill inside. He hands it to Nucky as a reward, but Nucky tells him it’s too much. The Commodore asks why Nucky didn’t take the money and Nucky answers he left it to get himself ahead. They send Nucky on his way.
Cuba. Nucky and his party arrive back at the hotel after their day in Bacardiland. The Senator asks Nucky for a word and angrily says he’s not here to be Nucky’s whipping boy, and he doesn’t want to get bitten in the ass. Nucky is unconcerned, as always. Some kid who was trying to sell Nucky something earlier is at the stall where the two men are buying cigarettes, and Nucky, clearly feeling nostalgic, goes ahead and buys all that the kid is selling. Which ends up paying off unexpectedly when the kid warns him that some guy wielding a machete is coming up right behind him. Nucky manages to dodge the first blow and runs, but he and the guy end up in a hand-to-hand tussle. Nucky goes for the man’s eyes (someone’s watched Game of Thrones!) but the assassin pushes him away and is just about to deliver the death blow when Nucky’s bodyguard, who’s hovered in the background for most of the episode, finally shows up to do his job. He wrestles the machete away from the guy, buries it in his skull (that was some unfortunate timing, HBO), and then cuts off the man’s ear, wrapping it neatly in a handkerchief as a souvenir while onlookers scream and run and Nucky just looks bewildered and kind of grossed out. Sally just looks grossed out, and then comes running over to check to see if Nucky’s ok.
The sound of applause takes us into the next scene, in the Bronx. Two fat little boys walk through an applauding crowd, carrying plates of money, which they set down in front of a man at the head table. I guess this is that other boss who was moving in on Masseria’s territory. He gets up and gives a speech which ends with him promising to make everyone in the room rich, so naturally that goes over well. He announces that their new friend is there and that they owe him a great deal. It’s Lucky, of course. He comes forward, stashing his hat along the way, and kneels before the new boss. The boss produces a knife and Lucky uses it to slit his hand before passing it along to the next guy, who does the same. The two men shake bloody hands. The ritual continues with all the other men, so now they can all have each other’s hepatitis.
Sally and Nucky are at the police station, where the chief (I suppose) is ranting while Sally translates. Nucky just wants to get past this and asks how much it’ll cost to keep it quiet. $200. He agrees.
1884. The boys make a beeline for a horse-drawn omnibus and help the ladies down and carry their luggage for tips. Again, Nucky misses out, but this time he just gets pissed off and launches himself on one of the other boys and starts beating him up, yelling how it isn’t fair. Nucky, you were right there this time. Assert yourself! The sheriff breaks it up and hauls Nucky up to the hotel, where the Commodore waits. He asks Nucky who his dad is and guesses he thought he was being clever earlier, with the hat thing, thinking he’d get something for being honest. But then he got nothing. He pauses, and then tells Nucky that everything goes through him. He offers the kid $1 to sweep the sand off the porch and Nucky immediately gets started. And that’s how Nucky Thompson got his start on the boardwalk.
In Cuba, it’s finally raining. Sally and Nucky hover by a bar and wonder what the deal is with the bodyguard and the ear. Nucky doesn’t want Mr Bacardi hearing about this but Sally tells him it might be impossible to keep quiet. He invites her up to his room, saying that it’s no night to be alone, but she informs him that she’s not alone at all. He looks a bit sad. Ahh, so I guess their liaison has come to an end and they’re just friends or friends with benefits now. She heads off and Nucky watches some woman across the bar light a cigarette. He recognises her as the woman Meyer was with earlier and guesses she’s the Missus, but she clearly isn’t, since she’s Cuban. She’s a prostitute. No surprise there.
1884. Nucky gives the dollar to his mother, who pats his cheek and puts it away. He then looks on as his dad sits by his sister’s bed. Dad sees him standing there and closes the door. Later, in bed, Nucky reads an old magazine his mother found earlier called Golden Days for Boys and Girls.
Not a bad beginning, though I’m a bit wary of these flashbacks (which apparently will be following us around all through the season). Late-term flashbacks of the ‘what made the main character what he is today’ don’t tend to go over too well. Mostly they feel like unnecessary rehash of information we already have (see: the life and times of Dick Whitman on Mad Men). The fact that they’re actually shot in sepia tone, as if the people involved in making this show think the audience is too stupid to be able to tell when we’re back in the 1880s annoys the hell out of me. We’re not morons, Boardwalk folk! I didn’t miss Van Alden or any of the Chicago gang (they’ll be back next week), and I’m curious to know what landed Chalky in jail and where some of our other players stand these days. What of Eli? And—dare I say it—is Mickey Doyle still around? (Of course he is, people like that are like cockroaches, you can never seem to get rid of ‘em). Overall, though, not a bad start. We’ve only got eight episodes to wrap this thing up, so I’m expecting things to heat up fast!