Another day, another chess piece episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” a writing epidemic/phenomenon endemic to long form television of late and arguably one that affected last night’s penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad” as well. A bridge building type of narrative, the worst example of “chess piece” writing is an episode wherein almost nothing really happens (all moves are lateral and almost never forward) and instead the seeds are sown for action down the road. Sure, something always happens, but the worst offenders are overt about the fact that every dramatic event that took place is simply in service for a bigger narrative beat down line—episodes turn into a long lead ramp to the main event which renders middle episodes a type of slow-moving stasis.
For better or worse, chess piece writing is the cornerstone of “Boardwalk Empire,” and perhaps the reason the fourth season opener was met with mediocre ratings (maybe also why the show’s terrific actors are admired more than anything else). In last night’s “Acres of Diamonds,” lots of little kernels were dropped—Nucky’s (Steve Bucemi) new-found business ventures into Florida that already ring ill-conceived, Eli’s (Shea Whigham) college-student son getting his lips wet for the illegal booze trade and the friction between Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright).
Florida in particular is a long tail game that was largely inert and in service of plans that will likely go awry later on. On the advice of a friend and business associate, Nucky travels to the Sunshine State for some would-be business opportunities—opportunities that the savvy minded Atlantic City bootlegging kingpin can smell as bunk a mile away. Evidently, Nucky’s friend is in Dutch with another business partner, a ruthless hayseed, and so the ruse was: getting Nucky to commit and all past loans and transgressions are forgotten. Nucky being too smart for all this gums up the works, but having a soft spot for a local bartender Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), he decides, somewhat inexplicably minus the minor affections for the girl, to join forces with the duo selling junky swamp land. But Nucky may soon be in knee deep as his partners have turned on each other and one of them now has a machete implanted in their forehead.
There’s barely anything subtle about the narrative arc for William (Ben Rosenfield), Eli Thompson’s teenage college attending son, who desperately wants in on the booze trade. In this episode it’s to impress the girls. A brash run-in with Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), gets William slapped around a bit, but the bootlegger admires his moxie so he lets him off with a case of booze—as long as this is kept secret from pop Eli.
The destination for Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) is much more oblique this season. He journeyed home to Wisconsin to kill a man, let him go and then used it as an excuse to reunite with his sister Emma (Katherine Waterston). That unpaid debt almost costs Harrow his life, but sis and a shotgun ensure the man (Carl Billings) trying to squeeze the disfigured war vet for not completing his assassination job won’t ever be muttering a peep again, let alone complaining. With his sister widowed and pregnant, it would seem Richard’s best course of action would be to stick around and help out, but of course he decided to leave for parts unknown and it’s unclear of we’ve seen the last of Emma or not. He’s been trying to bury his past (literally, we’re shown him a gun in a grave), but he’s had trouble reconciling it, so our guess is he’s headed back to Atlantic City.
More long term schemes are hatched in Chalky White’s Onyx cabaret club. His rival Dr. Narcisse, a distinguished and liberated Negro who calls all blacks Libyans, is making his moves. Maneuver one is getting in on the ground floor with the heroin trade via a deal with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). Gambit number two is stealing Chalky’s men. It’s clear the shrewd and cultured Narcisse has nothing but disdain for Chalky White—seeing him as nothing but a house Negro for abiding by Nucky’s New Jersey authority. There’s no love lost between them, and so perhaps the most interesting thread of the show this season is watching Narcisse’s slowly unfolding plans (this is where the patient in peeling of the onion actually works). Spotting a weakness on Chalky’s end—the growing friction between the Negro leader and his lieutenant Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey)—Narcisse is quick to make overtures to Chalky’s man to play for the other team. Having been disrespected and abused over the Dickey Pastor incident all season so far, Purnsley seems ripe for making moves.
– Always living in a fantasy world these days, elsewhere, it seems Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) is rather hell bent on making Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) her new beau and business partner, but her growing heroin addiction could prove to be a problem. Whatever is going on with the custody battle between Gillian and Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt) over her grandson Tommy (Brady Noon)—the show doesn’t seem too interested in resolving it right now.
– Absent and not seen once again are Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald), plus the entire lot of Chicago characters Al Capone (Stephen Graham), George Mueller (Michael Shannon), et al.