“Boardwalk Empire” either walks or gallops, there’s usually no in between trot, but we suppose we should accept it and be happy that things are moving forward at a nice gait (though pacing would be nice). The fifth episode of the fourth season, the German word “Erlkönig“—named after a thematic poem read during the episode—was about as explosive as it gets for a mid-season entry. Two characters died, one recently introduced and brimming with promise, the other a longtime character ‘Boardwalk’ fans recently grew to have tremendous affection for. But the episode could have easily been titled “Loyalty” considering how heavy the theme (and lack thereof it) hung over the proceedings.
Picking up where we left off, Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is forced to travel to Philadelphia to aid Eli’s (Shea Whigham) son William (Ben Rosenfield) and the college student learns the most valuable lesson of family fealty. Having slipped a mickey to a nemesis, the gag went south and the young boy died. Apprehended for having brought in the booze, William is the prime suspect in the accidental death. Terrified his father will find out, William calls on Nucky and the Atlantic City mobster wields his power to salve the situation. But it’s not as easy as everyone thinks and William is put through the wringer. More importantly, Nucky coaches William trough questioning and begins the slippery slope of teaching him immoral tactics to save his skin. And admittedly, for all the complaining we’ve done this season about chess piece writing—planting the seeds for something that will occur down the road—if these scenes fit the description they are masterfully done, feeling alive, in the moment and intense. William feels he’s now in debt to his uncle and while that may be the case, the storyline is all about the path that Nucky has started William on—one that will come to violent loggerheads should Eli ever get wind of it.
The most moving and tragic storyline of the episode revolves around an unlikely character Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura), Nucky’s former manservant turned part of the bootlegging business. Kessler was promoted because this is what he desperately wanted—Nucky’s respect. But the old German man has been out of his depth and when apprehended by the FBI last episode, you knew it couldn’t end well. And yet it ended more abruptly than you could have imagined. Snatched by Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) after doing bootlegging business with Ralph Capone (Domenick Lombardozzi), it doesn’t take long for the ambitious young FBI man to make Kessler give up the goods on his boss. Using emotionally manipulative tactics, Knox reveals Kessler’s back story, a man who escaped Germany as a thief and an adulterer. Digging under his skin, Knox tells Kessler his sons in Germany have changed their last name in shame and if he doesn’t cooperate, they’ll be reunited in a prison after deportation. Kessler folds with a whimper. When he returns, an irritated Nucky asks where he’s been and Kessler invents a lie. But feeling his own deep shame—Kessler a proud man who has served Nucky faithfully for years, even taking a bullet for him—is devastated by his betrayal. He writes a letter to his sons, puts on a brand new suit and jumps out a window to his death. The poor man never had the right fortitude for this kind of work, and it perhaps a miscalculation on Nucky’s part, who just wanted to do right by his devoted butler.
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If things have been relatively quiet in Chicago this season they aren’t anymore. George Mueller aka Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is getting promoted by Frank Capone (Morgan Spector) for his “good work” last episode (being forced to kill a man), but it’s a deal with the devil as Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is a volatile crazy man that abuses George and is simply too unpredictable for his gun-shy personality. The job to rig the Chicago election against the dock workers falls in George’s hands—force them to vote for the Republican that’s in Capone’s pocket or not vote at all. But the task soon overwhelms Mueller when the dock workers turn violent. Frank, the smart, crafty Capone who butts heads with his hothead younger brother all episode, tries to contain the situation, but when Al arrives on the scene it’s like gasoline poured on a fire. Violence erupts chaos ensues and the Capones and Mueller get the tar kicked off them. Angered by the insanity and fed up with Capone’s mercurial nature, Mueller, who had taken several lumps to the head, turns his gun on Al. Before he can pull the trigger an incredulous Frank spots Mueller’s would-be betrayal and moves to shoot him down. And right before he can save his brother he is violently mowed down by Chicago police enforcers who arrive on the scene. Al Capone, knocked down and unaware of what Mueller’s attempt to snuff him out watches in agony as his brother his cut to shreds. It’s a gripping sequence, but heartbreaking if only because Frank Capone was quickly emerging as this season’s best new character aside from Dr. Narcisse (and in big part because of Spector who nailed the part—someone cast this guy on another show, quick).
Elsewhere, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) sit this episode out. Meanwhile, in dire straits, Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) crosses paths with Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), thanks to her growing heroin addiction. Spiralling out of control, Darmody is at her lowest this episode, abusing the drug, losing her cool façade and becoming desperate. She grovels and tries to seduce a judge in hopes of leveraging the custody battle over her grandson Tommy (Brady Noon), but the plan backfires. High and out of sorts (and looking downright terrible), Darmody comes to Tommy’s school to try and take him away. She not only scares the poor boy, she has a run in with Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt), his current guardian and then is escorted out of the school by the teachers. Humiliated and at her lowest, she is found in bed by her beau Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) who has been missing all episode seemingly dodging her because he’s clearly aware of her drug habit. But Phillips shows unexpected empathy and perhaps he’s going to be getting Darmody back on the straight and narrow and this relationship may actually go places.