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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 5 Episode 3 ‘What Jesus Said’ Breakdown: Are Things Looking Up on the Boardwalk?

'Boardwalk Empire' Season 5 Episode 3 'What Jesus Said' Breakdown: Are Things Looking Up on the Boardwalk?

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

Approaching the halfway mark of this final season on the boardwalk, Nucky’s struggle to legitimize his role in distributing alcohol is intercut with updates on some old friends of ours left out of Episode 2. Escaped from the chain gang, Chalky White, once the man who ran things on the North side and a respected businessman, is reduced to holding up two women in their home. That descent is only matched by Margaret’s, as she is forced to return to Atlantic City thanks to upcoming legal problems with the widow of Arnold Rothstein. While these Atlantic City staples of “Boardwalk Empire” years past try to catch their collective fall, Lucky Luciano’s conquest of New York is in full swing with an attack in Harlem against Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). No longer AR’s errand boy, Charlie is all grown up.

What We Learn About Nucky This Week

Back in the day, when he was still “boy” instead of “Mr. Thompson,” young Enoch was quite the romantic. He made it his priority everyday at the Commodore’s hotel to deliver fresh flowers to one of the prostitutes on behalf of a man who said he loved her. Nucky even caught the love bug himself, and this week’s flashbacks provided the first meeting between him and the future Mrs. Thompson, Mabel. From confused Bible passages to peeping to kissing horses, it was clearly meant to be between those two love birds. She even wrote that she would have let him kiss her. Atta “boy.”

READ MORE: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 5 Episode 2 ‘The Good Listener’ Breakdown: Behold, The Most HBO Death Scene Ever

The Most Shocking Moment of Violence

The violence in “What Jesus Said” is as shocking as any in the 52 episodes of “Boardwalk” for one strange and unique reason: There hardly was any. All of the bloodshed this week took place off screen, and for the most part was predictably calculated. “Boardwalk Empire” is showing that its thrills aren’t for the sake of thrill alone. If they were, then maybe we would have seen the woman murdered in the Commodore’s hotel, or the girl Fern (Olivia Nikkanen) would have shot her attacker. Instead, the writers decided to focus less on the deaths themselves and more on their implications: a young Nucky seeing the woman’s body, or Chalky defending the young woman against his own ally. So no, no ears were removed this week.

Most Flagrant Flouting of the Law

In a meeting with Joe Kennedy, Nucky tries to compare himself and his ambitions to the real-life Wall Street man. Kennedy takes this personally: “We can play with words but I have never broken a law in my life,” he said. Their subsequent exchange reveals a lot about Nucky’s philosophies, that the regulations in place that he had to work around to build his criminal empire are merely obstacles. “I call that a technicality,” he said as if the laws of the land are an arbitrary guideline to follow at one’s leisure. Kennedy replies, much wiser than the in-denial gangster, “I call it good business.”

Most Memorable Dialogue

Right after losing his partner (which is to say, after sticking a hammer in his partner’s throat), Chalky White is in a bind, and one brief exchange between he and Fern puts emphasis on just how far Chalky has fallen and just how much that pains him. 

“Maybell,” she says, naming Chalky’s daughter, “Does she know what you are?”
His response: “She knew what I was.”

In Season 4, Maybell was killed in a crossfire, after being abducted by Dr. Narcisse, in her father’s extravagant club. Chalky was a respected man, and for his destructive pride and adulterous tendencies, a loving father. That Maybell died how and when she did is both a blessing and a curse for Chalky, because it means his oldest never saw him become the runaway convict we find him as in 1931.

Smartest Editing Choice

Typically in organized crime, particularly the Italian Cosa Nostra, members like to see themselves as a higher class of criminal. But “What Jesus Said” serves to prove that there really is no honor among thieves. Because of a dispute between Marazano and Dr. Narcisse, Luciano sends a pair of his men to check out Narcisse’s Harlem-based cat house, where they open fire and kill all of the girls. From here, the episode returns to Nucky’s childhood on the boardwalk, where he is coping with what can only be assumed is his first close brush with murder. He tells the sheriff (Boris McGiver) where he last saw the killer, Mr. Becker, showing a glimpse of morality and hoping to help enact justice. “It’s taken care of,” the sheriff tells Nucky, “I did what’s right.” This sort of underhanded euphemism is the sort of thing we have heard a lot from Nucky over the years, though his morals have changed some.

Where Story Meets History

A large part of “What Jesus Said” is dedicated to developing the relationship between our fictional Nucky Thompson and Joseph Kennedy, Sr., who spends a large part of his heartbreakingly sober trip to Atlantic City talking about his eight children. He is making his money for their safety, he is teaching his sons to sail. Cleverly “Boardwalk Empire” knew it didn’t have to tell the audience bluntly who these kids grow up to be, so little Jack and Bobby and Ted are left nameless — for, in 1931, they might as well have been. And it would be decades before war hero Jack decided to go by John and win the presidency. (If this episode is any indication though, he and his dad do share their taste in women.)

Another, much more underhanded historical allusion in “What Jesus Said” occurs early in the episode. Sifting through his mail, Nucky happens upon a letter from “Miss Nellie Bly / The Pirate Sea / En Route to Cathay.” This reference to iconic journalist Nellie Bly nods to her famous work “Around the World in 72 Days,” a tale of her real life trek inspired by the Jules Verne novel. The problem is that Bly passed away in 1922, and she traveled the world in 1890. One theory is that Gillian Darmody, who never appears in person in the episode, is trying to contact Nuck. After being convicted of murder, Gillian is locked up in an all-women’s mental institution, not unlike the one that Nellie Bly made infamous after investigating first-hand for the New York World in 1887. Perhaps, knowing of Bly’s heroic asylum expose and knowing that a letter with her name would never be read by Nucky, Gillian adopted this clever pseudonym to reach out for help.

Drink of Choice

This category had to make a comeback in honor of Joe Kennedy’s peculiarly straight social habits. Sitting at a bar with the country’s biggest bootlegger, the man refuses whisky and orders a “tonic.” “Know what goes great with that? Bacardi rum,” says Nucky half-jokingly. He’s right — cola-based cocktails will contribute to the long-term success of the rum trade in the U.S., but Kennedy says it’ll have to wait until repeal. Solidarity, my friend. 

Best Musical Interlude

In Episode 2, “The Good Listener,” Eli and Van Alden are in Chicago when an elevator boy begins whistling the iconic rhythm to “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Back on the coast, in “What Jesus Said,” Nucky hears the very same ditty on the radio while on the phone with Sally (Patricia Arquette). It isn’t like Nucky to veer from talking business when he wants to, but here he conceds, giving a chuckle and holding up the mouthpiece so he and Sally can listen to the optimistic jingle together.

The Biggest Flopperoo

The most blatant gap in judgement this week ironically brought husband and wife back together. Margaret, who has been going by Peg since trying to start her life over (for the third time), is questioned regarding her role in her boss fraudulently acquiring funds from the account of Abe Redstone, a.k.a. Arnold Rothstein. Failing to cooperate with the authorities, she pays Mrs. Rothstein a visit, who addresses her as Margaret. It seemed like Margaret didn’t even notice this occurrence, and it’s likely neither did many viewers. But, having introduced herself as Peg, Margaret should have put up her guard — and the mistake means that by episode’s end, she has to return to Nucky for financial and/or legal assistance in the impending suit.

The Best, Most Killer-Diller Moment

The best moment from “What Jesus Said” has a far softer touch than the violent highlights of previous weeks; with only five episodes left in the series, seminal moments are building to its ultimate message. The also winding-down “Mad Men,” for the last few episodes of its most recent season, packed in more sincerity than thrill — it is yet to be seen if “Boardwalk” will go that way or have more of a “Sopranos”-type body count in its last few weeks. But this week in particular ended optimistically: Brought together for bad reasons, there was nothing like Nucky’s smile when he awoke to find Margaret waiting for him, even after he woke from dreaming about Mabel. The first scene of the series, back in 2010, showed Margaret inspired by a rousing speech by Nucky. Now, it is she who brings comfort to him.

Grade: A-

READ MORE: What Makes ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Great, And What Keeps It From Breaking Out?

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