As “Boardwalk Empire” enters the home stretch, with only two more episodes to go before the finale, the Howard Korder-written “Devil You Know” starts to hone in and focus on the crucial storylines, leaving sub-plots to the side. So our traditional A, B & C storylines are A: the pickle George Mueller and Eli Thompson have gotten themselves into in Chicago, B) Chalky coming for revenge in Harlem, and C) Nucky’s storyline and his flashbacks. Traditionally, the antepenultimate episode of ‘Boardwalk’ is the big one, all the deaths and actions occur here. And while this remains true for “Devil You Know”—we say goodbye to two major characters—the speed and propulsion that normally hits these late-in-the-game episodes is missing. “Boardwalk Empire” is coming to an end, but a quickening momentum is just not something the show has on its mind currently. That said, an incredible slow tension throbs throughout the entire episode, but it’s an unfortunately uneven one nonetheless.
The episode begins with Nucky (Steve Buscemi) missing, but really on the run from his many demons. Feeling guilt from Sally Wheet’s death, the mobster’s gone on an all-night bender trying to wash all the pain away. Meanwhile, in 1897, the young Nucky Thompson (Marc Pickering) is still trying to earn respect in the world. Moreover, the young man is about to be a father: his bride Mabel (Maya Kazan, who is also performing HBO double duty as Eleanor on “The Knick”) is pregnant. This, of course, is not going to end well. We know already from Nucky’s history that Mabel killed herself after her infant son died a few days after childbirth.
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Worse, Nucky’s flashbacks are simply becoming a movie-like prequel, filling in the blanks to information we already know. Nucky stumbles upon something strange with The Commodore: little girls entering his office with mother’s crying outside? What’s going on he wonders, but of course we already from exposition in early seasons that The Commodore was a pedophile who raped and knocked up Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), who eventually gives birth to Jimmy Darmody (Micheal Pitt, who Nucky kills). Meanwhile, there’s a thieving boy in the neighborhood. Nucky catches him, but he’s not a boy, it’s Gillian. It’s all tying together a little too neatly. So, as the Deputy Sherrif, Nucky will take her in and therefore we learn he’s really responsible for Gillian’s current situatio. What is this show “Gotham” all of a sudden?
Meanwhile in the present day, Nucky ducks into a local bar posing as a random salesman from Missouri just to get away from everyone and his pain. He hooks up with two women (one of them being Patrick Wilson’s wife Dagmara Domińczyk), defends their honor against a drunk and eventually gets double crossed when he tries to fuck them outside.
Knocked out cold, when Nucky comes to, he’s discovered by Joel Harper (Travis Tope), the young boy hired by Mickey Doyle early in the season who just has too much of a resemblance to Jimmy Darmody. Fans have already speculated that he’s a grown-up Tommy Darmody—Gillian’s grandson who was adopted by Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt) and the late Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in season four. But regardless if it’s true or not, ‘Boardwalk’ has tipped their hand, and it seems far too obvious that he’s going to be responsible for Nucky’s demise. The father figure dynamic that once again raises its head in this episode underscores this notion.
Nucky’s storyline begins with coming back to the club and discovering that Mickey Doyle, worried about his absence, has corralled all the troops. It’s a mob scene of men and shot guns. “We saddling up for a showdown or not?” Doyle asks. Even though Nucky going M.I.A. had nothing to do with it, the answer is obviously yes. Nucky’s going to be gunning for Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, the trio of which do not appear in this episode.
In Chicago, things are about to come to a head. George Mueller (Michael Shannon) and Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) are about to go through with the plan that mobster/undercover FBI agent Mike D’Angelo (Louis Cancelmi) has forced upon them, and make a fake drop and steal Capone’s ledger, so the FBI can indict the gangster for tax evasion. Their plan goes awry, fast. Too anxious to get the ruse in motion, they end up walking in on Ralph Capone (Domenick Lombardozzi) having sex with a maid. The improprietous faux pas is not the problem, but no one is supposed to go in the drop off room without permission. Eli’s disrespectful maneuver arouses Ralph’s suspicions. What are they doing at night creeping around making a drop off that could wait till morning? It doesn’t take him long to discover the drop bag is full of cut up newspapers and not money. What are they trying to pull? Before disturbing Al, Ralph decides to fetch D’Angelo—the very man playing both sides.
D’Angelo’s got a tricky role here. The heavy disciplining his men—“What the fuck are you doing here?”—knowing full well what’s going on. A nervous Eli and George play along. “Uhh, we came to rob the joint” they ask? Like they’re trying to give whatever answer pleases D’Angelo and doesn’t get them killed. Ralph tells D’Angelo to take them away and wack them—which of course would be their saving grace. The FBI man isn’t going to kill them, but just as they’re almost home free, Al Capone (Stephen Graham) arrives, having been partying with Hollywood producers who are making a gangster picture.
“This really hurts my feelings,” Capone says. He’s genuinely upset. Two men who he took in under his fold have betrayed him. But Eli was taken in as a favor to Nucky, so he’s not buying their “we came to steal” excuse. He pulls out a pistol and accuses Mueller of being a FBI agent. He sticks the gun in Mueller’s face, but perhaps having had enough and with his life in the shitter, he snaps. Mueller punches Capone and starts to choke him screaming like a madman that he is Nelson Van Alden, an FBI agent and he will not stop until Capone is brought to justice. But before Mueller can do any significant damage, D’Angelo blows a hole through the side of his head. Nelson Van Alden’s had such an interesting character arc, and for him to meet his end like this, so unceremoniously and matter a fact, it doesn’t feel right.
Meanwhile, Capone is in shock, covered in the remnants of Mueller’s brains. He rants and raves, smacks Eli around and demands answers. Who sent them and why? Eli gives it up immediately, saying they’re being squeezed by a Fed for Capone’s ledger. What Fed exactly? Eli almost gives up D’Angelo who nervously stands by with pistol still in hand ready to kill Eli before he spills the subterfuge. Eli instead names Eliot Ness and D’Angelo sighs a deep breath of relief. Eli, a ball of nervous sweat asks the undercover Fed what happens to him. D’Angelo doesn’t care, throws a crumpled up dollar bill at him and tells him to take a train out of town. Eli’s only option will be Atlantic City and Nucky will be very interested to hear that Capone was ready to have his brother killed despite their business agreement.
Back in Harlem, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) has come for revenge and has Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) dead to rights as he returns from a business meeting to meet with Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham). Here we are once again, seven years later, with the same triangle, Chalky, his former love Maitland and his old adversary Narcisse. But he arrives in the middle of something more complex than he bargained for. Maitland had come to plead with Narcisee who has cockblocked her singing career all this time. Narcisse tries to offer Chalky a deal, join his team and stop running and go to war against the white devils who have kept them down for so long. “You’re the only devil I know,” Chalky sneers. But Narcisse calls it point blank, “I never claimed to be a friend.” “Every soul in this room yearns to be free,” he continues and it’s a comment that cuts to Chalky’s core.
With a deal on the table, Chalky’s decision is swayed by a record of Maitland singing. Moved by what he hears, Chalky takes Narcisse’s offer, much to Maitland’s protests. “You can’t trust him,” she protests. But trust is not Chalky’s endgame here. He’s bought Maitland’s freedom and the cost is his life. Outside, he trades final words with Narcisse. “Ain’t nobody ever been free,” he says, as Narcisse sneers with disdain and walks away as his men fill Chalky with lead and put his lights out for good. Before Chalky dies, he closes his eyes and hears Daughter Maitland’s song once more. But such is the problem with this episode and perhaps the final season, all of this is poetically written, but isn’t executed in any form that feels moving or even affecting. This end is such a shame for a great character like Chalky White, who will now have to live on in memory.
Perhaps a little too brusque and quick, “Devil You Know” is, in retrospect, perhaps a necessary amputation of the A & B storylines. With two episodes left, this is the end for the African-American mob side of “Boardwalk Empire.” There’s no point in continuing it now. And Chicago’s arc could very well be over for the most part too (though I imagine we’ll see Capone get nicked for tax evasion). History shows that Capone did not come to a bloody end in 1931, the way some of these characters are obviously heading, so the cleaving of characters here is really just a way to make room to wrap-up Nucky’s narrative and to make way for his war with the conniving trio that double-crossed him. Expect a much more streamlined “Boardwalk Empire” from here on out, but look for resolution with Gillian Darmody, Joel Harper and if you’re lucky, Margaret Thompson too.