Until now, Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season was juggling its side plots, and giving them real space to become the show’s centerpiece at one time or another. Some of these stories truly didn’t deserve the time—I’d much rather Chalky White’s story had gone almost anywhere else—but they were each spread out. Now, with only a few episodes left to finish the show, everyone gets scenes, and not a member of the cast is missing, even if the only appearance they make is two minutes of bathroom jokes (sorry, Capone). This made for an episode that really moved forward, but despite this plot momentum, it didn’t quite feel like everything was as purposeful as it really should have been. ??
The biggest scene, in terms of drama though not importance, of “King of Norway” is the dinner between Eli, Van Alden, and their respective wives (and Van Alden’s children) at his Sears-purchased home. For a long time it’s unclear why exactly Van Alden’s wife is unhappy about this arrangement, and this makes for some riveting television. But in hindsight, it’s difficult not to question the show’s plotting. It turns out that she had sex with Eli, and she’s mad about it, so she invited them over. When was this? Why is she mad now? This has the immediate effect of nearly causing a rift between the two partners, but this is also, coincidentally, broken up by the police. The over-the-top storytelling in which we learn about their relationship is awful—truly the stuff of soap operas. But also, why is this here? Boardwalk Empire admittedly has always taken a special glee in ripping apart its families, to the point that I’ve claimed in the past that the show’s most important theme is the way organized crime has prevented any of these characters from happy family lives. But this weirdly served no plot purpose. Eli and Van Alden, once cornered, are still in it together, and it’s not like they exactly loved each other before.
I don’t mean to say that this was a scene for its own sake, but it’s hard not to notice that, had you removed it from the show, nothing would have been missing. I have nothing against sprawl, vignettes that serve to deepen themes rather than move the plot forward, but the way this one hinged on both coincidences and weirdly out-of-character hypocrisy did little to hide the fact that the show wants to tell this story, but wants it not to matter at the same time. All of the cast made the best of these scenes, and I think Van Alden’s comment that his son’s flute-playing would sound better farther away will stay with me for life, but does it add to the show? For all its drama and masterclass-level acting, no it didn’t—not really. The important thing is that they’re being forced into helping the feds, as is Capone’s bookkeeper. The rest was interesting, but overall it was strange, coincidental and far too neat of a distraction.
Part of the problem with Boardwalk Empire’s sprawl is that, at this point, I have lost faith that we’ll return to these scenes, or that these emotions will be relevant to characters’ future. There was, likewise, nothing wrong with the horrific scenes Gillian Darmody witnessed in another episode of Boardwalk Empire: Asylum, but do they really matter? Presumably, at some point she’s getting out of there, but she hated it before, and seeing that they’re cutting people open and removing their organs only served to make this memorable, not valuable. There’s no change to her situation, so why not start this way in the beginning? Boardwalk Empire has never had a hard time with scenes, it’s the overall storytelling that always comes into question.
That being said, while I had a lot of quibbles with “King of Norway,” it was still a good, fun episode that began connecting for the show’s finale, which is just a few weeks away. Older Nucky’s material in particular was great. While this season has made a big deal about returning the show’s focus to Nucky, it’s putting him in the middle of the main storyline, not giving him endless and never-remotely-entertaining flashbacks, that’s paid dividends. From his reunion with Chalky, to his scenes with Torrio and Maranzano, every choice he makes and every meeting he has is interesting, from the moment he enters the room. Of course, Nucky has always gone through endless meetings in Boardwalk Empire, but in this final season they feel relevant. He’s more or less negotiating for his life, or someone else’s, in every discussion he has, and despite his skill, to a certain extent he’s losing. This isn’t the first time this season he’s nearly been killed, and it seems unlikely to be the last. It’s only unfortunate that Luciano himself is the show’s flattest character.
Oh, and yes, there were flashbacks, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the way Marc Pickering’s young Nucky is startling. He looks close enough to Steve Buscemi to work, but there’s still something very off-putting about the way he’s made up. He’s kind of a living, breathing Buscemi caricature, and while I’m impressed by how good of a Buscemi impression Pickering does, there’s an element of the grotesque to this that I found difficult to watch.