For my money, Boardwalk Empire has the best cast on television. From Steve Buscemi to Michael Shannon to Michael K. Williams, it’s a deep show, and one of the joys of watching it is just setting these great actors into scenes with each other and watching their craft. However, Boardwalk Empire knows that it has a great cast, in the same way that it knows it has extraordinary production design and great cinematography, and it leans heavily on them to make its story palatable, even when it’s chock full of cliches, stiff dialogue and melodrama. That’s what happened with “Resignation,” an episode filled with strong performances in weak, unsuspenseful stories.
The worst example of this offense came with the introduction of Jeffrey Wright’s character “Dr.” Valentin Narcisse (he takes such great pains to always be called doctor that his credentials are immediately called into question). Narcisse arrives in Chalky’s Onyx club in order to extort him over Dunn Purnsley’s murder last episode, as apparently the man killed worked for him. Chalky finds the allegations of rape against Dunn to be outrageous and throws Narcisse out of the club, only to find his band’s refusing to play because Narcisse owns a part of them. He’s forced to deal with Narcisse, and his friend Nucky intervenes to make sure things go smoothly, but of course they don’t, resulting in Narcisse gaining 10 percent of the take on Onyx, much to Chalky’s hatred.
To say that both Wright and Williams wring everything out of their performances would be an understatement. The two of them facing off, one cool and the other snarling, was an excellent piece of drama, but the religiously inflected master-slave rhetoric employed by Narcisse was overdetermined, not to mention stolen in large part from Williams’ previous HBO show The Wire, which featured the Nation of Islam hitman Brother Mouzone. It’s a continuation of the religiosity of Boardwalk Empire as a whole, but as usual it’s a religiosity only in name, and he’s another simple hypocrite in the show’s long line—the show still has no idea what to really do with that theme.
The race-baiting rhetoric used by Narcisse could be guessed at from his first appearance, and the only reaction I had to the “surprise” murder of the woman helping him was disappointment. I kept hoping the storyline would surprise me somewhere, since it offered plenty of screentime to one of my favorite characters (and don’t think I’m not grateful to see much more of Chalky already this season) and introduced another strong black character, but the hamfisted writing and comic-book characterization of Narcisse meant there was little here beyond a pair of excellent performances. The wheels of the Onyx storyline were put into motion, but at the moment they’re not particularly enticing, and we can only hope that there’s some nuance to Narcisse that hasn’t been introduced yet.
Richard Harrow, another of my favorites, had similar problems in his storyline. His relationship with his sister, for one thing, is pretty much how we’d imagine it, but then there’s the issue of the dog. The sudden return of Richard’s conscience, in sparing a man because of his family and then forcing his sister to euthanize their beloved childhood dog, had little weight because of its reliance upon these hackneyed tropes. Jack Huston did his best to give this plot pathos, but when the man he spared earlier turns up dead in his office, my only feeling was “good, at least it means we won’t be subject to more hoary old stories like this one.” It’s just too pat, too neat a way to make Richard’s arc, and as such doesn’t ring true.
Which wasn’t to say that “Resignation” was a bad episode all the way through; it’s just that its beats could be seen from a long way off, which is frequently a problem for the show (compare Boardwalk to its current Sunday-night competitor Breaking Bad in this respect to see why the latter gets all the critical accolades). The irritation and resignation of Nucky’s butler Kessler, for instance, was all kinds of wonderful, from the strange monologue he gives equating Nucky with God to the men he’s extorting to his chewing out Nucky for paying him off with a curt, “you’re better than that.” Kessler has always been one of the more interesting peripheral parts of Boardwalk Empire because we’ve always suspected there’s more there than can be seen on the surface, and it’s only now that Kessler wants to prove it. Well fine, Nucky agrees, yet we can’t help but wonder how the ex-butler will fare in a world of mobsters and hitmen. I, for one, hope and suspect he does very well.
Another nice, though not quite as unexpected, turn of events came from Michael Shannon’s “George Mueller,” which I’ll call him henceforth for the sake of clarity. His life of bootlegging and flower delivery becomes more difficult when his boss asks him to spy on Al Capone, who Mueller of course also has a relationship with. The continued ironic adventures of Mueller are wonderful to behold here as the man who disdained unlawfulness almost as much as ungodliness now worries about what to do given he works for two different gangsters. Frank Capone does his best to ingratiate Mueller, though, and I suspect that the display he saw from the Italians will prove more memorable in the end.
All four storylines, not to mention the interstices that kept other parts of the show’s clockwork plot machine rolling along for the rest of the season, were excellently acted and immaculately visualized. It’s just that two of them were also kind of ridiculous and not terribly well-written. Unfortunately, that’s part of Boardwalk Empire’s identity at this point, and preposterous dialogue and hamfisted thematization are just part of the package. Two episodes in, though, and things are still a bit dull. Perhaps Nucky’s trip to Florida will provide this season with more of a storyline, as at this point it’s all still feeling rudderless.