Boardwalk Empire has never felt like a terribly self-aware series. You always get the sense that its creators have absolute confidence in their work, even as it’s going horribly wrong, week after week. However, “What Jesus Said” seemed interested in addressing the show’s central problem, the thing that’s kept it from ever rising above a certain level. Unfortunately, it did so by drawing attention to the problem, without actually resolving it.
Nucky Thompson is the center of Boardwalk Empire’s universe, the show’s lead and the man whose life story it purports to tell. But why, exactly, any of this is important has always been difficult to answer, as the show has yet to offer a truly compelling reason. In “What Jesus Said,” Nucky spends most of the episode courting a possible investor from Boston, a fellow Irishman who’s interested in turning a profit, but he stumbles as well at the question as to why he’s doing any of this. Why is he accumulating money, an empire? This is another way of asking what the show itself is about, and unfortunately Nucky doesn’t have an answer, or at least not a real one (even his lie about how it’s all to leave something behind, makes him unhappy). The thing is, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the show were about, in contrast, its version of Al Capone. Capone isn’t prone to introspection, but Nucky is, and showing us how little is there makes his character feel hollow. After all, if Nucky has no motivation other than following the clockwork gears of the show and his life, then neither does Boarwalk Empire, really.
That being said, I enjoyed seeing Nucky interact with this investor, and watching the show’s lead portray a particularly Steve Buscemi-ish type of insecurity. It wasn’t the highlight of the episode, though. That came from Margaret, a character who was one of the show’s greatest assets early on, but as of last season, was largely an afterthought. Boardwalk Empire found a way to bring her back into the heart of its world, though, by the lawsuit against her from Arnold Rothstein’s widow, which is both very clever, and plays on the loaded gun of their lack of a divorce that’s been sitting there ever since she walked out the door. It’s also just great when Boardwalk Empire uses its extraordinary cast for something interesting, or when it gives a reason for its side plots to exist, beyond still having people like Kelly MacDonald on contract. It was a small, but very welcome part of the episode.
Unfortunately, Boardwalk Empire rarely has an episode free of some material that’s borderline unwatchable—and I’m not even talking about the flashbacks here, which were the usual claptrap about Nucky losing his innocence while we all yawn. No, it was Chalky White’s story, which managed to be miserable to watch, largely pointless, and mildly racist all at the same time. He and the convict he escaped with try to rob a house, but only end up holding its two white female denizens prisoner. The entire thing plays up the white fear of violence by black men to the maximum, and in the most exploitative and detrimental way. Not only that, aside from dispatching the man Chalky escaped with, it essentially serves no purpose. There was practically nothing redeemable about these sequences, which simply shouldn’t have been made. That this is also the episode where a group of black prostitutes are killed only makes things worse.
So, it’s still a bumpy season for Boardwalk Empire, which is no surprise, but still comes as a disappointment. What’s remarkable about the show is that, even with only eight episodes in the final season, so much of what we had here still felt like padding. Nucky’s negotiations didn’t need to be so extended (I doubt we’ll ever see that Bostonian again), Chalky’s story didn’t need to exist at all, and of course the flashbacks never have a reason for being there. The two parts of the show that moved things forward, which were Luciano’s negotiation with Brother Narcisse, and Margaret’s storyline, were also the shortest parts of the episode. It seemed inevitable that this season would be tighter than the ones before it, but somehow that’s not the case.