Nothing uglies up the broad tapestry of American history quite like our human rights record as pertains to ethnic minorities, even if the viler machinations of institutional racism remain dark little secrets. For a series that does naught to bleach the gross inequities of American commerce, politics and graft-riddled excesses of the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire just ventured even deeper into this still-more-draconian aspect of American realpolitik. It did so with a hinted reveal, that Chalky White’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) season-long nemesis Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) may be more than just a bullying thug, but even worse because he undertakes his thuggery via government sanction.
Narcisse has staged a multilayered scheme to plant his flag over Atlantic City, fiefdom of racketeer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), all focused on undermining Chalky’s control over the African-American wards via the distribution of heroin. Narcisse, an eloquent Bible-quoting dandy, proponent of black nationalism and Harlem racketeer, is just fine with those inconsistencies because he considers the low-born vulgar Chalky and those weak-willed enough to ride the horse as lesser creatures polluting the race. He enjoys auspicious company in that, as we will see.
It was only Nucky’s intercession, and threat to cut him loose from the organization, that prevented Chalky from throttling Narcisse in the very public confines of the Onyx Club last week. But Chalky’s blood remains up. He and his men pay a visit to Narcisse’s North Side office of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a fraternal organization founded by the historical black nationalist Marcus Garvey, for whom Narcisse has served as proxy during the latter’s prosecution on mail fraud charges. They loose a fusillade into the storefront, but enough of Narcisse’s men survive to return fire and Chalky takes a round. He lams it to tend his wound, while Narcisse storms into Nucky’s office, demanding any info on Chalky’s whereabouts.
“There’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time,” Nucky says. “Who the f–k do you think you are?”
Narcisse suggests Nucky’s lack of cooperation is his tacit choice of sides in a war he does not want, which it seems to be. When Chalky later presses him on his course of action, Nucky says, “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Meanwhile, Nucky’s ex Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) has gone to work as a demure shill for a higher class of grifter, smarmy heel Wall Street broker, Mr. Bennett, one fleece victim of whom is none other than Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rothstein, operating as a Mr. Redstone, can’t help but notice his investment tanking, figures out it’s a scam and recruits her to supply inside information, offering her a nice apartment for her family. Bennett makes her decision easy as he inveighs, “They say these kikes are smart, but this one’s dumb a doornail with the deepest pockets I’ve ever seen . . . Thinks he can get rich without doing a thing.”
“Mr. Bennett is a criminal,” she tells Rothstein later, “no different from . . .”
“From me?” Rothstein says.
She was going to say Nucky.
In Tampa, Sally (Patricia Arquette) notices something odd at the staging area where they Caribbean booze onto trucks to ship north: Lansky (Anatol Yusef), Luciano and Masseria’s man Petrocelli are supplementing booze cases with bricks of heroin. After she tips Nucky, he tasks Eli with digging into it, which Eli uses to throw a bone to babyfaced Fed strong-arming him for information, Agent Tolliver (Brian Geraghty). Eli, Tolliver and cops roadblock the booze carazan, finding Lansky among them, and when a young tough impedes the cops searches, Tolliver dispatches him with a round to the head.
At the lip of a grave he has been made to dig for himself, Lansky tells Nucky he was coerced by Masseria to piggyback on the Tampa-to-NJ caravans and that millions of dollars were to be made with the H, and Nucky gives him a reprieve to set up a meet with the New York mafia don. Masseria arrives, then introduces his new partner in the heroin trade, Narcisse. They agree to partner him into the heroin business, with one condition: that Nucky support Narcisse’s stake on AC’s North Side (and, thus, his distribution) and deliver Chalky. Nucky, who just barely survived a war with Masseria, is cornered and outgunned. He shakes on the deal, but soon after calls Mayor Bader and tells him to send cops to get Chalky out of town.
Too late they discover Bader, worried about securing the North Side in the upcoming election, has already thrown in with Narcisse. The cops pick up Chalky and his girl, but they miss a turn-off to Philly and Chalky gets wise. He caps one and strangles the other, and they manage to bring the car to a halt and ditch the corpses.
Back in Washington, Tolliver is prepped unveil his breakthrough to Hoover as he screens a newsreel on Garvey’s recent rally in New York. “That man has done more damage free on bail than most criminals achieve in a lifetime,” Hoover says. “Three thousand Negroes with ideas in their heads, that’s a threat worth worrying about.” There is a brief mention that one of Garvey’s top lieutenants is an FBI informant, and as soon as the film ends, Hoover gives Tolliver the brush-off, abruptly disinterested in organized crime.
Chalky disappeared under a cloud, her wedding to the scion of a proper family canceled, Chalky’s daughter wanders up to her father’s office at the Onyx, lies down in the dark. A lamp switches on to reveal Narcisse, presumably enjoying the new fruit of his deal. He make creepy overtures of counsel and friendship, but she has perhaps become a pawn. He also introduces himself as “Richard Pastor.”
I am thinking we have found a confluence of mission purity between True Believers Narcisse and Hoover.
Boardwalk Empire recap Season 4 episode 10 photo credit: HBO photo: Craig Blankenhorn