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Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 4.08, “The Old Ship of Zion” lets Michael K. Williams shine

Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 4.08, “The Old Ship of Zion” lets Michael K. Williams shine

Boardwalk Empire S04E08, "The Old Ship of Zion" promo pic

Boardwalk Empire, Season 4, Episode 8, “The Old Ship of Zion”
Written by Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO

Kate is new to Boardwalk Empire this season and her reviews will approach the acclaimed series from the newbie’s perspective.

This week, on Boardwalk Empire: Nucky gets a visitor, Knox finds a lead, and Chalky has excellent musical taste

The brewing conflict between Chalky and Dr. Narcisse comes to a head in “The Old Ship of Zion”, forcing Daughter to make her choice in the episode’s most powerful, climactic moment. Chalky and Michael K. Williams have both been under-served this season, given very little of interest to do or play while Dr. Narcisse lurks in the background, scheming. Fortunately that changes this week. Williams gives a fantastic performance, demonstrating his range and showing us both Chalky’s brute strength and utter vulnerability. His moments with Margo Bingham are incredibly touching- it’s rare to see any crack in Chalky’s veneer. In this scene, all of the walls are down and it’s powerful, to Daughter as well as the audience. Bingham has been a delightful discovery this season and she’s playing Daughter well, but the character still remains a mystery. Her lack of agency is not surprising, given her backstory, but it’s increasingly frustrating. Hopefully her decision this week will mark the end of her time as an unexplored, undeveloped pawn.

Jeffrey Wright may also have more interesting work ahead of him- the revelation of Narcisse as a frustrated playwright seems to fit with what we know about him, but we’ve yet to see a glimpse of the man who strangled Daughter’s mother. That anger may be bubbling to the surface soon, given Chalky’s actions this week. Narcisse started off the season as an utterly compelling, enigmatic figure and unfortunately, that powerful presence has not been particularly felt since. It should be a lot of fun to see just how dark the good Doc can go.

We get another adventure with Sally this week, who is a breath of fresh air, knocking Nucky off base, but otherwise the rest of the episode is somewhat underwhelming. Agent Knox now has his claws in Eli, who is almost certainly headed for a fall, but this development, along with the Chalky-Purnsley fight, highlight a major flaw with the series. There is no sense, for this viewer at least, that Nucky or even Chalky are in real danger. Some series build immense gravitas and stakes through the palpable sense that at any time, any character is fair game. Game of Thrones keeps underlining this season after season, The Walking Dead delights in building up characters only to take them out, and with two notable exceptions, pretty much anyone on Strike Back can and will go.

On Boardwalk Empire however, Nucky never feels like he’s in any significant danger because the show has a pattern of bending over backwards to keep characters (or more accurately, actors) around much longer than makes any narrative sense. They don’t want to let go of Michael Shannon or Jack Huston, and so any threat that they’ll actually lock up or kill Nucky and lose Steve Buscemi is utterly unbelievable. The same goes this week with Williams and Chalky- as viewers, we know Daughter will step in even if the characters don’t, so while the scene is played well, it packs far less of a punch than it could or frankly, should. Week in and week out, this show looks beautiful, sounds beautiful (enough cannot be said of the greatly appreciated choice to focus as heavily as they do on music and specifically, Bingham’s fantastic voice), and features excellent performances. But it lacks the urgency needed to take the series to the next level and demand viewers’ attention. Four seasons in, this probably won’t change, but it’s a shame that the writers are so in love with their characters that they’re unwilling to lose one strong element to strengthen the whole.

What did you think of this episode? How amazing was William’s performance as he realized his imminent death? Think Eli will turn against Nucky, or will he find another way? Does anyone have as much swag as Patricia Arquette as Sally? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick