Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 5.03: “What Jesus Said” consists mainly of setup

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Boardwalk Empire, Season 5, Episode 3: “What Jesus Said”
Written by Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder
Directed by Ed Bianchi
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO

As we approach the halfway point for Boardwalk Empire‘s final season, we are given an underwhelming, if somewhat eventful, episode.

“What Jesus Said” opens with Chalky and his loose cannon partner breaking into the house of  the latter’s former employer. In what is easily the low point of the episode, Chalky’s plot consists of balancing precariously between his edgy accomplice, Milton, and the mother and daughter whom they have taken hostage. Although on paper, the idea might sound engaging, it plays out in a mostly uninspired manner due to the fact that Chalky isn’t given a whole lot to do. These scenes, which take up roughly 1/3 of the main plots explored this week, consist widely of three other characters who we are given little emotional investment in.

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When Chalky finally ends the home invasion with a hammer to the skull of his fellow con, the plot line finishes with the dull thud of the hammer itself, leaving little more to remember it by. The only real highlights of this sequence come in the mentioning of Chalky’s deceased daughter when he is questioned by one of the hostages. Later, when the daughter says that there’s hope for him yet in a ploy to get him to let her go, she intones the heavy words of the bible for her aims. “There’s forgiveness for everyone, that’s what Jesus said.” Chalky responds with cold indifference that Jesus was wrong.

Moving right along with the biblical references, a young Nucky meets a peculiar little girl in this week’s flashback sequences. She references the biblical story of his namesake, Enoch, and explains that he never died but instead went on to walk with God. Her words seem to be of import to Nucky, and the heavy emphasis on her suggests that she might go on to become relevant herself, possibly as Nucky’s ill-fated first wife.

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In the present day, Nucky courts Joseph Kennedy in hopes of securing a partner for his Bacardi deal. The scenes between these two sharks play like an elaborate card game, with each one bluffing and baiting the other. Kennedy seems to have the upper hand, as a placating Nucky forgoes alcohol during their meetings in an attempt to impress him. The amount of effort this takes, and the relief that Nucky expresses when he finally gets a drink suggest that he’s been dipping heavily into his own supply over the last seven years. When he awakens from a drunken reminiscence to find his second wife, Margaret, sitting in his room, you can’t help but smile. It’s easily the best moment this week and sends this uneven episode out on a high note.

In the remaining subplot, Dr. Narcisse is visited by Lucky Luciano and Benny Siegel. Their attempts to cut into his lucrative Harlem heroin trade start as business offers but quickly turn to threats. The bold Narcisse balks at them and sends them on their way but might come to regret his decision, as one of his brothels is hit violently as a result. Between this tension and the fact that Chalky was likely referencing the good doctor in his line about impossible forgiveness, things are looking pretty dire for Narcisse, leaving viewers to assume that his well-earned comeuppance might soon be at hand.

In any of the previous seasons, an episode like “What Jesus Said” would have felt perfectly in beat with what Boardwalk Empire is all about: setup and delivery. This close to the end, however, a setup episode feels like a bit of a cheat. With five episodes to go, hopefully much of this window dressing will justify the time spent.

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