Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 5.06: “Devil You Know” gut-punches heavy and hard

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Boardwalk Empire Season 5, Episode 6: “Devil You Know”
Written by Howard Korder
Directed by Jeremy Podeswa
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO

Two of Boardwalk Empire‘s most longstanding veterans waved the long goodbye tonight in one of the hardest, heaviest, and most integral episodes the series has ever delivered.

First up was Van Alden, who went out in a way that perfectly belied the arc which his character has been building toward since S3. That he should go down screaming the law in the face of a man he’s hated for almost a decade is a natural bookend for him, and even if it’s telegraphed a few seconds before it happens, it only makes the the brutal hit more effective when it comes.

Van Alden was one of the most enduring characters in Boardwalk‘s 5 year history, and was arguably the strongest remaining cast member. Michael Shannon’s portrayal of the troubled double agent who spent the first two seasons struggling between his morality and his duty, and the last three living a series of never-ending lies is one for the books, and will likely be his best known role for a great many years to come, if not the remainder of his career.

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Eli’s traumatized response to Van Alden’s death was another great moment, and the interplay between these two has been a highlight of the season. The easy chemistry that Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham shared made for a great pairing. This is less surprising for anyone who has seen Take Shelter, a fantastic film in which the two share a half-dozen scenes.

The other body that hit the ground was that of Chalky White. As a man with nothing left, it’s hard to decide clearly whether his demise was more or less tragic than that of Van Alden, but the haunting and melancholic note in which it sends out the episode is undeniable. That Chalky was allowed to crush Narcisse one last time before the end is a beautiful thing, and his heartfelt goodbye to Daughter, and his own daughter, was one of the sweetest moments of the hour.

By the end it seemed pretty clear that if Harlem’s former number one didn’t know for sure it was coming, he was damn sure ready for it one way or the other. That Michael Kenneth William’s career already includes the juicy role of Omar Little on The Wire makes his turn as Chalky only another notch in his well-weathered belt, but what a notch it was. “All a dream to begin with really, ain’t no one ever been free.”

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Elsewhere in the episode, Nucky’s character is really allowed to breathe in the aftermath of Sally’s death and his goodbye to Margaret. That he basically spends the episode getting trashed and trying to pick up girls is actually a great use of the show’s time, and it gives the episode a relaxed sensation that carries well in between the bigger moments. It also gives him the chance for some great monologues. Nucky is indeed a tireless fount of words here but in between the nonsense pseudo-poetry and his masculine posturing, he gets some of the best dialogue he’s ever been given, wherein he questions his life’s path and laments what little it’s brought him here, at the end.

In the past, though, he’s yet to even enter his prime. His hands seem to be getting a bit dirtier but by and large his corruption has scarcely begun. That all looks to change with the street urchin he comes upon as the episode closes. Seeing Nucky sell out Gillian to the lecherous commodore in the remaining two hours will no doubt be a skin-crawler of a scene, and it seems to be the final note of his dirty deeds of the years past, perhaps even the one that put him where he is today.

The final piece of the hour involves a surprisingly assertive Mickey Doyle gathering the troops in Nucky’s name. As a beaten and hungover Nucky stumbles out to the balcony, he’s greeted by an army of his men. “Are we saddling up?” he’s asked.

Sure they are, we all are. Only two hours left.

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