“Acres of Diamonds” – Boardwalk Empire

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 6.09.35 PMOh, Dr Narcisse, you sneaky dog. Fresh from muscling in on Chalky’s business (without having to use muscle), he’s now gauging Dunn Purnsley’s allegiance to his master as preparation for flooding Atlantic City’s black community with heroin. Purnsley is still in Chalky’s dog house for the murder of Dickie Pastor. Chalky isn’t too pleased that Dunn’s libido has brought Dr Narcisse into his life. If Dunn continues as the rope in Narcisse and Chalky’s tug of war, then his days are likely numbered in AC. If TV has taught us anything, it’s that the treacherous lieutenant rarely survives.

And from where is Narcisse getting the heroin? Arnold Rothstein, of course. There have been some wonderful combinations of actors in the show already, and Jeffrey Wright and Michael Stuhlbarg look to be the latest. Both characters deal primarily in verbals, leaving the bloodier side to their underlings. However, both also realize the power inherent in subtly gaining advantages through mere conversation. Witness how Narcisse has already done this with Nucky, endeavoring to show himself as Nucky’s equal by describing him (among other things) as a “king, pretending to be a servant”. I hope we see more of Narcisse and Rothstein alone together. It’s already clear that Narcisse is as dangerous as Rothstein ever was, so having them team up should make things interesting for Nucky when he returns from Florida.

An interesting aside here relates to Narcisse wiping his hand after shaking Rothstein’s. Combine this with his distaste for interracial relations and we have a man as bad as any Klansman, reminding us that racism exists in all contexts on Boardwalk Empire, not just white against black. (As a side note, I have to wonder if he cleaned it because Rothstein is white, or because Rothstein is Jewish…)

Watching how the writers have dealt with race so far this season has been fascinating. In “Acres of Diamonds”, we see Chalky and Narcisse discussing the beautiful new singer’s performance. Over the course of this conversation, Chalky implies that as the “white folk seem to like her,” nothing else matters. This assertion irritates Narcisse, and confirms his belief that Chalky is the “servant” he sees – an Uncle Tom with a subservient mentality, an accusation often leveled at performers like Louis Armstrong. The Onyx is a club run by black people, and peopled with (nearly all) black performers, and yet its customers are mainly, if not all, white. While we could look at this merely as another example of ‘the way things were’, we can also consider it in light of Dave Chappelle’s recent experiences. The comedian’s return to stand up has been beset by audiences demanding he redo routines that are a decade old. The man clearly wants to try out new things, but has to continually fight back against those who prefer to view him as a minstrel, there to entertain and do their bidding.

Of course, Narcisse isn’t exactly helping his fellow “Libyans”, either, unless they’re of his social class. He has already introduced heroin to Harlem, and his intentions for AC’s black community are no more noble. Instead, he lectures men of a similar station to himself on self-empowerment. Once again, he positions himself as the antithesis to Chalky. Chalky is a leader of the impoverished blacks, Narcisse is their detractor.

Leaving aside the race issue, we move down to Florida, where Nucky has been asked to help Bill McCoy settle a debt of $600,000 (over $2 million in today’s monies). McCoy is, to be fair, in deep shit. His creditor is August Tucker, who is basically a southern Gyp Rossetti. Initially, Nucky isn’t interested in helping his friend, as the risk of getting caught is too high. After a conversation with bar owner Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), however, he reconsiders.

We get to see Nucky open up a bit in the bar, admitting that he was much happier as a regular politician with a finger in the whiskey jar than as the full blown criminal he is nowadays. He’s also leaning towards not contacting Teddy, Margaret’s son, again. If we compare him to his biggest TV rival, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Nucky is a galaxy away. Like Walt, he’s the male anti-hero you expect to see in TV dramas, but he’s become so melancholy. In contrast, Walt is permanently pining for more, convinced he can outsmart all his enemies and friends along the way. Nucky is a much more reactive character. We see him trying to hold onto the structure he has instead of risking more strife for more money. That mentality is what brings him to initially reject McCoy’s plan, but his inner good guy (something usually left buried) has a change of heart. Unfortunately, it comes too late for McCoy, and for Tucker. A terrified McCoy kills the Tampa Gyp in self-defense.

Away from Nucky, we check in on his nephew, Willie. His arc goes all Superbad on us as he tries to get alcohol for a college party. To do this, he brings Mickey Doyle into the picture. It’s sincerely strange that I’m even saying this, but Mickey might have actually done the sensible thing here. First trying (and failing) to scare the kid away from his warehouse, he relents after Willie attempts to steal a crate. He likely figured that he’d try somewhere else. Somewhere where being Eli Thompson’s son might not give him much leeway.

After Willie and his buddy bring the drink back, the revellers get revelling. Atypical of most student sessions, everyone ends up in the library. Willie and the object of his affections are interrupted by a boy the girl had spurned earlier, leading to a standoff in which the bully deflates Willie’s ego with a single line: “Well it looks like your anger’s not the only thing that’s arisen”. Damn you, Willie. Damn you and your blatant erection. Instantly, Willie’s humiliation reminds him that he’s not the big man he thinks he is. But will this lend him patience, or inspire him to become even more like his uncle and father in an effort to ‘butch up’ his reputation?

The college-based scenes also introduced us to philanthropist Russell Conwell, whose speech, ‘Acres of Diamonds’, plays over the classroom gramophone to inspire young collegiates. Conwell’s speech revolves around the idea that a man can achieve wealth by looking in his own backyard. Conwell would probably advise against Nucky venturing into Tampa, but diamonds sure are pretty little things. Of course, Conwell also believed that “The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. That is why they are rich.” A blindly optimistic man, clearly. Dr Narcisse seems to have set his eyes on Atlantic City’s acres of diamonds, and will be about as “honest” there as he was in Harlem.

Richard Harrow’s story took a turn this week that I, and maybe you, didn’t expect. Rather than the writers allowing the Carl Billings strand to play out over a few episodes, they dealt with it quickly. Billings arrived at the Harrow household to a less than warm welcome, losing a man to Harrow’s blade and his head to Emma. Literally. And that’s where things turn sour for the Harrow twins. Both realize that Richard cannot stay there. This will be a bitter pill for him to swallow, particularly after his dear sister’s parting words – “You need to call yourself to account.” We’re likely to see a new side of Harrow here, as he tries to atone for his past. But that potentially interesting story arc is also quite sad. I would gladly have said goodbye to Harrow’s recurring appearances if it meant that he was finally happy. Of all the characters, I feel like he deserves that most.

On a lighter note, Harrow’s interactions with Emma’s suitor, Hugh, were nicely done. Despite the character’s chatterbox nature, he came across as well meaning and genuine. And it was amusing to see Harrow so casually called ‘Rick’.

One of the weaker strands thoughout is Gillian’s. Watching her pretend to be Ron Phillips’ wife and make awkward jokes would have been weak in most episodes, but including it among one that has an introspective Nucky, as well as Narcisse and Rothstein plotting and Richard Harrow being as compelling as ever? No, that did it little favors. Her nervousness at one of the friends of the fake Jimmy recognizing her seemed to set off an alarm bell in Phillips’ head, though, so we’ll wait and see.

Aside from Gillian, there was plenty to enjoy about “Acres of Diamonds”. Some of the dialogue was excellent, particularly in the exchanges between Nucky and Sally Wheet, and also between Narcisse and Rothstein. The following was especially brilliant, if only for Jeffrey Wright’s polite delivery:

“It’s not my intention to offend you.”
“None the less, you succeeded, despite yourself.”

Patricia Arquette (True RomanceEd Wood) slotted in well as Wheet, with her and Nucky’s rapport reminding me of Don Draper and Conrad Hilton’s when they met in similar circumstances in an old Mad Men installment. We found ourselves hoping that Nucky would be spending a lot of time in Florida, just so we could see some more of that instant connection.

And that ending was glorious. Nucky decides to accept McCoy’s deal and calls him, but it’s too late. McCoy doesn’t let Nucky (or us viewers) know that, though. Instead, we get the slow reveal, the camera pulling back to reveal August Tucker slumped against a wall and suffering from a bad case of machete-to-the-head. McCoy is distraught, crying out as Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks start up “Florida”. And it’s fantastic. – E

Quoteworthy: 

(While ordering a certain beverage) “Lighter on the blood, heavier on the Mary.” – Nucky

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