“The Devil You Know” completes the stories for two of Boardwalk Empire’s leading men, and, as such, it’s impossible to watch without wondering about the entirety of their arcs. Did they make sense? Did they add something to the show, or were they somewhat incoherent? It’s an uncomfortable question for Boardwalk Empire because the answers aren’t really as positive as they should be, particularly in the case of Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden.
When introduced in Season One,Van Alden was a devout opponent of alcohol. Yet it was ultimately his crusading in that cause that led to his downfall, and now he’s a gangster in Chicago, working as a low level henchman for Al Capone. It’s a fall-from-grace story that sounds interesting from a distance, but the question is, how much does it add to Boardwalk Empire as a whole, which (especially now, in its final season) is for the most part the story of Nucky Thompson? Not all that much, it turns out. There’s a sense that for a while, Van Alden’s story was about the requirement for corruption in the police, and then eventually about how a man whose values have been stripped from him can rebuild his life. For the most part, though, despite numerous great scenes, it’s been a mess. Van Alden dies after he and Eli try to pull off a half-hearted scam to steal Al Capone’s books, and get caught redhanded. When Al confronts him about this, he goes into angry proselytization mode one last time, but this mostly acts as a reminder of just how rambling his character has been. Van Alden is revealed, in the end, to have existed for so long (with hours of screentime spent upon him), not because the character was particularly interesting, but because of Michael Shannon. At least, that’s the only rationale I could really come up with. His ignominious, largely pointless end seems fitting for a character that was always less interesting than the fantastic performances the actor gave.
All of that is criticism of the show as a whole, which has proven time and time again to be rather terrible when it comes to serialization, often in surprising new ways. However, as far as this episode in particular is concerned, Van Alden and Eli’s tense series of confrontations in Al Capone’s apartment made for some exciting television, even though we knew that there was no way Capone would be the one dead at the end of it. Once again, that’s the problem with relying on real people, as there’s no sense of danger on that side of the room, even when Boardwalk Empire really wants there to be. And fortunately, when all of the drama is done, Eli is left wondering what to do next. Likely, this means a return to Atlantic City for him, and some form of reconciliation with his brother, after their years apart (which, due to the time jump, really just feels like no time at all).
Like Van Alden, Chalky White has always been more interesting as a performance, as opposed to anything the show’s given him to actually do. This episode picks up right where the last ended, with him still in Sister’s bedroom, and it isn’t long before Narcisse enters. The result is a tense showdown, in which Chalky bargains for Narcisse to stop ruining Sister’s recording career in exchange for his life. It’s a fitting end for White, simply because his character was always powerless, was always held down by the system and was also always one of the few honorable men in Boardwalk Empire. He cares about more than just money, so he loses to those who don’t, time and time again. It was a far more filmic end than Van Alden’s, but it felt keeping with his character as well. There was almost as much incoherence in White’s storylines as there were in Van Alden’s, but it feels like both men went out the way they would’ve wanted. I fault the show for what came before, but at least this last time out they were both given good material.
While so much of Nucky’s story this season has been great, it seems fitting that in “The Devil You Know” his is the big disappointment. Nucky goes off on one of those meandering survivor’s guilt stories that television shows seem to love—the kind which essentially never go anywhere, resolving at the end of the episode and filled with characters never to be seen or mentioned again. Nucky hangs out with con-women in a bar, gets robbed, and, uhh, that’s it. This takes up a great deal of time, and is the type of dead-on-arrival subplot that Boardwalk Empire has always loved giving him. There’s so much tension in the rest of the episode, I’d rather Nucky’s barroom adventures were left out entirely. Filler material like this, at the end of the show’s run and during a reduced season, seems inexcusable.
Then again, alongside present day Nucky’s filler, we have the latest installment of past Nucky’s filler-tastic adventures. This time he catches a young Gillian Darmody as a thief. And that’s, well, pretty much it. Presumably that means she’ll be back next episode, though I sure wish Boardwalk Empire had forgotten about her entirely after the third season.
It wouldn’t be Boardwalk Empire if we didn’t have to take the bad with the good. Fortunately, like so many episodes, “The Devil You Know” does a good job of keeping these parts very distinct. And admittedly, Steve Buscemi always does great work in his throwaway stories, it’s just that—at this point in the show—the very existence of throwaway stories is pretty disappointing. I’d hoped that due to time constraints, the show’s final season would be tighter than usual, but Boardwalk Empire never seems to have any idea why it tells its stories; it just does. That’s always been the problem for characters like White and Van Alden, who exist for the sake of existing (or perhaps because the series still has them on contract), rather than because there are real ideas about who they are and why they should be onscreen. At least we’re building to a conclusion, and those are usually something Boardwalk empire does pretty well, even if its reliance on history means there are limits to what it’s willing to do.