For all I complain about Boardwalk Empire’s difficulty with telling compelling stories, the show really knows how to milk a scene for all it’s worth. “The North Star” was even more filled with exciting scenes than usual, such that it was easy enough to get caught up in the excellent acting and directing without realizing the clunkiness of the some of the dialogue and plotting. The episode’s director, Allen Coulter, was the star of the episode, imbuing every scene with tension until at the end of the episode everything seemed to burst. All of that, in an hour of Boardwalk Empire without any deaths or betrayals or even any particularly big surprises.
It was also an episode haunted with Eddie Kessler’s death, and the shaking of Pennsylvania Station’s restaurant began things with an obvious callback to the shakiness of his serving earlier this season. Margaret returns for the first time this season, but refuses to tell Nucky, and thus the audience, where she works or really what she’s doing. Nucky is meeting with her to talk about Eddie, but once she realizes what’s going on she dismisses the butler with a curt comment that, “No one knew how to look after you like Mr. Kessler.” It’s a scene that does little to advance the plot, and tells us no new information, but the sparks between these two characters are so fierce that it’s an indelible part of the episode, and not simply because of the thematic grounding it sets down for how Kessler’s life is to be interpreted. Nucky himself is coming to grips about what Kessler’s death means, and it will take him until the end of the episode to speak his own feelings—until then we’ll hear several other takes on it.
Agent Knox has become in a sense this character’s “big bad,” more or less the only antagonizing force in Boardwalk Empire. His character has also grown with every episode, and finally he’s become the most reliably entertaining part of the show. His interaction with Hoover is excellent, but it’s only a prelude for the tension of his confrontation with Eli and Mickey. Mickey’s constant comments about clubbing a rat aren’t subtle, but neither are they supposed to be. Much like when Van Alden is in the presence of Al Capone, Knox is afraid just to be around these gangsters, and with good reason. Eli’s recognition of Knox’s monographed handkerchief signals that this trepidation is well-motivated.
Even the generally dull Florida deal became exciting with the addition of alligator fights and the hostile uncertainty of a place that, to Nucky and the New Yorkers, is more or less a foreign country. There’s a sense with every step of these negotiations that the truth, whether it’s about the mysterious absence of their former business partner or Luciano acting against his boss’s wishes, will leak out. But it never does, which only adds another layer of strain to a deal already about to burst. In Nucky’s drunken monologue, he even makes it clear that he knows pushing forward like this is a bad idea, but he simply can’t stop himself anymore. He sees the woman ordering a cinnamon roll and he wants one himself, even if he hates the taste of cinnamon.
As usual, there were a few storylines that felt lacking. Richard Harrow returns to Atlantic City and confronts first Paul Sagorsky, who he learns has cirrhosis, then Julia Sargorsky and Tommy. None of this seems particularly relevant, though; even if people are still looking for Richard for killing Gyp and his men, this doesn’t seem important for anyone except perhaps Gillian. The custody battle for Tommy remains a complete nonstarter, and the long periods in which Richard spoke to the Sagorsky’s continually bogged down the episode.
Chalky White’s story also faltered, perhaps because his character has become so much less interesting this season. In contrast to Nucky, who drives himself on even when he knows he should be content with what he has, Chalky’s only ambition is holding onto what he already has. The rivalry between him and Narcisse offers some interest, but by maintaining the club, he’s already fulfilled his dream. His affair with Daughter Maitland isn’t remotely surprising, nor is it particularly interesting. At this point, it’s just another piece of the season’s puzzle.
Even so, both of these stories had wonderful set pieces. The way Paul Sagorsky notices Richard and then chases after him is wonderfully done and makes us pay attention to an otherwise rote conversation. The same is true with Maitland’s performance, as we watch an entranced Chalky fall under her spell and show a bit of vulnerability behind his swagger. It wasn’t enough to fully imbue these parts of the episode with life, but it was enough to keep them from taking away too much of its momentum. We’re halfway through the season, but at least it finally feels like it’s starting to take us somewhere interesting.