It’s unfortunate that Boardwalk Empire’s seasons almost without exception take a long time to get good. When they finally hit that point, though, as “The Old Ship of Zion” finally did for the show’s fourth season, they can be excellent. Many of the issues that plague the show early on, particularly both a lack of focus and a lack of surprises, seem to drop away effortlessly and we’re left with a far leaner viewing experience.
Case in point: almost the entirety of this episode took place in Atlantic City, and its cast of characters was, while still large, at least manageable. The unity of place doesn’t sound like it should be important, as either way characters and stories are being intercut, but it really does because of how it mixes the stories together in a way that the show rarely does well, if at all. It’s understandable that Boardwalk Empire wants to set up as many pieces of its giant, clockwork plot machine as it can early on in the season, but having episodes with 15 minutes devoted to each of three stories leads to much more depth than seven minutes on seven stories, and with this each plot feels more compelling. Boardwalk Empire has always been about excess, both thematically and structurally, but its best moments almost always occur when this is stripped away and the personal finally seeps into its episodes.
Weirdly, it isn’t even all that important which stories get this treatment, as much of the episode was devoted to stories that have mostly been lukewarm so far. It’s still difficult to care, or in any way empathize, with the plight of Willie Thompson. But on the other hand we do care about Eli and Nucky, and the relationship between the brothers has been fraught with difficulties since the first season. Foregrounding the brothers didn’t remove Willie’s brooding dullness, but it did give his choice some stakes. The episode raises the question as to what Willie, as a living metaphor for the Thompson family as a whole, means to each of them and what they’re willing to do to protect it. There’s a reason why the episode ends with a look at the Thompson family, as the relationship between the brothers may finally be heading toward a break that for once cannot be mended. Nucky forgave Eli in the past, but betraying him to the Bureau of Investigation is almost certainly a permanent rupture between them. What’s more, I don’t know that Eli’s family would forgive him, either.
The surprises in later episodes of Boardwalk Empire result from characters finally being asked to make choices, whereas early on it feels like they’re on rails. Whether Eli will collaborate with the bureau or not isn’t a sure thing, even though he’s betrayed his brother in the past. Similarly, Dunne has for a while been the only interesting part of the rivalry between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky White because he’s been the variable, the person we can’t predict. He’s playing, we know by now, only for himself, and he seems perfectly willing to betray either of them to save his skin. He’s also the person most at risk, easier for either side to deal with. The tension he imbued in every scene he appeared in this episode led to the explosion at the ends. But the real choice here came from Daughter Maitland, who finally decided she cared more about Chalky than Narcisse. This is probably the best material we’ll see from this storyline, because while the winner between the two of them is yet to be determined, the unpredictable elements have now been resolved.
There was one more major part of “The Old Ship of Zion,” Sally Wheet’s unexpected appearance in Atlantic City. It added little to the episode, but it also didn’t particularly interfere with the intensity of what else was going on. Sally is also enjoyably unpredictable, like Capone, so while little that she did really mattered, at least her material didn’t feel rote. Plus, it meant we got another moment of Nucky abusing Mickey Doyle. That’s just good television.
In all it led to the best episode of the season so far, an excellent hour of television that put the humanity back into a frequently cold and mechanical show. The dialogue was still stiff (although I laughed out loud at the meta-fictional play by Dr. Narcisse, whose heavy-handed symbolism was clearly too sophisticated for the audience, clearly), but the cast felt human emotions, and they were for once given the screentime to make them plausible. “Ship of Zion” nimbly bounced between concerns about race, religion and family loyalty, and for all of this never stepped into its usual pitfalls of preachiness or pretentiousness. In short, it was an episode of the show Boardwalk Empire always wants to be but so rarely is. It’s also a great sign for where the season is headed from here, even though we’re certain to head back to more of the excruciating and interminable Gillian Darmody storyline post haste.