When Boardwalk Empire introduced heroin to its universe, it took a legal problem and turned it into something oddly more. The drug has slowly been circulating on the show for years, but it’s only now, at the end of the fourth season, finally becoming the center of the show’s story. It’s a matter of looking at the period from a century later that makes this parallel so obvious yet so problematic, a direct analogy to alcohol that isn’t so direct at all. It’s easy, after the end of prohibition and liquor consumption seemingly more rampant than ever (at least, if the rate of new microbreweries popping up in my hometown is to serve as any barometer) to say that liquor laws were ridiculous and caused incredible amounts of violence and social problems. But then, what’s really different about it as a controlled substance than, say, heroin? Where’s to draw the line when they’re both illegal—for instance, if you’re smuggling liquor in from Tampa, why would you think twice about smuggling some heroin alongside it?
But of course, heroin isn’t just like alcohol, and morality has a lot more shades of gray to it than simply saying that liquor smuggling is fine but heroin smuggling is wrong. My frustration with Dr. Narcisse, for instance, comes from the fact that he doesn’t seem to find anything different between earning money through heroin or violence than he does through any other means. He truly does seem to believe in activism for African-American rights, but his own pockets always seem to come first. He’s not Marcus Garvey; ultimately he’s a gangster, and he prefers earning money with the Italians to focusing on his advocacy. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily delegitimize the work he does for his own community. Some characters on Boardwalk Empire are able to have this sort of cognitive dissonance while others aren’t, and in a way there’s always been a struggle in the show between characters who understand what they’re doing and do so anyway and those, like Narcisse, who seem to have convinced themselves that the ends justify the means.
Agent Knox, for instance, the show’s current boy scout working for the Bureau of Investigation, is willing to kill a man in cold blood for essentially no reason at all. Knox’s adherence to obeying the law is in many respects without question, but he’s unconcerned with murder. He’s hunting down Nucky Thompson and the rest of organized crime around the country, but he’s doing it in a completely amoral manner. This is essentially what drove Richard Harrow to despair at the beginning of the season. He, on the other hand, doesn’t mind murder, but he can’t deal with the fundamental nihilism of Knox. His actions need to have a sort of meaning, whereas for Knox that meaning is simply the law. Knox himself has become one of the most interesting characters on the show because of his “by any means necessary” approach to his assignment, not to mention his complete lack of guilt. He has the ruthlessness of Van Alden, but not the conscience, and as such is the only true sociopath in the show’s fourth season, silently as unpredictable and dangerous as Gyp Rossetti in the third.
The most telling moment of considering the shifting morality of Boardwalk Empire in “White Horse Pike” came from Margaret rationalizing the deal she’s making with Arnold Rothstein. Why, she asks, does she have problems betraying her boss with illegal stock trading when what she’s doing with him is already illegal? The reason for this is obvious, even though she can’t see it, but one of the simple things that Boardwalk Empire has been good at constantly pointing out is that the law has little to do with morality. She’s betraying her employer here, not the anonymous people coming into her boss’s office, and it offers her pangs of guilt. But not, ultimately, for very long.
Beyond all of this, in “White Horse Pike” Boardwalk Empire has reached a saturation point with its violence, and the sheer number of shootings in this episode was a bit staggering. Yet despite that, there’s not nearly as much suspense in Boardwalk Empire as in, for instance, The Sopranos, due to its historical basis. Knowing that Al Capone makes it through everything means that the violence between him and O’Banion isn’t as interesting as it should be. It’s a problem the show has never really resolved—the other one being that its biggest stars have remained with the show since the beginning. Boardwalk Empire is not a show where everyone on the cast is at risk, and that’s a fundamental problem for keeping the audience on its toes. Even though Dr. Narcisse was right there in the window, we’re certain that Chalky and his gang will fail to kill him in their hail of bullets simply because Narcisse is too important for the story and that’s not the type of scene the show’s named characters die in.
As such, in contrast to the past couple of weeks, “White Horse Pike” felt more concerned about moving its pieces around than with character choices, so despite the non-stop action, it didn’t have nearly as much excitement. Even the biggest “decision” of the episode, in which Nucky finally decided where he stood with respect to Chalky and Dr. Narcisse, felt played out before it happened. Once Sally discovered the hidden heroin, everything turned out pretty much how you thought it would. The episode still had its big moments, particularly Chalky in the car and Eli’s revelation about his son and his own betrayal, but they weren’t surprising so much as they were well-acted and directed. Likewise, it was a well-done episode that almost never slowed down, almost completely excising the tedious parts of the show, but apparently we’ll have to wait for the final two episodes of the season to see anything truly astonishing happen.