The Old Ship of Zion
“Appearances are as important as reality, Mr. Capone.”—Eddie Kessler, 'All In'
“It is your show, sir.”—Valentin Narcisse, 'The Old Ship of Zion'
After an episode of introspective character building and an episode of exquisitely mounting tension, “The Old Ship of Zion” lays the cards on the table for one of the major story arcs of the season and ties a couple of other arcs together with possible series-altering consequences. It is an episode concerned with bluffs and calling bluffs, appearances and the messy truths behind them, and it sets the audience up for a final four episodes that, if the events of this week are followed through on, will be as status quo altering as the back four of previous seasons.
The episode takes its’ title from a hymn we hear twice -- at the funeral of Deacon Cuffee, brutally murdered last week by the treacherous Dunn Purnsley, and later sung by Daughter Maitland to a tearful Chalky in a haunting scene before Dunn shows up to make his final betrayal. As many great elements as there are in this episode, it belongs in the end to Chalky and Dunn, completing an arc begun back in the second episode of season 2, Ourselves Alone, and Michael K. Williams and Erik LaRay Harvey each give perhaps their best performances since that episode.
In Ourselves Alone, the two characters meet in the Atlantic City jail, as Chalky’s wife delivers him a book he can’t read, and the bored Purnsley, irritated by Chalky’s air of importance and light-skinned wife, challenges him on his literacy and ultimately to a fight, not realizing that everyone else in the racially segregated cell is either one of Chalky’s henchmen or owes him a favor. The result is a brutal beatdown on Purnsley, but Chalky himself never lifts a finger and is impressed enough with Purnsley’s guts and charisma that he recruits to be his lieutenant. The underlying tension was never resolved however, and in addition to being robbed of the mano-a-mano confrontation he desired we learned in episode 5 that Purnsley is better educated than Chalky, being literate and capable of speaking with standard grammar. This lingering resentment made Purnsley ripe for Narcisse’s recruitment as a double agent, and combined with the distraction provided by Daughter, it looked for a few weeks like Chalky’s number was up. “The Old Ship of Zion” reminded us, however, that Chalky White is not to be underestimated.
After several tense scenes, including a standout that played like something out of The Iliad or Beowulf in which Chalky interrupts the Atlantic City debut of Narcisse’s hilariously awful play by standing outside beating on the lid of a trashcan and then publically calling the Doctor’s bluff and burning his heroin supply (a virtuoso performance by White to which Narcisse, despite being so angry his face twitches, can only truthfully reply “The performance is yours, sir,”) this thread comes to an incredibly suspenseful climax with the final confrontation between Chalky and his Benedict Arnold. Masterfully directed as always by the great Tim Van Patten, the two men begin the scene as physically far apart as the room allows and viewed in long shot. As Dunn’s lies slowly give way to the truth the men slowly move toward one another and the camera moves closer to them, until the point at which Chalky reveals he knows the truth is shot in a series of tight close ups, with the leering, serpentine Dunn in gauzy focus like the villain in a 1920s silent film. If the previous scene, in which Daughter sings the titular song to a tearful Chalky as he recalls his father’s funeral after being lynched, was lyrical with an undercurrent of dread, the fight scene that follows is all breathless, oppressive suspense, with the agile Chalky using his training as a boxer to hold his own against his larger opponent and, in a particularly painful moment, piercing his jaw with a wooden stake, before losing ground to Dunn and being nearly killed before Daughter Maitland lays out the trump card, saving Chalky with a symbolic knife to the back before cradling him in her arms. Once again, the only thing that can trump greed and ambition is the primal need for human connection.
The other big development this episode came when Knox uncovered the details of Willie’s poisoning Henry and setting up poor Clayton to take the fall. Bad things were bound to happen after Eli fell off the wagon last week, and Nucky giving him the “lucky” liquor bottle was an ominous sign, but Knox masterfully using Eli’s paternal concern against him—after witnessing Eli break down in tears in Eddie’s room at the thought of a father choosing to leave his children behind—was hard to watch. Shea Whigham gives a masterful performance, all pent up resentment and impotent rage, and when Knox uses the same rhythmic cadence on Eli he used to break Eddie, the nod he asks for but we don’t see leaves only a small sliver of doubt and hope. I’m afraid Eli is trapped, and however this turns out I’m afraid it’s going to be disastrous, whether for Nucky, Eli, Willie, or all three. When the pater familias comes home to find Nucky occupying his place in the family circle, it only rubs salt in the wound and makes the betrayal seem all the more inevitable.
Odds and Sods
>-In keeping with the theme of putting on a good show, notice how concerned Dunn was that his shooting gallery be kept clean and tidy, not just on the outside—that is simple self-preservation—but the inside as well.
-Based on the FBI agent’s “anecdote,” is seems as though AR’s losing streak is ongoing. Nice they managed to work that plot point in even in an episode in which he didn’t appear.
-“We’ll get the crooks, and then find the law.” Bluff your way past all obstacles.
-“We all have to move forward, Will.” I guess Nucky has admitted his inability to, as AR put it, sit quietly in a room by himself. That means trouble.
-Nucky’s advice to “turn this into an opportunity” recalled Gaston Means’s flattery of him last season: “Ordinary men avoid trouble, extraordinary men turn trouble to their advantage.
-Chalky’s wife is definitely on to him re: Daughter Maitland. He’s obviously unhappy in this marriage, but his dedication to his children and longing for respectability makes me unsure if he will choose Daughter if it comes to that.
-Loved the startled look Narcisse gave Mayor Bader when he gave an “AMEN.” When in Rome…
-As funny as it was seeing Nuck swat Mickey with the cane, I’ll miss watching the latter use it as a prop for Chaplin imitations. Also, I love that they turned Mickey appropriating Eddie’s cane into a mini story arc. What other show would do that?
-Like Bill McCoy, Chalky is too proud to ask Nucky for help. If McCoy is any indication, he may come to regret this.
-“Not my type of music, but it has an effect.” “That’s the blues.”
-“He was somewhere he shouldn't have been.” “He was in a church!”
-Of course, Nucky’s advice to get back in his community’s good graces is to make a donation.
-Like Billie before her, Sally knows the key to Nucky’s affections: make him jealous.
-Rather hilarious and pathetic that for all his rhetorical skill, Narcisse is a failed playwright. Also, did anyone else get the idea that the plot was Narcisse’s idealized version of the incident with Daughter’s mother we learned about last week?
-Narcisse may know his Aristotelian theory, but Chalky is the superior showman, at least in this instance: “Harlem By Torchlight!”
-Notice how Nucky kept correcting Willie: “The person YOU want to be.”
-The music playing in the diner when Knox makes his move on Eli is the same as the music in a couple of Eddie scenes early in the season.
-Willie: “I remember everything.” Ominous.
-Ragged Dick—another call back to Jimmy.
-Chalky on Daughter’s singing: “Sound like you tyin’ up a secret.”
-You can pinpoint the exact moment Daughter falls for Chalky. Nice work.
See you all next week, when something Mickey Doyle did way back in season 1 comes back to haunt him!
TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Contributing Writer
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