Nucky Thompson’s the one in the most trouble, but Chalky White is the one who rivets your attention.
If just this one episode of “Boardwark Empire” is any indication, Chalky – played by Michael Kenneth Williams – is poised to play a big part in the second season of the HBO gangster series that started Sunday night.
Chalky is the brooding kingpin of Atlantic City’s African-American community, and he enjoys considerable power in the corrupt political pecking order, due to his ability to marshall black voters for the county’s white politicians.
But in the racist society of the early 1920s, Chalky’s power only goes so far, as he learned after he and members of his coterie were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan in Sunday’s episode. The attackers killed several of Chalky’s people, but when one of the Klan members died from a bullet wound administered by Chalky as the Klansmen made their getaway, it was Chalky who would find himself in hot water for daring to shoot a white man who had just assaulted him.
Of course, last season, Chalky had tortured another Klan member, snipping off one of the man’s fingers, among other things. Now in danger of being lynched by a white community bent on revenge, Chalky had a beef of his own, complaining bitterly to Nucky (Steve Buscemi), the Atlantic City treasurer and political patronage boss, about Nucky’s apparent inability to protect Chalky from the Klan.
It was just one of several serious problems that mounted up for Nucky in the season premiere. The most serious of them: Nucky’s surprise arrest on election-fraud charges – an arrest that was set in motion by the crafty Commodore (Dabney Coleman), the aging former boss of Atlantic City who’s angling to recapture his past glory.
And he’s attempting to do so by manipulating the conflicted Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). The Commodore is Jimmy’s biological father, but up until recently, he never paid him any attention. Jimmy was raised primarily by Nucky – which makes for serious fatherhood issues for the young gangster.
Elsewhere in Sunday’s episode, we loved the subplot featuring the uptight federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) as he coped with a visit from his wife, showing her the sights and arousing her passion when he staged a raid on the restaurant in which they were dining. We continue to be stunned by Shannon’s portrayal of this guy – every scene he’s in is an exercise in acute discomfort.
Just as riveting, though, is Chalky, and we’re looking forward to learning more about him and his world in the weeks ahead.
“Boardwalk Empire” airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.