Boardwalk Empire: Is a New "King" Coming to Atlantic City?
by Adam Bryant
Get ready to meet a different kind of gangster on Boardwalk Empire.
On Sunday’s episode (9/8c, HBO) Nucky (Steve Buscemi) & Co. will meet Dr. Valentin Narcisse (guest star Jeffrey Wright), a Harlem crime lord who is drawn to Atlantic City to investigate the disappearance of one of his talent scouts — aka the man Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey) murdered in the Season 4 premiere. Needless to say, Narcisse comes to Chalky (Michael K. Williams) looking for answers.
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Unlike the hot-headed and physically imposing thugs of seasons past, Narcisse isn’t necessarily seeking eye-for-an-eye vengeance. But that doesn’t mean he should be underestimated. “My hope is that he’s not a character that we’ve seen a lot of anywhere,” Wright tells TVGuide.com. “”He’s highly refined,” Wright continues. “He’s very pleasant, but not very nice. I think his way of ingratiating himself and infiltrating into power structures is through his civility and affectation. But underlying it is something much more ruthless.”
Indeed, Narcisse, who hails originally from Trinidad and fancies himself a “king,” is a highly educated activist for the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He aims to lift the African-American race, which he refers to as “Lybians,” out from under the oppression of the “Nordic” white Americans. It’s in that mission that he first finds himself at odds with Chalky.
“He’s got an enormous appetite for power,” Wright says. “He’s the type of character guy who walks into a room and his attention is drawn to two people: the most powerful in the room and the most vulnerable. Chalky is the latter for him. There’s something very personal and political that drives his disdain for Chalky, in that he is a ‘certain type’ of negro — one who is undereducated, who is rural, who, as Narcisse perceives him, is backward and beholden to white power structures. He’s the antithesis of everything that Narcisse sees as the ideal future for black Americans.
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Naturally, Narcisse will quickly begin his plans to undermine Chalky. “In terms of his own arrogance, [Narcisse looks] at Chalky and thinks, ‘If this guy can lead this city, imagine what I can do?'” creator Terence Winter says. “Narcisse is much more intellectual and his insidiousness is really in the sense that he is a psychological warrior. He’s certainly violent, and we’ll see that as the season progresses. But he is much more of a chess player.
Of course, Chalky isn’t the only player on the chess board. Let’s not forget the backing for Chalky’s new club all came from his allegiance to Nucky. “Narcisse is a realist,” Winter says. “I think he knows that he needs to operate within the parameters of the political and social world of 1924. I don’t know that realistically he thinks he can ever take over Atlantic City completely, but he certainly can take over a big enough chunk of it that, if things worked his way, Nucky will have to be at least his partner, if not subservient to him.”
But don’t be fooled by Narcisse also calling Nucky a “king” during their first meeting. In his mind, they’re not necessarily equals. “Narcisse is non-discriminating in whom he targets. He’s an equal opportunity troublemaker,” Wright says. “There’s no limit to his desire to the upward mobility that he envisions for himself. But at the same time, he’s very strategic and considered. He’s very much a survivor [and] he plays politics very well. He does say that to Nucky, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that he feels that way about Nucky. He’s not someone who’s beyond dishonesty.”
In fact, Narcisse, who also dabbles in dealing heroin, is filled with hypocrisy. “He’s rife with contradiction,” Wright says. “He almost thrills in his own hypocrisy … because he doesn’t see any contradiction between his philosophy and his actions. Whatever justification he comes up with for spouting the uplift of the race [while] at the same time dealing poison to the most vulnerable among his own race, is perhaps his way of separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s his idea of social Darwinism at work. He carries on and doesn’t lose any sleep over it.”
But is that his fatal flaw? Will he ever be able to be more reflective? “It’s not an easy task for him,” Wright says, adding that the audience may gain more clarity about his character than Narcisse himself. “But that’s not relative to whether he remains a scoundrel. … Stay tuned. Any ambiguity will disappear as the season progresses.”
Boardwalk Empire airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.