“The Old Ship of Zion,” a gospel song about “life’s troubled seas,” is also the title of “Boardwalk Empire” Episode 44, HBO’s Prohibition Era drama.
Sultry entertainer Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) first sings the sacred song at the funeral of Lemuel Cuffy (Franklin Ojeda Smith), a beloved deacon murdered by heroin peddler Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey).
Daughter also sings the hymn during an intimate moment with Onyx Club operator Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), who suspects Dunn of secretly working for drug kingpin Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey White).
Valentin’s covert scheme to wrest control of Atlantic City’s black community turns into open warfare when Chalky raids a drug house and confiscates packets of heroin.
Chalky defiantly burns the powder outside a theater as Valentin emerges from a poorly received performance of “Ominira,” his one-act play about African American independence.
Caught in the middle of this life-and-death struggle is Daughter. She owes her career to Valentin, but he strangled her prostitute mother many years ago. And Daughter was supposed to spy on Chalky, but they’ve since become lovers.
Now she must choose sides as Valentin orders Dunn to kill Chalky. Bigger and stronger Dunn has the upper hand until Daughter stabs him in the back. Then she cradles Chalky as he gasps for air.
“Breathe, breathe,” she whispers tenderly.
Elsewhere in Atlantic City, gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) receives a rum shipment hidden in Florida orange crates. Overseeing the delivery is Tampa speakeasy owner Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), who revels in hard booze and rough-and-tumble sex.
“Did I hurt your feelings last time?” she asks teasingly.
“You hurt my jaw,” replies Nucky, who’s surprised to see Sally but eager for another romp.
Sally becomes acquainted with Nucky’s nephew Willie (Ben Rosenfield), who dropped out of college after poisoning a student in a revenge prank, then letting roommate Clayton Davies (Owen Campbell) face homicide charges.
Holed up at Nucky’s hotel, Willie is afraid to return home and face the wrath of his father Eli (Shea Whigham). Eli is enraged that Willie turned his back on higher education and a respectable career, and blames Nucky for interfering in family affairs.
Grasping for a new direction in life, Willie hopes to make good by starting at the bottom of Nucky’s criminal network. That entry-level job turns out to be in the office of corrupt Mayor Edward Bader (Kevin O’Rourke).
“All I require is that you keep your eyes and ears open,” Nucky tells Willie. “Are you comfortable with that?”
Willie could prove Nucky’s undoing if undercover Prohibition Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) prevails. After hearing about the college tragedy, Warren travels to Philadelphia where Willie’s former classmate is wrongfully jailed.
“Tell me all you know about William Thompson,” Warren says, coaxing Clayton with packs of cigarettes.
Armed with new intel, Warren and his partner (Jacob Ware) confront Eli at a restaurant and tell him about the poisoning incident.
“I’m sorry you have to hear it from us,” Warren says as Eli trembles with rage.
“Bring us your brother along with the criminals he conspires with,” Warren says, and Willie won’t be prosecuted.
“All you have to do is nod and you get to hold onto what matters,” Warren says. “One little nod.”
When Eli goes home, he finds his troubled son leading a family sing-along. The music stops as Willie apologizes for abandoning college.
“I disobeyed you. I didn’t show respect. I was wrong,” Willie confesses. Then Eli opens his arms for an embrace.
As promised, Nucky says, everything worked out fine.
“Thank you, brother,” replies Eli, as he grapples with a huge dilemma.