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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “Friendless Child”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “Friendless Child”
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“My fellow citizens: We are at war.”

“She had to come home, whether she liked it or not.”

Boardwalk Empire is no stranger to a slow start followed by a sudden burst of plot at the end of the season. Stakes are even higher now, when every hour that passes brings us closer to the end of the entire series. It’s no surprise, then, that the modern scenes in “Friendless Child” are frenetically paced, racing us toward the finish line with an even higher quota of bloodshed than normal. And despite providing something of a through-line for doomed-to-be-miserable Nucky, the rush of the immediate only highlights the dreamlike tableaux of the flashbacks, leading to an episode that feels both overfull and fitful. But when Boardwalk works, it really works, and “Friendless Child” reminds us that after a season of loss, Nucky still had farther to fall. To do that, amid all the gunfire and activity, director Allen Coulter structures a triad within the episode: three houses full of stolen things, in which their inhabitants are framed like dapper prisoners, their suits another set of vertical lines amid the windows and the doorways and the paneling of places that only belong to you a little while.


In the first two, reciprocal kidnappings remove the last vestiges of the idea that anything about gang politics is just business. After a weeks-long standoff with Luciano and company (as Nucky handily updates us, “Nineteen men dead between us, and no goddamn end in sight!”), Nucky cuts to the chase and kidnaps Bugsy Siegel post-tryst. In true “Ransom of Red Chief” fashion, Nucky immediately regret it, since Bugsy won’t stop singing timeless classics like “My Girl’s Pussy” any time he’s conscious long enough to catch his breath. Nucky regrets it even more when Eli shows up at his doorstep to tell him that William’s been taken as collateral. Given that it’s William, it’s a hostage turnabout that only his father(s) could love. (The brothers’ wretched reunion is perfectly underplayed; these two are only ever in one another’s corner when all other options have guns drawn.)

Eli cares, though. Eli made what sounds like a pre-suicide trip back home just to make sure William was doing okay for himself. William, taking a page straight out of uncle Nucky’s playbook, offers the utterly wrecked Eli somesanctuary, and when he doesn’t get immediate thanks from his father, loses all patience: “You want money? What is it you want?” Faced with it, Eli has no answer. No surprise, since this has been a season about the impossibility of holding on to anything, family or otherwise. It’s evidenced in short order by William’s kidnapping, Nucky’s solo standoff, and what it costs him: Archie and Mickey; everyone who stood up for him when the guns were out.

Though it was clear he was doomed as soon as Nucky opened his mouth about the good old days, it’s still sad to see Mickey go. I would never have thought that in the penultimate episode of the series, Mickey Doyle would be alive at all, much less Nucky’s staunchest ally amid gang wars. Nucky and Mickey can’t believe it, either. (Their quiet moment in the club before everything gets rolling is Boardwalk at its finest; great actors quietly bringing all the depth of five seasons to bear.) Loyalty comes from strange places, and I loved this example of it—a more successful long-term relationship than Nucky’s ever managed with anyone else, blood or otherwise.

The faceoff itself was reminiscent of every other standoff this show has brought us between two factions scrambling for power; two huddles of black cars at the end of the toad. This one’s a night exchange, with nothing for company but a far-off train whistle leading to places nobody here is ever going to see. However, in few of these standoffs has quite so much gone wrong for Nucky in so short an amount of time. Maybe few moments on this show have been as doomed as Nucky promising a despondent Eli, “I’ll fix it.” He ends up without a bodyguard, without a lieutenant, without his nephew, without his city, and on his knees. Even there, though, Nucky’s thinking ahead—he can’t do anything but think ahead, it’s his blessing and his curse—and he manages to wring just enough of a victory to walk away from the encounter, with the ruins of his fractured family following behind. (In the face of so great a loss, Maranzano’s murder and the return of William is a single rushed montage cut in with D’Angelo moving on Capone; there could have been two episodes’ worth of plans being made around both things, but this show can move when it wants to.) At episode’s end, Nucky has nothing left except one final wad of cash to throw at a problem, and an office full of memories in a club that isn’t even his any more.

Moving in parallel to all of this is another family beginning to fall apart, as young Nucky faces down a young Gillian (uncannily well cast, as per usual). She’s smart as a whip—”That’s not how the law works,” she primly informs him when he puts burden of proof on her about the provenance of her Nellie Bly book—and she already knows exactly how to brandish manners as a shield. “If you take it you’re stealing from me,” she informs a charmed Nucky, “and you’re certainly no gentleman.” Once he brings her home, she even gets to say her piece about Mabel, who she can already tell is nervous about the coming child in a way the oblivious Nucky can’t wrap his mind around.

Though the parallels between these flashbacks and the modern day have often been a little too neat or a little too redundant, it’s still interesting to watch the ways in which Nucky’s faith in the system—any system, legal or otherwise, any system he could solve was all the same to him—blinded him right from the beginning, in cases like this. Gillian had to go back because there was a place for her to go back to; her eyes show her regret for ever naming a place he could pass responsibility to. (The Commodore himself mocks Nucky with a disgusted, “Always a good boy,” which is suitably rich judgment coming from the Commodore.) Nucky’s insistence that he couldn’t break the chain of custody for Gillian, no matter how much she needed to be free of it, is a direct line to where Gillian sits today, seven years locked in an institution and now on the verge of worse. (And though Nucky knows it well, Gillian doesn’t even get to give us her whole last testament; “There is forgiveness for everyone,” she promises Nucky in the letter she sends him, but it’s a muted cacophony of begging that registers to Nucky only in the ways it calls back to the version of Gillian that Nucky could have saved.)


But Nucky’s house wasn’t the third house the episode gives us. That one’s the Commodore’s house, ornate and landscaped and packed to the gills with ill-gotten goods, all of them carefully protected except the one Nucky’s been brought out to handle—the girl in the Commodore’s office, waiting to be disappeared. (She’s a soft figure, amid all the stark lines of the double doors and the architectural stair.) And the image that ties this glimpse of the past most directly into the present isn’t Gillian at all, unfortunate as that may be for someone whose story has fallen so far by the wayside. It’s Nucky, having left his family behind to tend to business, his eyes like black pools as he stares into a dark and horrible future in which he knows he’s already complicit; he can’t do anything but think ahead.

Stray observations:

  • How bad have things gotten? Nucky’s off the drink.
  • Robert Hodge and the opening montage wasn’t subtle, but when wrapping up a story that’s so insular (and sending someone as far as Chicago is a banishment like unto death), it’s a handy enough reminder how things looked to the civilians.
  • The Nucky flashbacks work in inverse proportion to how often they’re directly referenced by Nucky. The slow decline of young Nucky into the moral swamp he is today works perfectly well without the addition of the maudlin, “You can sweep the sand.”
  • Miss Loquitur got the job! She thinks a lot more of William Thompson than I do. (You can show me a moral-high-horsing William all you want, Boardwalk; I’m never going to care if he dies.)
  • “I’ve been kidnapped.” “Goddammit, Benny.”
  • I perk up whenever Margaret appears, a ghost of her former self haunting the last two seasons in unexpected moments. This week: She may or may not buy stocks! (I love a lot about this show, but its treatment of women has always been uneven, as seen by the face that its two major female characters are spending the bulk of this season sitting quietly in far-away rooms.)
  • R.I.P. Mickey Doyle, who made it impossibly close to the end of the story before going to that Big Burlesque in the Sky. (And shot in the throat, of all places! The throat! That’s where all the obnoxious one-liners come from!)
  • “Everyone has a reason. Murderers have reasons.”
  • Next week: It all ends.