To prepare for tonight’s Boardwalk Empire season two finale, I re-read my reviews of the previous 23 episodes, to remind myself of the arc of both seasons and to get a sense of where we are in the overall story of “this city of Atlantic,” as Nucky once called it. One tidbit I noted: it was in last season’s 11th episode that Boardwalk Empire sprung its most shocking moment to that point, with Agent Nelson Van Alden drowning his partner Agent Sebso. And it was in this season’s 11th episode that we saw Jimmy Darmody shtup his mama and stab his papa. That’s called tradition.
As for season one’s finale, that was the one where Nucky made peace with Rothstein, eliminated the D’Alessio brothers, swung the election in his favor, and reconciled with Margaret (who had decided that she’d rather sacrifice her morals than be poor), all while Jimmy, The Commodore, and Eli (and Gillian!) launched their ill-fated He-Man Nucky-Haters Club. And in this season’s finale? Nucky makes peace with Jimmy and Eli, eliminates his legal troubles, swings the big Jersey land deal in his favor, and marries Margaret. All that was missing? A new alignment of forces against our man. For the bulk of the episode, it looks like everything’s going to go the little guy’s way.
But there are actually two big issues Nucky’s going to have to deal with in Boardwalk Empire’s third season. For one, the ever-mercurial Margaret Schr… I mean, Thompson, has signed over all of Nucky’s voting stock in his consortium’s land to her local parish, which means that lapsed Catholic Nucky’s going to have to answer to God after all (or at least to one of His lackeys). And for another, there are still plenty of people in Atlantic City who don’t much care for Nucky Thompson. His brother Eli, though he’s back in the fold, can’t be too happy about the humiliation he’s suffered over the past few months. Esther Randolph, though she was beaten in court, is given the opportunity to get her ducks in a row and decides “I’ll take the ducks,” meaning that she’ll undoubtedly be making another run at Nucky. The Loyal Order Of Racist Coots—led by the seemingly wily Leander Whitlock—won’t appreciate being unceremoniously drummed out of power again. And then there’s Gillian Darmody. And Richard Harrow. And the corpse of the man who means the world to both of them.
I’ll return to the corpse in a moment. (How could I not? It’s only the whole crux of “To The Lost.”) First I want to take a moment to stand back and admire “To The Lost” for the crisply written, beautifully shot, superbly acted and—most importantly—brilliantly edited hour of television that it was. I’m docking it half-a-point for reasons I’m sure some of you will find piddling. Boardwalk Empire is a big show with a big cast, and the biggest problem that Terence Winter and his writing staff have had over the past two years is making sure that all of their major players get their due. I can’t deny my disappointment that Chalky White plays such a minor role in this finale, appearing only in an early scene in which he receives delivery of the Klansmen who shot up his cohorts back in this season’s first episode. And I can’t help but wish that there’d been maybe one more scene of Van Alden—sorry, “Mr. Mueller”—and his new life with his nanny and his daughter in Cicero, Illinois, a small town in Cook County, near Chicago. Clearly, Van Alden’s proximity to the stomping grounds of Capone and Torrio will be a factor next season, but given how focused this episode was on Nucky and Jimmy, I’d rather that Van Alden’s whereabouts had either been left out entirely, or integrated more into the overall story and theme of “To The Lost.”
But otherwise? So, so impressive. Here are a few of my favorite moments in “To The Lost:”
-The opening shot (which is so good that I re-watched it a couple of times after the episode was over). A masked Jimmy and a double-masked Richard drive out to a Klan encampment, and start shooting any robed bigot they can find until they get the names of the men who slaughtered Chalky’s crew. The shot is from the rear exterior of the car, zooming through the woods, and it’s both disorienting and exhilarating. Where are we? Where are we going? Who are these masked men? A large part of Boardwalk Empire’s appeal is the inherent exotica of the past, but here the world of the show seemed not quaint, but alien.
-Manny’s speech to Nucky. Tucked away in the basement of a synagogue, Manny tries to play his usual role as the conscience of the criminal, and complains to Nucky about the aloofness of the “big crook” as opposed to the men in the middle who are always hungry for more. Nucky seems to shrug Manny off as he usually does, anxious to get the information that he needs about Waxey Gordon’s duplicity. But it’s possible that Manny’s words nag him to do what he does at the end of the episode. (Also, the Manny scene contains one of the best exchanges in “To The Lost,” as Nucky impatiently asks, “Do you know something I don’t?” and Manny whispers, “The question answers itself.”)
-Jimmy’s speech to Nucky. Actually Jimmy has two speeches to Nucky, but I’m thinking here especially of their first encounter, at Jimmy’s beachfront house, where Jimmy tells Sleater to put his gun away—“It’s okay, I used to do your job”—and offers his services again to his old boss. Before he puts himself back in Nucky’s service, Jimmy talks about killing The Commodore, and how he’d wanted to do it before but couldn’t get up the nerve because his emotions kept entering into it. That conversation fits with one of the recurring ideas of “To The Lost,” that sometimes even when people know what they should do, they have attachments and aspirations that hold them back. I love that Boardwalk Empire acknowledges this. Often I find that people (myself sometimes included) expect characters on serialized dramas to fall into logically comprehensible patterns of behavior. But real life is rarely so simple. One day I may be annoyed at someone and want nothing to do with him ever again, and the next I may feel far more forgiving. We all have many facets to the way we feel and how we act.
-Margaret’s conversation with Esther. Here again is the main idea of “To The Lost” in a nutshell, distilled to a charged couple of minutes of back-and-forth between two strong-willed women. Esther admits that she likes Nucky personally but that she thinks he should go to jail, while Margaret tries to explain that her relationship with Nucky is complicated. She doesn’t seem to love him, really. But he’s not cruel—at least not that she’s seen—and he’s great with her children. Esther wants to know if the well-being of Margaret’s children is more important than all the people that Nucky’s political machine grinds up daily. For Margaret, that question seems to clarify a lot—and serves to push her more into Nucky’s corner. Margaret doesn’t know these people that Esther is standing up for. She only knows that she and her kids used to get beaten by a drunkard, and now they live in a mansion with servants.
-The big montage. You know which one I mean: the one with Esther Randolph practicing her opening statement while dressing in front of her injured underling, as Margaret gives her confession in church and Jimmy and Richard get Neery to pen his “suicide note.” It’s just a thrilling few minutes, with echoes of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Carlito’s Way, and all the other great gangland epics.
The key element of the montage isn’t Jimmy and Richard forcing Neery to pin Nucky’s crimes on Eli—although that’s what foils Esther, ultimately—but Margaret confessing so that she can marry Nucky. Once again, Margaret can’t bring herself to come clean fully before her Lord, which says something about where she finds herself at the end of Boardwalk Empire’s second season. She and Nucky have a long conversation about their respective levels of faith—“If there really was a God, would he have given me this mug?” Nucky jokes—and then he asks her to be his wife, in part so that she won’t have to testify, and in part because his idea of spirituality is expressed through loving Margaret and her children. And after the wedding, Margaret pointedly doesn’t hector him about Neery’s “suicide” or about his middle-of-a-rainy-night “meeting” with Jimmy Darmody. She just smiles wanly like the good wife she now wants to be, and then signs over Nucky’s livelihood to the church.
But that’s something for season three to sort out. Now is the time to talk about the boldest stroke of “To The Lost,” and easily the boldest stroke of the series to date: Nucky shooting and killing Jimmy Darmody. I should’ve seen it coming. When Jimmy is swapping war stories with Richard—and recalling a buddy who’d sing, “Over there/Fuck a bear/I’ll fight any guy in my underwear”—and when Jimmy slips quietly out the door to meet Nucky and Manny in the dark of night, I should’ve realized he was a goner. But since Jimmy’s essentially the co-lead of Boardwalk Empire, I figured that while something ominous was about to happen, there was no way it could be what my gut was telling me it was going to be.
Nucky had a lot of ways he could’ve gone in this episode. He could’ve taken out Manny. Or Eli. He could’ve even gone after Waxey Gordon. Or nobody at all. There’s a lot in this episode about “giving people up,” whether it’s the Klan turning over their gunmen, or Manny spilling the beans about Jimmy, or Jimmy telling on Eli. And, as Esther Randolph notes in her conversation with Margaret, the right context for a story can change the way a person is perceived in the public eye—or in front of a jury. So Nucky finds himself at the end of “To The Lost” with the ability to be any kind of boss he wants to be, and to control both who stays employed and what they ultimately think of him. “Flip a coin,” Rothstein advises. “When it’s in the air, you’ll know which side you’re hoping for.”
I think the Boardwalk Empire writers may have followed this advice, and realized that the only way to tell this story is to give Jimmy up. All season long—and last season, too—Nucky’s rolled his eyes at the people he works with, amazed at how they can screw up a good deal due to ignorance or arrogance. What is Nucky hoping for? That he can control his own fate. And to do that, he has to be the one to shoot Jimmy, and in front of Eli and Manny no less—two men with decided opinions about bosses who don’t get their hands dirty. At one point in this episode, Nucky scoffs at the charges against him, saying to his lawyer, “How do you order someone to commit murder? Fuckin’ ludicrous.” And I think he’s really believed this on some level for all these years, that he’s just facilitated the circumstances by which people die and make his life easier, and that he hasn’t done anything wrong himself. Now, though, he knows what he is. And the question for next season will be: Is he okay with that?
Last week we saw the Jimmy Darmody origin story (and possibly the Nelson Van Alden one as well). It may be that this whole season—and series—has been the Nucky Thompson origin story. Will this sacrifice of a boy he helped raise be his ultimate act of evil before finding a straighter path? Or is he now, per Jimmy’s toast, one of “the lost?”
- One bit of clean-up from last week’s episode (which I upgraded to an “A-” about an hour after posting the original review, by the way, in case you missed that): I should’ve noted how chilling it is when Gillian walks up the stairs with her grandson in her arms and she tells Jimmy that the kid “won’t be a boy forever.” That line is even more creepy now that Jimmy’s dead, and MeeMaw has another child to raise and warp.
- “Bring me back a shaved cherry ice. I’m boiling.”
- If I recall correctly, last season’s events took place between December 31st, 1919 and October 31st, 1920. This season’s less concrete about dates, but the second episode takes place on Valentine’s Day, and the finale is in the heat of the summer, so I think we can safely say that we covered about six or seven months.
- Poor, dumb Deputy Halloran.
- Nucky’s response to Eli’s casual chitchat about the weather: “And how about those Phillies, and my brother tried to have me killed.”
- Eli does not get Nucky’s references to Julius Caesar.
- “You’re awake! And I’m drunk! Not the most romantic of greetings.”
- Lucky and Lansky finally bring their heroin deal to Rothstein—“We came to you with this first!”—and he seems interested. Something else for next season.
- Possible sleeper character for next season: Mickey Doyle, who’s seemed a lot more assured these past two episodes than he ever has before.
- I will miss Esther Randolph during Boardwalk Empire’s off-season. I love the way she deadpans “I don’t think I’ll need him” when Margaret’s priest says that he’s with her “for moral support.” (And I love that Margaret gets the joke even when the priest doesn’t.) I also love Esther’s snappy response to the priest’s attempts to put her in her place: “I didn’t realize they taught law at the seminary.”
- I want to express my thanks to you all for what’s been a satisfying few months of conversation. Last season I felt a little at sea while writing about this show but this season has been a blast. Maybe it’s because the show’s been better—though I enjoyed last season too, on the whole—or maybe I just found a better writing rhythm when it comes to talking about Boardwalk Empire. Whatever the reason, readership and comments were way up this year, and I’ve come to look forward to reading what you guys have to say the way I have in the past when writing about Fringe, Lost, Terriers, and Mad Men. I tip my bowler. And I’ll see you back by the sea next fall.