Previously on Boardwalk Empire: Young Nucky’s mentor, Sheriff Lindsay, decided he’d had enough of pimping out children to the Commodore and left it up to Nucky to continue his awful, awful work. Nucky and Margaret started shorting Mayflower Grain Corp’s stock, Lucky and Meyer got to work creating a crime family consortium, Eli’s wandering around rather aimlessly, and Capone’s about to get nailed on tax evasion charges.
No opening credits this week, just a shot of a pile of clothes (looks like someone watched Mad Men) and then we see Nucky walking naked into the ocean. He starts to swim, further and further out, so far that I start to wonder if he’s just going to drown and the entire episode will just be a black screen or tying up everyone else’s loose ends or something.
Back in the 1890s, young Nucky heads to the hotel and asks the Commodore for a word. The Commodore ignores him so he can finish his conversation with Leander, and once that’s done, he finally deigns to give Nucky his attention. Nucky puts himself forward for the still-vacant role of sheriff, but the Commodore’s a bit of a dick about it, so Nucky sucks up for a little while, praising the Commodore for building up and now running AC. Commodore again sneers at him for being an eager little boy and, once he hears that Nucky’s about to become a family man, he says that kids get in the way. Nucky doesn’t see it that way. ‘We do what we have the nerve for, or we step out of the way,’ the Commodore tells him. Nucky, confused, thinks he’s already shown the Commodore he’s got steely nerve, and discretion to boot, but the Commodore takes that as a threat. Nucky says he’s just loyal and ready to be of use.
They’re interrupted by the arrival of a teacher with a passel of little girls (eeek!) who are there to recite a poem for the Commodore. He looks a little too creepily delighted, and Nucky looks like he’s really hoping his kid isn’t a girl.
In the present, the Mayflower board meets to discuss the possibility of repeal. Kennedy thinks Roosevelt’s coming in and repeal will be just around the corner, whereas the others doubt it. They think they should start selling, because the corporation’s value is kind of tied up in repeal. Kennedy thinks they should hold firm and not panic. He advises holding steady for 24 hours while he looks into things.
Al has gotten his court summons and is discussing what to do with his lawyer and Ralph. Al’s mostly hurt that Mike wasn’t even Italian. Talk about focusing on the little things. He doesn’t’ seem all that concerned because they have everyone in Chicago in his pocket, but the lawyer says this is a really big deal, and it’s federal, so there’s no squirming away from this one. Ralph takes Al aside and tells him the tax guys are serious hardasses. Al puts on a jovial face and says they’ll just grease the right palms and he’ll be out of jail in the blink of an eye.
In New York, Meyer and Lucky discuss which bosses to invite to their upcoming meeting. Benny thinks they should just kill anyone who doesn’t show, but Lucky tells him to chill out before reminiscing about going down to AC with Rothstein right after Prohibition went into effect. Ahh, the good old days. They’ve come far in a decade. He thinks for a moment, and then decides that anyone who isn’t on board with this—Waxy Gordon, Narcisse, whomever—has to go. Benny adds Torrio to the list, calling him deadweight.
Wow, looks like Margaret’s really moved up. She’s got her own office and everything. Kennedy bursts into it and demands to know what’s going on with his firm’s stock. He accuses her of working with Nucky to strongarm Senator Lloyd and screw Joe over. Margaret plays dumb and says Nucky has nothing to do with this. He tells her this won’t work, because his partners will stay the course. She notes that the stock price is already falling, which indicates his partners are already selling behind his back. She suggests he sell his stock, and then buy back when the stock bottoms out. He considers it for a moment, and then goes to call his broker.
Younger Nucky returns home and finds Mabel’s petticoat on the floor, with blood on it. He then finds her sitting in the kitchen, looking dazed. She tells him there was ‘a mishap’ which is one hell of a euphemism. She reassures him ‘it passed quickly’ and there’s no need for the doctor. Looking devastated, he asks why she didn’t send for him, and she reminds him that she has no idea where he is most of the time. He tells her how sorry he is about all this, and that he loves her and hates that he disappoints her. She strokes his face. Their tender moment is interrupted by Eli hammering on the door and calling for Nucky, because their mother needs him. Nucky reluctantly leaves his wife and goes with him.
The brokers are going nuts selling Mayflower, which is in freefall. Joe thinks they should sell at 14, but Margaret advises him to wait, because it hasn’t hit bottom yet. It drops further and further and the brokers actually start brawling for some reason. Finally, Margaret waves someone over and tells him to buy to cover short positions in Mayflower. Joe starts to chill and comments that women are totally unfathomable. She gets a signal from a broker on the phone and tells Joe that he’s just made some money. He shakes her hand and notes that, though she played it pretty cool, she was clearly sweating. He suggests they work together, and she agrees, making it clear that this will remain strictly professional. He chuckles, clearly admiring her gumption.
At Al’s, his wife asks him what’s going on with the Feds calling. She’s hearing rumours and needs to know what will happen, what she should do, if the worst comes to pass. He reassures her that everything’s fine and then goes upstairs to see his son, who’s now a teenager. He sits down with the boy and, using a combination of sign language and lip reading, tells him he did some bad things and may be going away for a while and needs him to be a good boy and listen to his mother. Al tearfully reminds him that everything he did was to leave his son with something better than Al had. As Al gets up to leave, his son calls him back and holds up his fists, just as Al taught him to years ago, and that breaks my heart just a little bit. Al embraces him tightly.
Margaret arrives at a shadowy, cavernous apartment in the Eldorado, where Nucky’s waiting for her. There’s a radio program playing somewhere that mentions a recent speech by Roosevelt in which he promised to repeal Prohibition, sending grain stocks into turmoil. But then they recovered by the end of the day. Nucky asks her how it all went and she informs him he’s made more than $2 million. In 1924. Holy crap. He asks if she took his advice and bought as well. She did, but only 1000 shares, which netted her nearly $30 grand. Not bad. She looks around the place and asks if he plans to take it. He says it’s more than he needs before asking her what she plans to do with her windfall. She asks his advice. He thinks back on his days as a bellboy and how, the first time he was tipped a nickel, he thought it was awesome, but a dime would be better, and then he got the dime and wanted a quarter. If you give a mouse a cookie, right? He tells her that his circumstances have changed and that he’s getting out of the crime world. Good to know, I guess. He asks if she likes the place and she notes that it’s 13 stops closer to downtown from her current home. They start to dance in the massive marble sitting room, but this tender moment is interrupted by the arrival of an estate agent with another couple that wants to check the place out. The Thompsons let go of each other, the moment broken. You can have your fantasy, but in the end, it’s just that: a fantasy.
Benny’s ranting about someone running around New York, talking more than he should. Meyer’s more concerned with Lucky’s drinking and asks if his sudden uptick in whisky intake is because he’s nervous about the meeting. Lucky admits it may be that. Benny asks what they’re going to do about ‘their friend’ and Lucky tells him to use two shooters and make it public ‘so people know.’
Carrying a brown paper bag, Nucky walks down the boardwalk and is intercepted by a woman in a platinum wig and a crazy getup who tells him she’s from the future and has a message for him. She beckons for him to follow her to a very chintzy booth nearby (it’s actually decorated with cardboard lightning bolts, like an eight-year-old was in charge of the décor) and says that what’s inside is the world to come, cryptically saying that she’ll be there but she won’t be there. She lets him in and he pokes around for a moment before his attention is caught by an early television set lighting up to reveal a grainy image of the woman singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It looks like one of the early Baird experimental TVs. Nucky is amazed, as I think most people would be at that time.
In the past, Nucky and Eli arrive back at the Thompson homestead, where they find their mother with some fresh bruises on her face. She desperately reminds a swiftly enraging Nucky that his father’s different when he drinks, but Nucky ignores her and goes to confront the old man, who’s sitting by Susan’s grave with a rifle across his lap. Nucky orders him to get up and the man stumbles to his feet. Nucky asks if he hit his wife again and dad claims it was an accident. Nucky’s like, ‘sure it was, asshole.’ His father sneers at his son, acting the big man in his nice uniform while Eli tries to keep the peace. Nucky takes off his jacket and Ethan points the gun at him. Nucky stares him down and dares his father to show his family who he really is. Ethan starts to complain about Nucky not having told him he was going to be a grandfather, like he’s really making a good case for being a part of any child’s life right now. I don’t think they’ll be coming to you for babysitting, Ethan. Nucky glares at Eli for having blabbed, then holds out his hand and tells his father to hand over the gun. Ethan does. Nucky unloads it and goes to hand it off to Eli, but his father sucker punches him. Nucky quickly recovers and starts hitting back, no doubt extra fuelled by years of childhood rage. Eli pulls him off of their father, though I’d have stood back and let him keep at it, give this shitheel a taste of his own medicine for a while. Nucky tells his father never to touch his mother again, or he’ll be back to finish this job.
Present-day Nucky arrives at some storerorom where Eli’s laying low. Eli’s seriously depressed, since June won’t speak to him and he has no idea what to do with himself. Eli asks his brother what he should do and Nucky tiredly asks if Eli isn’t over asking his brother for direction. He urges him to just keep trying to fix his family and gives him the paper bag, explaining there are a few things in there Eli may be able to use. They embrace one more time, and after Nucky leaves Eli finds a whole lot of cash and some shaving tools in the bag.
Al checks his appearance and takes a few deep breaths before stepping out of his limo in front of the courthouse. There’s a massive crowd of reporters shouting questions. Al says he’s just a businessman and this will be sorted out soon. He laughs and jokes and puts a brave face on it, but he blanches slightly when he sees Ness and Mike waiting at the top of the stairs.
Lucky gets his meeting underway, welcoming everyone and explaining this will work like a commission. Nobody will be made without everyone’s approval, and they’ll settle issues amongst themselves before things get out of hand. And they’ll work with anyone who can bring in good business, not just keeping it amongs the Italians, because why limit themselves? They all agree and drink to it.
Narcisse leaves church, bloviating away about Ecclesiastes, until two guys approach and shoot him dead before fleeing in a getaway car. So long, Narcisse.
Nucky goes to visit Gillian, who’s either completely cracked up or on serious drugs, because she’s too out of it to pay any attention to what he’s saying. Which is just as good, I guess, because what he’s saying is: ‘I can’t do anything for you, but when you get out of the nuthouse, there’s some cash in an account for you.’ But we all know she’s never getting out, and it doesn’t really seem like she cares. Also, she’s apparently been subjected to the same surgical treatment as her friend. Nucky looks both sad and horrified at the shell this woman’s become. She asks him for a hand to help her up from her chair, and when he offers it, she notes that there’s still graciousness in the world. Yeesh. That was grim. Not that I expected anything different, because it would take a miracle for her to get out of that place. And whatever Nucky was hoping for here, he didn’t get it. There’s no redemption to be had.
The Rumpus is still sleezy. Nucky shows up to collect his things and Pinky, the guy running it now, comments that the dancers all look hot to trot, but then when you talk to them like actual people, you realize they all have issues. Nucky gives him an ‘are you effing kidding me?’ kind of look and heads upstairs. While he’s packing he finds the postcard Mabel gave him when they were kids, and then the phone rings and he goes to answer it. It’s someone from the Ritz, telling him that there’s a ‘situation there that needs his attention.
Younger Nucky, now sporting a black eye, makes his way to the hotel the day of the King Neptune celebration, presided over by Neary and the Commodore. There’s a crowd gathered to greet Neptune’s arrival. Nucky looks fed up, but then he notices that one of the girls on Neptune’s float is Gillian. She sees him too and turns to flee, but she’s nabbed by a good Samaritan, who hands her over to Nucky, who asks what she was thinking, putting herself on a parade float where he was sure to spot her. She says she just thought it was fun, because she’s 13 years old and you don’t generally think too hard about inevitable outcomes at that age, particularly when someone’s enticing you with a pretty dress and lots of attention. She talks about how lucky he is, with his family and baby to look forward to. He doesn’t set her straight on either of those counts, just wonders what he should do with her, because he can’t just let her go to live on the streets. One of the Commodore’s cronies comes to fetch him and Nucky asks Gillian to wait for him. She agrees.
Modern-day Nucky arrives at the Ritz and is shown to a basement office, where young Joel (not Joe, sorry) is being held for trying to snatch some woman’s purse. The kid’s pretty drunk. Nucky tells him to come along, in the tone of voice you’d use with your errant teenage son.
Young Nucky obediently appears before the Commodore, who demands his badge, because Nucky’s apparently being fired for no reason. The Commodore claims he has no faith in Nucky. Nucky, disgusted, says that he served the man for years and kept his mouth shut about everything, and for what? The Commodore douchily says that Nucky thinks he deserves something for trying hard (well, yeah, doesn’t everyone? Otherwise, why try?) and the Commodore’s never liked that. He asks Nucky what he is and Nucky says he’s what he needs to be.
Older Nucky takes Joel for a cup of coffee and asks what happened to the money he gave him. The kid sullenly shrugs. Nucky’s like, ‘Jesus, kid, that’s nearly a decent year’s salary!’ Joel is unconcerned about the future and says he’ll just go back and work at the club. Nucky reminds him that the war’s over and the winners don’t tend to want to hire the losers. Nucky tells him to go find a home, but don’t take out his frustrations on anyone else. I’m not really buying this sudden change in this kid’s demeanor. He was so obsequious while he was working at the club, such a good kid type, and now he’s snatching purses and sulking and throwing away money? The hell? Nucky gives him some more cash, which Joel immediately tears up. Nucky rolls his eyes and says, ‘Congrats, you taught me a lesson. Good luck in life’ and turns to go.
Younger Nucky gets down off the porch, looking stunned, but then Leander catches up with him and holds out the sheriff’s badge, telling him there’s ‘a youth the Commodore wishes to place in service’ and it’s Nucky’s job to bring her to the mansion. Huh? What was that whole previous scene about, then? Was the Commodore just testing him, or did he only just remember that Nucky was talking to Gillian and seems to know her? What was that? Nucky looks a little sick, realizing that his ambitions are coming at the expense of a young girl who trusts him, but ultimately, getting ahead wins out.
Older Nucky walks down the boardwalk as some drunken Princeton students recite a poem that begins: ‘I wanted the gold and I sought it,’ because why be subtle at this point?
Younger Nucky approaches Gillian, who asks if there’s something wrong. He says there isn’t and she asks if she can go down to the beach.
Joel approaches Nucky, who tells him that his grandmother, Mima, talked about him, but he couldn’t tell if she hated or loved him.
Younger Nucky tells Gillian that there’s a man who wants to help them both, and would she like to meet him? He promises to look out for her always, and she agrees. She trusts him, unaware that these are the last few minutes of happiness and innocence she’ll ever have before their mutually destructive spiral begins. Shudder.
Present day Nucky asks who Joel is and Joel introduces him as Tommy Darmody before pulling out a gun and shooting Nucky to death. Yeah, the math doesn’t work out there at all. Tommy was born sometime after 1917, which would make him all of 14 years old here at the most. And…what? Did he seriously come all the way to AC to play some sort of long con whereby he somehow managed to get a job with Nucky and then…laid low and sucked up for a while before he decided he was fed up and wanted Nucky dead? This isn’t making a whole hell of a lot of sense to me. Why wait? Who wants to get to know the person they plan to kill?
As Nucky lies dying, two men come running over, telling him they’re IRS agents, which I doubt he cares much about now. They restrain Joel/Tommy, who’s now a frothing, snarling mess. Nucky dies. I struggle to care.
One last shot of young Nucky swimming underwater, going after the falling coins. But this time, he catches one. Would his life have been different if that had happened for real? Probably not.
And that’s the final curtain for Boardwalk Empire, one of the most personally disappointing shows I’ve ever faced. I remember hearing that this was coming out, years ago, and I was stoked. A Prohibition-era drama about Atlantic City (a story about that time period that’s not as generally well known as what was happening in New York and Chicago) with Martin Scorsese and HBO on board? How could that not be amazing? And yet, it wasn’t. Not to me, anyway. It had some good bits, but I feel like the show got too distracted, and too silly at times. Van Alden was a ridiculous character who really, really should have been gone after he left AC. The lengthy detours to New York and, especially, Chicago drove me crazy, taking time away from the main action and actors and sprawling everything out unnecessarily. The stories of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano have been extensively documented in popular media, did we really need the rehash here? I’m not saying they shouldn’t have been involved, but they shouldn’t have been such central characters. I feel like the show would have been much stronger if it had focused much more tightly on the people in Atlantic City: on Nucky and Eli and Jimmy and Gillian and Margaret and the complexities of their relationships. If they’d done that, Gillian might have felt a little less purposeless. Eli may have been a little less of a doufus and more of a man who struggled in his older brother’s shadow.
To give credit where it’s due, the cast was excellent. It’s nice to see Steve Buscemi finally get a leading role after a career playing character roles. I liked his take on Nucky Thompson. And Margaret’s transformation from meek abused wife to steely career woman was quite satisfying. The actor playing the younger Nucky did a fabulous job channeling Buscemi, though I feel like these flashbacks were totally unnecessary—we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know from them.
So was it a good show? Yes, it was. Was it great? Eh, I don’t think so. This might just be a personal thing, but I’m not sorry to see it go. I kind of had to force myself to watch it at the end. I won’t miss it the way I’ll miss Ripper Street or some others I’ve bid farewell to over the years. But like I said, that’s just me. What did others think? I’d love to hear your takes on the show in the comments!