The article below contains spoilers through “Farewell Daddy Blues,” the November 24th, 2013 season four finale of “Boardwalk Empire.”
Another year, another bloody conclusion. But instead of a massacre, last night’s season closer of “Boardwalk Empire” served as a kind of mournful echo of “Margate Sands,” the episode that ended the previous season in an orgy of mass murder and score settling. Rather than escalating as it goes along, the show has spent a circuit deliberately circling to leave almost everyone worse off than they were before. Nucky (Steve Buscemi) finished last year abandoned by his wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) but back on top of Atlantic City, while by “Farewell Daddy Blues,” all he wanted to do was leave the town and the gangster life he’s established but can’t seem to quit.
Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) stood by Nucky’s side against Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) last year and saved his skin, but this time they’re at best barely allies, with Nucky’s farewell attempt to help Chalky leaving the latter’s daughter dead and his nemesis Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) alive but in the custody of the FBI. Where Eli (Shea Whigham) once brought backup from Chicago to bolster his brother’s chances, now Chicago is where he’s fled, having again betrayed and been spared by Nucky, a wanted man on the run after brutally killing a federal agent. While she seized the higher moral ground last year and walked out on Nucky and the luxury and danger life with him could offer for good, Margaret showed up this year only to quickly compromise herself by making a deal with her husband’s old cohort Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg).
And my beloved Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the show’s scarred heart, its tragic hero, picked up his gun one last time on behalf of his adopted son Tommy. He once took out a brothel full of gangsters to save the kid, but no longer the same killer with the same steady hand, he failed to take out Narcisse and died alone on the beach with a vision of the stable home he never managed to make his way back to. It was a heartbreaking and poetic image, but in a season all about treachery and loss, it was fitting that the character who seemed closest to some kind of lasting happiness be snuffed out. Farewell Richard, and Agent Knox/Jim Tolliver (Brian Geraghty), the still alive (barely) but retiring Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) and, perhaps, Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), who ended this season in prison for the murder of Roger (Billy Magnussen), the young man who had the misfortune of looking like her son.
While season three was an escalation to war, this year “Boardwalk Empire” offered less a sense of one coherent story than what felt like connective tissue between two larger arcs, setting up Chalky as the next potential deadly rival for Nucky to face and providing a much-needed tie-in between the action in New York and Chicago via the exiled Eli. Narcisse, who when he arrived looked like a replacement for Gyp, instead turned out to be much more trouble for Chalky than for Nucky himself, as our protagonist shifted his attention to setting up business in Florida and getting entangled with Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette) in a not terribly engaging romance.
Buscemi’s been pulling off quite a trick with Nucky — he seems to be dissolving, year after year, getting pared down to nothing as the seasons roll on. Having given up his place as a corrupt politician to go full gangster earlier, he also surrendered his home this season in favor of the Albatross Hotel out by the beach, a location of dreamlike remoteness. Margaret’s long gone, and in the best episode of the show this year, “Erlkönig,” Nucky’s faithful, fussy valet Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) took a header out the window after his flush of pride at being entrusted with part of his boss’ business led almost immediately to his being forced to inform on him. All Nucky has left is a brother who’s twice sold him out and a nephew, Willie (Ben Rosenfield), who watched him almost executive his father and whose desire to follow in Nucky’s footsteps incredibly very ill-advised.
“You can’t be half a gangster,” the late Jimmy Darmody, whose body and fate were finally uncovered in “Farewell Daddy Blues,” once told Nucky — Jimmy, Nucky’s protege who of course plotted against him and died at his hand. The trouble is, dedicating yourself fully to being a gangster means that everything important to you, everything normal becomes a vulnerability — your loved ones, your reputation, your attachments and habits and your place in society are all just potential leverage to be used against you, and everyone you trust is just another person who can turn or be turned on you. The ideal gangster must be incredibly lonely, and Nucky’s well on his way there, as more and more of those close to him fall away. Both Eddie and Eli, after all, had their families used against them, while Narcisse ended up in the custody of J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) being set up to inform on Marcus Garvey, one of the few people he actually respects.
“Boardwalk Empire” remains gorgeously made, expensive and expansive and never quite reaching the tier of “The Wire”s, “Breaking Bad”s and “Mad Men”s to which is clearly aspires. But unlike those shows, it also feels like it could run forever, that it doesn’t have one narrative to tell or a destination to reach — following the growth of organized crime as different gangsters rise and fall, as Prohibition ends, as drugs, a growing theme, become the new lucrative illicit good, through the rise of Las Vegas and World War II and past the death of the real life Enoch L. Johnson in 1968. There will always be more money to be made and more rivals to be dealt with, and if there’s an occasional terrible price to be paid for this life, it sure still looks good.