“After today I’m not making plans,” Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) says on the phone. If only he really knew how true that might be. He’s evidently retiring and telling his Florida business partner and occasional lover Sally Wheat (Patricia Arquette) that after he wraps up loose ends he’s moving down South to Cuba, taking her with him. It’s understandable—the New Jersey mobster’s become hip to the fact that something fishy is going on with his brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and that it probably involves a maybe-not-so-crooked FBI Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty), which can’t be any good.
But before Nucky can even finish his call to Tampa, a quiet, deadly fog rolls into his seaside mansion. It’s Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) slinking in under the radar Omar style (with bandana and hat) and he’s out for blood. Even though Nucky did try and save Chalky’s skin in the season’s best, antepenultimate episode “White Horse Pike,” Chalky doesn’t know this and just assumes the worst. The Atlantic City negro mobster presumes Nucky, in cahoots with the mayor and his Harlem rival Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), tried to put his lights out for good, so he stalks in with a pistol pointed at his former friend’s face.
“So he’s your n*gger now?” Chalky hisses after making Nucky admit he’s doing business with Narcisse, who’s also sitting pretty in the Onyx Club. It’s not quite that simple. Nucky was forced to make a deal, pretend to hang Chalky out to dry and then would have regrouped once he got him out of the city, but that plan was shot to hell rather fast. But it’s understandable why Chalky’s feeling more than a little betrayed. “You’ve gotta believe me Chalky, we want the same thing,” Nucky says of Narcisse’s head on a stick. “Oh, I know you want it now,” Chalky counters, still aiming his gun.
“Farewell Daddy Blues,” the final episode of season four of “Boardwalk Empire,” is gripping and absorbing as is par for the course in the final episodes of this mob drama series, but also tragic and heartbreaking in ways you might not have imagined. Moreover, unlike previous seasons, nothing is wrapped up nicely in a bow. The villains this time aren’t vanquished, the restart button hasn’t been hit. Instead, almost every character is left in a state of disarray and flux.
While the conclusion of the episode may have effects on her fate, as it stands now, it seems as if Gillian Darmody’s (Gretchen Mol) narrative is coming to a close. She’s been caught in a sting operation admitting to first degree murder, and in this episode, her trial is already underway. Testifying against her is her former employee Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). He fought beside her son Jimmy (Michael Pitt) in WWI and was his friend; he’s certain beyond any doubts that the body Gillian buried, claiming to be Jimmy, was someone else. Gillian gets herself thrown out of court after an outburst, however, there’s one rub in her favor: the boy who was “buried” in Jimmy’s place was cremated. There’s no body of evidence, setting off a chain of events that one character will never recover from.
Over in Chicago it’s all about body language. And we’ll hand it to the show, the writing and direction is never obvious about these details (and or we’re reading this wrong, or it’s purposefully vague). When we pick up in Chicago, Capone (Stephen Graham), his brother Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi) and George Mueller (Michael Shannon) are trying to figure out who shot up their club and tried to have them all killed. Capone’s boss, the head Chicago mobster Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), who interrupts, assumes its Earl “Hymie” Weiss (Will Janowitz)—Dean O’Banion’s second in command whom we haven’t seen since last season—who was trying to get revenge for his boss’s death. And while Capone plays along, “yeah, I’m sure you’re right,” he’s firing daggers out of his eyes at his boss. There’s been tension between them all along, Torrio was recently offended that Capone suggested he may retire in the next few years, so it could make sense that Torrio ordered the hit on his too-big-for-his-britches man all along.
While all signs point to Capone, it’s not quite clear who sent the assassin that comes for Torrio later in the episode. He shoots up the old man badly, and for anyone else it would be curtains, but the tough as nails Torrio hangs on for dear life in a hospital. Later on when Capone goes and visits him, he seems genuinely torn up for his boss. Even as Torrio passes the torch—saying this is it for him, he’s out of the game and living the rest of his life in Europe —Capone seems to find little joy in the moment. If he did indeed try and have his boss killed, Capone is at least a very sentimental guy. And thus, Al Capone is one step closer to ruling all of Chicago.
Agent Knox is under a lot of pressure, and the strain is painfully visible when his career-making case crumbles. His story is one of respect, or rather lack thereof. J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Laden), his old college friend, is leagues above him as the director of the FBI, and undermines him at every turn. In this episode, Knox’s master plan has come full circle: he’s about to get Nucky Thompson and all the major New York, New Jersey, Harlem and Tampa mob bosses in the same room, colluding to commit federal crimes thanks to Eli Thompson, forced to help the undercover FBI man so his own son won’t go to jail. But Nucky, wise to it all, is a no show (so is everyone else) and Knox begins to lose it. So much so that when his own men question his judgement, Knox becomes borderline unhinged, even challenging one of his colleagues Agent Selby (Jacob A. Ware) to try and take his gun from him.
Thus when Knox comes to Eli’s house, he’s on fire with rage. Before any of this takes place, we’re witness to one of the most tense showdowns in the show’s history: Nucky vs. his younger brother Eli once again. Nucky summons Eli to pick him up to drive him to this mob meet. It rings false to Eli, but he has no choice but to do as his brother says. Once he arrives at Nucky’s house, he finds an empty domicile. Or so he thinks, as Nucky comes out of the shadows with his new manservant armed and dangerous. “You have a lot to lose,” Nucky says, a pistol aimed at his brother’s skull for betrayal number two. “I don’t have anything,” Eli says in return, alluding to the central theme between the two siblings. “Sooner or later you take it all.” But before Nucky, gritting through teeth trying to decide if he should end his brother, can pull the trigger, Eli’s son Will Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) shows up and near bedlam erupts.
Gun still to his face, Nucky forces Eli to tell his son what’s really going on: he’s sold out his brother to the FBI, but the full confession provokes Nucky’s sympathies as Eli only did it to save his son. “Nothing will fill that hole that you have inside you,” Eli says, intimating that Nucky’s greed extends as far as trying to appropriate his brother’s son for his own. Nucky tells him this is his mess to figure out and walks away. William, aghast at what his father has done, runs away into the night.
So when Eli comes home to find Knox there again, he’s none too happy. Before Eli can even explain what went wrong, the men are at each other’s throats and a threat forces the embarrassed and unhinged FBI man to pull his weapon. “My partner Agent Selby thinks I’m crazy,” Knox says, unraveling more and more with a gun to Eli’s head. “What do you think?” Before anyone can answer any questions, a melee ensues; one of the gnarliest and most vicious fist-fights-to-the-death we’ve seen in recent memory (easily the most violent and ugly we’ve seen on TV in years). The living room is practically destroyed, the Thompson family is terrified, and it all ends with Eli exploding in a cathartic fury, beating Knox to death with his hands.
Moving back to the Gillian Darmody storyline, what’s missing in her case is a body, and if Richard Harrow wants to put his life of crime behind him and become a true father figure to Tommy Darmody (Brady Noon), he needs proof. He comes to Nucky hat in hand for a favor: he needs to know where the body of Jimmy Darmody lays. Why should Nucky put himself at such risk for Richard? Because Richard, in exchange, will do anything the mobster needs, and it turns out Nucky’s in the market for a favor. Soon after, Harrow sends away his new family, his wife Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt), Paul Sagorsky (Mark Borkowski) and grandson Tommy until this new action dies down.
Where have Narcisse and Chalky been all this time? Earlier on, Nucky and Narcisse broker a meet. The Harlem gangster is aware that Chalky’s still alive and he wants answers. Nucky tries to clean his hands of all of it, he’s here to be the middle man. Chalky just wants assurances of safe passage to return for his daughter’s wedding. In exchange for? Nucky’s not here to make deals, just pass on information. “The only thing your people have in common is we both know what a dollar’s worth.” Nucky tells the doctor that he doesn’t care which “of you coloreds” rules the northside. The conclusion? Playing into Narcisse’s assumed belief that all white men are racists, Nucky sells him a story of Chalky coming at him in the middle of the night with a gun and wants to be assured that this will never happen again (i.e. do with him what you like).
Chalky and Narcisse finally come face to face at the Onyx club, but it’s not quite the upper hand deal the former club owner had intended. While hurling threats and insults at each other across the table—the Doctor wants to know where Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) is, for one—Narcisse pulls an ace from his sleeve, Chalky’s daughter Maybelle (Christina Jackson). Of course, no one’s come to this fight without a fix in the game. Up in the rafters sits Richard Harrow, his sniper rifle in hand dead-aimed at Narcisse’s head (the favor Nucky needed; using Harrow’s deft assassin skills). What Nucky and Chalky haven’t allowed for is the once ruthless Harrow losing his nerve. Perhaps becoming a family man has cost him his edge because Harrow hesitates and when he does finally regain his wits, he doesn’t see Maybelle wandering into the frame of the shot.
Blood spatters across Narcisse’s face, Maybelle drops like a stone, a bullet through her head right in front of her father who is in agonized disbelief. Pandemonium breaks out at the sound of gunfire. Chalky and Narcisse run for the exits while Harrow has to fight off a hail of bullets. Both men, however, are apprehended in an FBI raid and tagged. A bloody Harrow makes his quiet escape. And then the walls close in for everyone.
Nucky, trying to set sail for Cuba, gets nabbed by the FBI: he’s not under arrest, but he’s being questioned in the murder of FBI agent James Tolliver (Knox) who was found dead in the Eli Thompson household. J. Edgar Hoover has a bigger plan for Narcisse. He threatens him with jail time for life unless the Dr. agrees to narc out the dangerous, negro dissident Marcus Garvey (the seditious political leader Hoover’s been more consumed with than gangsters all season). Out of options, Narcisse must agree.
Daughter Maitland sings us out to the titular episode title in some dive club. Over montage, the various fates and conclusions of our characters are revealed. On the run, Eli turns up in Chicago, George Mueller picking him up under a bridge. Chalky’s back in Maryland brooding, thinking about his daughter’s death. Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) is seen showing Margaret Schroeder/Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) to her new apartment after the deal they struck. And most tragically, we find Richard Harrow in his dreams. He’s with his new family and his face is no longer disfigured. But when we’re shown the reality of the situation, Harrow is lying dead under an Atlantic City boardwalk pier. Mask fallen off his face, his bloody hand evincing the wounds that took his life. A man who had seemingly changed his ways caught in the crosshairs of criminals and the fateful choices he made to ensure his new family stayed together. Cruelly, Harrow, of all the immoral snakes this season, pays the grandest price for trying to go straight.