The pattern has been much the same over four seasons of “Boardwalk Empire”: a laconic but elegant opening, the mid-season unfolding at an unhurried pace, and then a staccato burst of violence and plot in the last three episodes. Season five has fit into that structure quite well, but even as the show prepares to say goodbye, it still displays great patience. And “Friendless Child,” the series’ penultimate episode, is pretty good when it’s sticking to what ‘Boardwalk’ does best. But this episode is marred by its bookends —overly stylized, contrived sequences that are completely out of character, as if they were made from an entirely different show. It’s jarring and strange, especially for a show so committed to its own vision —often called too slow by many— to suddenly tag on these uncharacteristic sequences.
“My fellow citizens: we are at war,” U.S. district attorney Robert Hodge says over a stylish, montage-laden newsreel sequence, gravely intoning the stakes that the country faces. And after that odd, unsubtle detour, we move on into our regularly scheduled program.
Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Italian mob boss Salvatore Maranzano (Giampiero Judica) are losing money hand over fist because Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) are hitting them where it hurts. Shipments of booze are firebombed and dozens of men are killed; the younger mobsters are ever more aggressive. Nucky wants their heads on a platter, but Maranzano would rather wait it out until one of them makes a bad move. And it’s interesting to note that Nucky says Al Capone (Stephen Graham) has cut him loose. There’s also a shot here that’s way too bloody obvious if you’ve been paying attention; a telegraphing of the final moments of the show, which we’ll discuss below.
While Maranzano is playing chess, Nucky takes matters into his own hands. Bugsy Siegel (Michael Zegen, who typically is really great but overdoes the loudmouth, obnoxious thing in this episode) is catting around behind his wife’s back, and that information is easily bought. Nucky’s men burst in on Bugsy, a scuffle ensues and Nucky’s Cuban bodyguard Arquimedes (Paul Calderon) takes the gangster and drags his ass back to Atlantic City alive. It’s a kidnapping with simple rules: Nucky tells Luciano and Lansky they need to meet to quash this beef or else Siegel is six feet under. “We’ll meet you at your funeral,” Luciano hisses boldly and hangs up the phone. He’s called Nucky’s bluff and the Atlantic City kingpin is dumbfounded.
In a tit for tat retaliation, they kidnap William Thompson (Ben Rosenfield), who’s just reunited with his father Eli (Shea Whigham). A down and out Eli’s back in New York City just to take one last look at his son. And as junior assistant to the D.A., William is making his way up in the straight world. As Eli waves down his son’s offer to let him stay with him, the boy is snatched in broad daylight in front of the father. Possessed with anger, Eli shows up in Atlantic City. Nucky’s is as angry as Eli. His younger brother has broken his one rule: never to be seen on the East Coast again. But he’s even more livid when he hears what has happened to his caught-in-the-crosshairs nephew William.
In perhaps the most anxious and tense standoff in the show’s history, Nucky and his side agree to meet Luciano and Lansky face-to-face and trade off their abducted kin (Siegel being a childhood friend of Lucky’s). It goes sour for Nucky and then some. At the handoff, a weak William tries to help Siegel and he turns the situation to the Italians advantage. Nucky, on his veritable knees, begs for William’s life, and during the confrontation, both Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) and Arquimedes are plugged in the head. It could turn into a bloodbath, but Nucky knows that’ll cost William his life. He folds and agrees to step out of the way, handing over Atlantic City and even remove Maranzano out of the equation if Luciano lets William live. “I underestimated you, Charlie,” Nucky says this time on his knees for real with Luciano pointing a gun at his head. Luciano says with contempt, “yeah, well, what does that make you?” “Dumb,” Nucky says to which the upstart gangster replies “that’ll sound good on your tombstone.” It looks like lights out for Nucky, but the last minute offering of Maranzano —who Luciano genuinely fears— is enough. They still leave with William, saying “if you keep up your end of the bargain, we’ll keep up ours.”
Later that day, gangsters posing as feds break into Marazano’s office with a supposed warrant. But its really Eli with a bunch of Nucky’s thugs. This is the first time “Boardwalk Empire” has really messed with factual events. In real life, Maranzo was sliced and diced with knives by Bugsy Siegel. Here, it’s Eli and his gangsters making a bloody mess and shooting the organized crime don in the head for good measure. Having made good on his side of the bargain, William Thompson is suddenly released.
The anxiety and tension takes a reprieve from here on in. William is alive, so is Nucky and his brother, but it looks like the gangster has lost. He’s not about to wage a counter-offensive or go back on the deal as he knows it’ll just put William in jeopardy again. Stewing in his room, Joel Harper (Travis Tope)—the young boy that Mickey Doyle hired near the beginning of the season— doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation and tries to console Nucky by offering to clean up the room. Nucky offers him $1,000 and tells Harper to go find a new life and a new line of work. Of course, he still doesn’t understand what happened, and Nucky who doesn’t have the energy to explain any longer just shames and insults Harper to get him out of the room. This could prove to be fatal next episode.
Meanwhile, the flashbacks of this season to 1897 appear to have been more of a miscalculation, one that further slowed down the season. These succumb to the pitfalls common to most prequels: explaining the obvious, compromising any sense of mystery and connecting too many narrative dots in a way that feels contrived. Moreover, they’ve often not been very moving or memorable, functioning like a would-be thematic detour to show how Nucky eventually lost his moral compass and became the man he is today. Frankly, it’s all a bit unnecessary and never all that effective outside a few moments.
These flashbacks link the young Nucky Thompson (Marc Pickering) to Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) and the Commodore (John Ellison Conlee). We already know this story from the first few seasons: the lecherous Commodore raped Gillian as a child and she inadvertently gave birth to Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). What we discover, which feels a little too on-the-nose and too six-degrees-of-separation, is that it was Nucky that eventually delivered Gillian to the Commodore and Nucky’s handling of young girls for his boss was the big “devil’s bargain” moral line that he crossed that he could never come back from.
It’s all a way to connect “Boardwalk Empire” to its early history, but it doesn’t really work. Making it more overt, Nucky opens up the letter he received several episodes ago: it’s of course from present day Gillian Darmody, appealing to his sense of empathy and asking Nucky for one last favor, explaining how he helped her out once as a child —everything we’ve already seen in this episode— and if he’d do it once again and get her out of the insane asylum she’s in. With nothing left to lose and Gillian reminding him of a more innocent time, Nucky’s surely going to take the bait for this last chance at redemption. This scene is delivered again in a voice-over style that’s not in keeping with the show’s tone at all, and its odd for “Boardwalk Empire” to abuse this kind of flourish in the homestretch.
Odds and Ends:
— In Chicago, FBI agent Mike D’Angelo (Louis Cancelmi) and his men plead their tax evasion case to a judge and get a warrant for Capone’s arrest. Capone was convicted in 1930 in real life for the same crime and while it’s 1931 now, the “Boardwalk” writers are just fudging things slightly. Presumably, we’ll see Capone go down in next week’s final episode.
— The introduction of the Harper character was none too subtle. He’s another kid that Nucky took vague but obvious interest in, who bore more than a passing resemblance to yet another baby-faced kid Nucky mentored: Jimmy Darmody. The instant the boy joined the show, despite his insignificance with respect to any of the main narratives, you knew he was somehow going to factor in. And then as we mentioned recently, it seems all too obvious that he’s going to be the man (or the kid) who pulls the final trigger on Nucky. ‘Boardwalk’ may have overplayed its hand here. There’s a scene in this week’s epiosde with Mickey Doyle handing Joel a pistol. Nucky protests saying he doesn’t want the boy involved. As he does so, the shot is framed with the pistol in the foreground out of focus, Nucky in the background clear as day. As the scene cuts, Joel pulls his hand back and the gun’s barrel is placed exactly at Nucky’s head. Now, I really detest conspiracy theories and I’m not a fan of the read-too-much-into-things crowd, but this seems like too much. So if this isn’t how ‘Boardwalk’ ends, I’ll at least allow that they’ve planted some distracting red herrings inside to steer you off course. Sadly, I don’t think the show is that clever anymore. But I’ll be willing to eat mudpie next week if it lands otherwise.
— Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) only appears by phone, with Nucky telling her to short more stock. She really hasn’t been much of a presence this season, but I assume that the writers will work her into the final episode.