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Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 5 Episode 7, ‘Friendless Child,’ Brought Nucky to his Knees

Review: 'Boardwalk Empire' Season 5 Episode 7, 'Friendless Child,' Brought Nucky to his Knees

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

Just like that, the primary object of “Boardwalk Empire” seems to have changed, but looking back, it all makes perfect sense. With “Friendless Child,” Nucky’s political goals and his rich history with organized crime are secondary — part of the glamour built on top of a more subversive foundation. Like Nucky’s life itself, and those of his colleagues and enemies, “Boardwalk Empire” presents itself as bold and beautiful, but at the core it comes from an unforgivable crime. His story is that of making difficult decisions, which we have to live with for decades. It’s a story that runs parallel to the story of Gillian Darmody, who escaped from a brutal prison-like institution, mothered a son far too young, lost that son, committed a murder to give herself a crooked sense of closure, and was then returned to another brutal institution. 

Tonight, the inevitable shouldering out of the Thompson operation is complete, with Lansky and Luciano playing the higher hand in a meeting between the two enterprises. Arquimedes and Mickey Doyle are dead, and so is Sal Maranzano (it finally happened). Willie Thompson is not — instead he takes on the ironic double roles as Lucky Luciano’s bargaining chip and an assistant in the office trying to bring him down. When interviewing for the position in D.A. Hodge’s office, Willie made a speech about not being about to choose one’s family and that crime had ruined his. In “Friendless Child” this point is extremely clear: Willie is working on ridding New York of its crime, but when he is kidnapped by the Mafia, it is because of who his uncle is. 

Even though Nucky’s empire has fallen apart, and the impact of his relationship with Gillian on him is extremely clear, “Boardwalk Empire” managed to leave enough for next week’s series finale. First of all, Nucky is still alive — there were moments this week in which I was sincerely expecting the show to break convention once again by killing its protagonist before the end — so we still have to see how that unfolds. Everything he has had, right down to his friends, for these seasons is gone, but he may still have something to live for. His legitimate agreements with Bacardi are still his, and he and Margaret are playing the market to make a move on Joe Kennedy and company.

What We Learn About Nucky this Week

For what it’s worth, Nucky tried to help Gillian when he found her under the boardwalk. He even tells us why: “You look like you need help.” That’s almost as blunt as when Margaret asked why he was being so nice and he said, “Anything less would be rude.” For lack of potential material gain from doing the right thing with a lost girl, this goes to show he has some sort of moral compass. He knew he couldn’t just leave her on the streets, but had no idea how to handle her.

“We don’t have the money and we don’t have the right,” he told Mabel when she begged to keep Gillian in their home. But, over the next two decades, between these scenes and the events of the pilot of “Boardwalk Empire,” Nucky would become the most wealthy man in Atlantic City and the most powerful politician in New Jersey. He got the money and the right. But at what cost? Six weeks before her 13th birthday, Gillian has said, she had her first kiss under the boardwalk before being taken away by the sheriff. In “Friendless Child,” Lindsay leaves that post to Nucky, who has now risen from diving for coins to being the Commodore’s right-hand man. 

READ MORE: “Boardwalk Empire” Season 5 Episode 5 Is a Declaration of War

The Most Shocking Moment of Violence

This section serves as remembrance for Mickey Kuzik, whose voice was first drilled into our brains when correcting people about his name, “It’s Doyle now.” Mickey was Nucky’s longest existing professional relationship, and though it seems like everyone who got too close to Nucky could not possibly last that long, especially Mickey (who stared down the barrel of many guns in his day) he was still around. In Season 1, it would have been impossible to think that this guy would last longer than Jimmy, or Halloran, or especially Eddie. Mickey got it in “Friendless Child” — a bullet through the neck from the gun of Lucky Luciano. Doubtless, Terence Winter had him shot in the voice box to finally shut him up. 

Most Flagrant Flouting of the Law

Nucky, in the 1897 chronology, arrives at the Commodore’s house willing to help. “Yes sir, Mr. Commodore,” he quips instinctively when addressed, but even he was not prepared for what he was about to learn. Essentially, Nucky’s job that night, and the job that drove Lindsay to leave his post as sheriff, is to escort home young girls whom the Commodore has been educating in regards to useful domestic skills in private and pay their families. Forget about the law; aiding in supply of children for prostitution is about as low as it gets. While we knew that Nucky and the Commodore had done so with Gillian when she was a child, at this moment we learned that it was not a one-time thing, that the Commodore had a specific taste and that his men were willing to help feed it. More disturbingly, it is implied that this girl’s mother knows where her daughter is and what she will be getting paid for. Life on the boardwalk is a gilded one I suppose — the golden cover of resort beaches and entertainment over the rotten core of immoral crime and prostitution.

Most Memorable Dialogue

Eli is back on the coast after slithering away from Capone, and his scene with his oldest son revealed a lot about him. He never wanted a life of crime for his family — remember how protective he was when Will was growing close to Nucky — or, maybe, even for himself. “I told myself, ‘If he’s doin’ okay then it’s worth it.’ And here you are. On the right side of the street.”

This exchange between father and son immediately precedes Willie’s abduction, and for a moment it seems like Eli, who had just turned his back and crossed to the other side of the street, might have somehow played a role in setting up his own boy. It quickly became clear that that was not the case, but that it remains momentarily ambiguous reflects Eli’s history of disloyalty, and this development set up Nucky’s last stand. The Thompsons are family men, after all — with Nucky willing to go down on his knees for even a chance at helping his nephew.

Smartest Editing Choice

After picking up Nucky at home for some “county business” (but “don’t worry about the uniform”), Lindsay shares with Nucky a few comments on the Commodore. “Look at what he’s built for himself,” he said, standing in the impressive doorway to the Commodore’s mansion. After Lindsay hands Nucky his badge, we see a series of shots from Nucky’s vantage point, intercut with impressed looks on his face. The Commodore’s home evokes thoughts of Charles Kane’s Xanadu, filled with still-unpacked priceless works of art and impressive decor. Nucky is understandably drawn in by the sight, and somewhere in that moment decided to do whatever necessary to get a place like that for himself.

Where Story Meets History

The opening montage in “Friendless Child” is of fictional U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Robert Hodge, making a radio broadcast on NBC promising to bring an end to crime in and around the city. This scene utilizes historical illusion to tell its semi-fictional story; images of historical newspaper headlines, and brief reels from the period are shown with clips of our characters at war — not just committing gangland murders, but of what their lives are like during wartime. Luciano at a barber shop, Maranzano reading the paper and so on, all when they hear people walk in, they jump, startled at the thought that every pair of footsteps could be their assassin. Sal Maranzano did meet his in “Friendless Child,” with Eli Thompson himself pulling the trigger to appease Luciano and company. 

With Maranzano gone and Nucky’s business in their control, the New York group of Lucky, as well as Meyer Lansky and adviser John Torrio, is on top. Because he is Jewish rather than Italian, Lansky could never officially be in the Cosa Nostra (though by acting as a financial adviser to many mob men, he is considered one of the most powerful people in the country at the time). Luciano is set to take over Maranzano’s enterprise, which came to be known as the Genovese crime family, one of the five families of New York after Luciano divided the city into five territories at the meeting he and Torrio planned in “Friendless Child.”

Best Musical Interlude

Bugsy Siegel knows how to keep himself, and the rest of us, entertained. Tied up and with a gunshot wound in Nucky’s club, he breaks into song, and a rather crude song at that. “My Girl’s Pussy” was the 1931 hit by Harry Roy that has spawned a number of covers. In theory, this song could be about a cat that goes out at night but never purrs, but I doubt it, especially knowing Seigel’s tastes.

The Biggest Flopperoo

In this episode, someone trusted Lucky Luciano to play fair — a non-Italian at that — and that is one doozie of a flopperoo. In the climactic exchange of hostages Siegel and Willie, Bugsy fell to the the ground in pain without walking past Willie to his friends. This scam leads to Willie remaining captive after Bugsy snatches him and brings him back to Lucky’s men. For possibly the penultimate moment in “Boardwalk Empire,” Nucky is forced to barter everything he has. Many people have died for the cause of Nucky’s Atlantic City empire, and now it is gone, a forgotten property of some gang from New York. Nucky thought that Luciano would obey proper behavior for such events, which is oddly why Luciano is working to start the Commission (a nationwide understanding of the rules of organized crime). Nucky figured that by shooting first, he could avoid bloodshed — he thought striking a deal would make them even. Luciano and Lansky wanted nothing to do with that and killed Nucky’s bodyguard and right-hand man anyway, without even returning Willie. That’s not playing by the rules, but why would anyone expect them to?

Best, Most Killer-Diller Moment

For most shows, the richest and most engaging moment would have been the climactic meeting between team New Jersey and team New York, but that’s not the case with “Boardwalk Empire.” Gillian Darmody in 1931 is still locked up in a psych ward, and wrote to Nucky several weeks ago. Now, he finally read the letter, a moving and honest reminder of the eloquent and polite woman Gillian was before completely falling off her rocker. “We were both innocent,” she wrote, read by Gretchen Mol, the words swirling around in the air, bouncing against one another. The visuals are of Gillian in her new prison, constantly with a look of fear and often seeking out ways to escape. 

This is Nucky’s chance for penance. He helped Gillian once by inviting her into his house and giving her closure, but he also handed her over to a man five times her age, and then killed their son. “Dear Sheriff Enoch,” the letter begins, evoking for him a memory of long ago, when he was a different person. Gillian is hardly different. She still needs his help to avoid being locked up. Her hair is even short again. But what is most devastating about her words is that she feels that he really did help her, like she cannot imagine a rewarding life coming to her if he hadn’t had arranged her to meet with the Commodore. Gillian and Nucky are very rarely so much as in the same room in “Boardwalk Empire,” but their stories are intimately intertwined and in need of resolution in next week’s series finale.

Grade: A-

READ MORE: “Boardwalk Empire” is Great, But What Keeps it From Breaking Out?

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