Boardwalk Empire: "A Return To Normalcy"
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Boardwalk Empire: "A Return To Normalcy"

There’s one subject I’ve meaning to bring up in regards to Boardwalk Empire, and since this is the last episode for a while, I’m going to lead with it. It has to do with the occasionally modern feel to the dialogue and cultural references. I can’t always tell whether this is an intentional attempt by the writers to show that times haven’t changed that much, or just a case of them sticking with what they know. I think it may be a mix of both. As I wrote early in the season, there are scenes in Boardwalk Empire that could have been inserted directly into an episode of The Sopranos with very few changes outside of costuming. Yet one of the reasons why I enjoy movies made in the ‘30s so much—especially the early ‘30s, closer to the era of this show—is that they often seem more current than the movies of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The spaces the characters inhabit and the relaxed slanginess of their conversations feel familiar, almost as though the strictures and trappings of the modern world had just been established, and we Americans were still having a blast trying everything out.

Given that “A Return To Normalcy” wrapped up the first season of Boardwalk Empire—and given that season finales tend to engage in some summary—I thought more than usual tonight about whether this show means to frame its world against ours or if Terence Winter and company have just been enjoying 1920 as its own weird, well-defined space. The answer? I’d say it’s mostly been the latter. True, you can hear some echoes across the ages in the way that the rich of 1920 take care of their own, regardless of political affiliation. And if you’re a partisan type, you could probably find some significance in the show’s depiction of corrupt Republicans. (But that would be a stretch, honestly. Politics may not have changed much in 90 years, but the parties and their respective platforms certainly have.) Mostly though, Boardwalk Empire has been a character piece, examining one elusive, multi-faceted, precariously powerful man by showing how his slightest moves ripple across everyone who enters his sphere of influence.

Superficially at least, it would seem that everything’s coming up Nucky here in the last episode of the season. Sure, at the start of the hour, Nucky’s sweating. He’s still at war with the Rothstein organization and their proxies, the D’Alessio brothers. His own brother, Eli, is pissed at him for dropping him from his job as sheriff (and just for generally being a cocky, insensitive jerk). His mistress, Margaret, has left him, disgusted with the way he abuses his power in private and public ways. And according to the headlines, the Democratic candidate for mayor is a shoo-in to win election, putting an end to the era of Republican dominance in Atlantic City and putting Nucky out of a job. (Worse, Nucky’s own hand-picked candidate Ed Bader doesn’t seem overly concerned about his fate. While Ed’s cracking jokes, Nucky snarls, “I hope you’re half as amusing during your concession speech.”)

But fortunes change during the course of “A Return To Normalcy.” First, Rothstein buckles. The media and the public is calling for his head now that the rumors of him fixing the World Series have begun to spill out. Rothstein needs Nucky’s political connections, and since Rothstein’s weighing the possibility of extending an olive branch, Meyer Lansky seizes the moment to say what he’s been thinking for months: that there’s no percentage in war with Nucky. He suggests Rothstein call Johnny Torio, and set up a meeting. There, Rothstein promises an end to hostilities and grudges, in exchange for Nucky’s influence with the Chicago district attorney’s office. Nucky agrees, but also asks for a million dollars and the location of all the remaining D’Alessio brothers.

Emboldened by this turn of events, Nucky sees a way to sway voters with what later politicians would dub “an October surprise.” (Though this one happens in November.) As drums beat on the soundtrack—and as we’re treated to a spirited montage of Richard Harrow, Al Capone and Jimmy Darmody murdering D’Alessios with maximum badassery—Nucky calls a press conference where he blames the D’Alessios and the late Hans Schroeder for the rash of violence in Atlantic City and praises his brother Eli for leading the charge against the mobsters when he was in office. He ends with a rousing, “Thank you all and God bless America!” Then on Election Day, Nucky presses the flesh at the polls—and passes along his congratulations to all the new women voters—then retreats to his office to await the results. And whaddaya know? Ed Bader wins, and as his first act in office, he reappoints Eli as sheriff.

Perhaps the most significant change for Nucky though involves his once and future lover, Margaret Schroeder. The episode begins with Margaret taking refuge with Nan Britton, the secret mistress of soon-to-be-President Warren G. Harding. While walking through a graveyard with Nan on Halloween night, Margaret passes by the gravestone for Nucky’s wife and son and sees that his boy lived only six days and that his wife died a month later. Shaken by this information, she goes to see Nucky and finds him wearing a mask and looking at himself in a three-way mirror, contemplating his multiple reflections. The look suits him, she half-jokes. “A dapper villain in a Sunday serial.” He, unamused, cites all the different disguises she’s worn over the 10 months he’s known her. She then cuts through the banter and says she just wants to know “who Enoch Thompson is” before she leaves Atlantic City for good. And so he tells her.

Outside of the murder-montage and one final check-in with the various Boardwalk Empire characters, the dominant storytelling mode in “A Return To Normalcy” was in step with the way the show has worked best all season: with two people in a private space, telling each other stories. The difference is that in this episode, the stories are less allusive and more personally revealing. Nucky even hesitates in the middle of explaining what happened to his wife and son, unsure whether he can let down his guard all the way. Finally he gets it out: how he had just become treasurer when his son was born and how he wasn’t home much during those first few days, when his son—a preemie—was at his frailest. When Nucky did go to his boy’s bassinet to pick him up, he realized that the baby had been dead for days and that his wife had been in denial about it. They buried the child, and his wife cracked up, but Nucky wasn’t around to prevent the further tragedy. “The doctor said time would heal her,” he explains. “And I was very, very busy.”

Margaret then gets to the crux of the matter. When Nucky says that he’d never been happier or more terrified than when he was doing normal everyday things with Margaret and her kids, she replies, “There’s kindness in you. How can you do what you do?” And he doesn’t hesitate to say, “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.” Margaret gets to contemplate that firsthand later, when she’s eating the Barnbrack Cake she baked for All Saints Day:  a cake containing a coin, a rag, and a ring, meant to determine whether the eater can anticipate a year of romance, a year of good fortune, or a year of hardship. Margaret gets the rag. So on election night, she walks right into the Republican victory party in her best gold dress and says to Nucky, “You could offer me a drink.”

What I’ve enjoyed about Boardwalk Empire all season is that even though the point of any given episode has often been rendered bluntly, there are always nuances within the individual moments, and within the characters. Here’s Nucky now, at the end of “A Return To Normalcy,” feeling on top of the world, and likely believing that Margaret has returned to him because she was touched by his story and his honest declaration of how much he valued their time together. And there’s Margaret, who probably was touched by Nucky’s speech, and probably does care for the skinny lug to an extent. But that’s not why she rushes to his side. She shows up because she’ll be damned if she’s going to spend the next year eating rags.

Like I said, Boardwalk Empire defines Nucky in part by the people he affects: his multiple reflections. One of those is Margaret, who ends this season deciding to swallow her pride and sell her soul. But what she and Nucky don’t realize is that their shared prosperity is about to become a shared burden, because his other reflections are starting to crack. 

Jimmy, for example, is making his own earnest declarations, to his common-law wife Angela, and yet she’s still pining for her lover Mary in Paris (who sends her a postcard reading, “Forgive me but don’t forget me”), and when he tells her about how he dreamed about her hair during the war, she responds by getting a haircut. Plus, Jimmy is growing distant from his son, Tommy, perhaps because he never had a solid father-figure in his own life. He used to dread visiting The Commodore when he was a boy, because he found the house imposing and the animal-heads terrifying. And in Nucky, he has more of a pissy older brother than a dad: a man who takes care of him financially but makes him feel bad about himself the whole time. On election night, Jimmy finally blows up at Nucky for pimping out his mother, Gillian, when she was 13, and demands that Nucky “stop acting like you give a shit.”

Jimmy’s also mad at Nucky for making nice with Rothstein so quickly, when there’s so much personal animosity between the two tribes. (Jimmy, for example, is going to find it hard to pretend that Lucky Luciano didn’t screw Gillian in order to get information that would help Lucky track down and kill Jimmy.) And Jimmy’s not alone in feeling slighted. Eli’s not satisfied with the way Nucky threw him some of the Rothstein money and a re-hire as a make-good, without even trying to understand the underlying problems between the two of them. And The Commodore’s pissed at Nucky for paying off the maid who poisoned him. At the end of the episode, Jimmy, Eli, and The Commodore are all conspiring to get rid of Nucky, whom they all resent for his brusque manner and—as it seems to them all—his fool’s luck.

What’s interesting though about the little cabal we see in the closing moments of “A Return To Normalcy” is that we also see Gillian, sitting by herself in the next room. Is she listening? Does she have plots of her own? Would she be inclined to side with Nucky, who’s been generous with her, or with her own son? Nucky tells Eli earlier in their episode that blood is thicker than water. But Eli apparently doesn’t agree. Does Gillian?

That’s one of the many intriguing questions left dangling for Season Two, along with—among other things—the fate of Agent Nelson Van Alden. Apparently, the official story now is that Agent Sebso died of a heart attack, and in the wake of that devastating loss, Van Alden is planning to resign and move to Schenectady to become a full partner in a feed business, over his wife’s objections. (“I like being the wife of a federal agent,” she says, continuing the theme of characters speaking from the heart in this episode.) But at the end of episode, Lucy walks in—while Van Alden was expecting another woman, perhaps Margaret—and tells him flat out, “You made me pregnant.” It may not be so easy for Van Alden to slip away from Atlantic City.

This matters—to me at least—because Van Alden is himself a fascinating reflection of Nucky. The episode opens with him quoting Saint Augustine about the decadence of Carthage and how Augustine succumbed to the pleasures (just as Van Alden did). Both Nucky and Van Alden are holding fast to ideals. For Van Alden, it’s a Biblical notion of purity and morality that he hopes to revive in a place of sin. For Nucky, it’s about maintaining the status quo: the “return to normalcy” that President Harding touts. It all sounds so simple as Harding phrases it in his victory speech. We don’t want the dramatic, but the dispassionate. We want things to be calm, untroubled … as they were. But you can’t expect to reap the benefit of changes like prohibition or suffrage or world war without some residual effects. 

And so the first season of Boardwalk Empire ends with Jimmy walking the beach, picturing himself in control, mirroring Nucky in the show’s opening credits. Because maintaining the status quo is fine, unless you’re someone for whom the status quo won’t do. Nucky wants to imagine that all is well, and that a new era is being born that will be just as good as the old—if not better. But what he may not realize is that at home, where he lives, that baby is already dead.

Stray observations:

  • And now for one major nitpick: I feel like the first season of Boardwalk Empire pretty much wasted Chalky White as a character. He has mini-arc in this episode, in which he tells Nucky that the Democrats are trying to sway his vote with money (which he’s pocketing) and that he wants Nucky to pony up some money, a new car, and an invitation to the Republican victory party, all of which he gets. But I feel like there’s a lot of story there that’s gone unexplored and that Chalky’s fealty to Nucky hasn’t been adequately explained. I demand more Chalky for Season Two.
  • And now for one minor nitpick: The downside to Boardwalk Empire being yoked to history is that stories don’t always get to develop in ways that are most effective from a dramatic perspective. Rothstein makes such a strong opponent for Nucky; it’s a shame that he had to step away from the fray just because of dumb ol’ historical facts.
  • Sometimes “spooks” just means “dead people,” not what Chalky thinks it means.
  • In keeping with what I was saying up top about the past feeling just like the present, I loved all the Halloween rituals in this episode.
  • Capone to Lucky: “Grow up. With your stupid jokes.”
  • Annabelle has found a new horse to ride in Mr. Baxter. I hope the poor sap gets more than a handjob this time.
  • Never say “Bring on the dancing girls!” to Van Alden unless you want a smack in the face.
  • And thus ends season one. Thanks to all of you who stuck with the show and these write-ups, despite the occasional overwrought metaphor (from the show) and shoddy amateur historian-isms (from me). It’s been tricky trying to figure out the right mix of recap, opinion and analysis for a show so dense with incident, yet light on mystery. I’m not sure I ever completely cracked it, but I enjoyed trying, and I enjoyed checking out your comments and insights these past 12 weeks. Let’s do it again next fall.

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