"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." - Matthew 6:34
One of the most common comments about this show (from both those who love it and those who hate it) is how heavy it feels, as if the weight of the alternate-history the show plays with creates a relentless dramatic vacuum, and anyone not explicitly preserved until a certain date is ripe to die. Certainly, no one on this show except maybe Steve Buscemi is ever wholly safe. But this is a collection of people who, by and large, know the stakes of the games they play. (Frank Capone’s death this season was a tragedy to his family, and violent as hell, but not an unfathomable consequence of leading a mob to beat voters into submission.)
It doesn’t stop the death of a player from being a blow, of course. The specter of Jimmy alone has haunted two seasons through Gillian, and he even makes himself known again this episode. But it’s interesting that comparatively, the deaths of people who are collateral damage seem to vanish with the tide. (Eddie, who dropped from his bedroom window this season rather than betray a man who never deserved his loyalty, had his cane confiscated by Mickey, but has otherwise disappeared right down to his birds.)
Richard walked a line down the middle. A sniper who has no problem pulling the trigger, he knows the rules and even explained to Nucky last season the reason he wouldn’t be seeking revenge: “Jimmy was a soldier. He fought; he lost.” But he also has an awareness of those with less power to move in these circles, and lives lost that shouldn’t have been—he mourned Angela Darmody long after Jimmy forgot her.
This season, he was the first character we saw, in the middle of some contract kills. He spent several episodes with his sister, Emma, trying to put the past behind him and realizing it was impossible. When he came back, though, there seemed to be a life waiting for him—erstwhile son Tommy, new wife Julia, and a job with a man who respects him. But he’s a soldier, and things just came together, that was all.
This season has been, at times, even more deliberate than usual, but the writers pulled out all the stops for the finale; it knotted together most of the arcs of this season in a few wrenching strokes.
Last season, during Easter dinner, Eli leveled with Nucky about their relationship in a way he rarely had, and invited Nucky to go ahead and shoot: “I'm sick of waiting for it.” Turns out setting Nucky up to be busted by the FBI was all it took to get what he wanted. Nucky’s as furious as we’ve ever seen him (he’s bet on Eli twice and been wrong both times), but Eli’s calm and ready. He spent last season ill at ease in his long plod back to Nucky’s good graces, and he’s been knocked around this year in the name of a son Eli knows is guilty of the thing he’s protecting him from. It’s calming, really, to be at gunpoint. (It helps that when Will storms in, the image of the benevolent Uncle Nucky takes a quick trip south.) But there’s still a world of resentment under the surface: of Nucky for subsuming what’s his, of Will for ruining his shot at getting out, and of Knox for using him for it.
Knox could go toe to toe with him there. He was a painfully awkward bad guy, mired in his own inability to seal the deal or gain respect from Hoover or his colleagues, his status as a federal agent a constant hunting call into an empty room. His floundering has even taken some of the poison out of his villainy, which the writers must know; they throw in a bad-guy beat about prison rape to tip Eli over into murdering him in the front room of the Thompson house. I’m not sure if Eli needed it—Knox was doomed the moment he crossed the threshold to make open threats to the family of a desperate man—but into every Boardwalk season a few brutal murders must fall, and by hand, by saw, and by vase, Agent Knox joins the Great Bureaucracy in the Sky. And he won’t even be leaving a legacy behind him; the Bureau’s vitriol is directed entirely elsewhere.
The episode opens with Nucky’s last futile motions of leaving Atlantic City behind, interrupted by Chalky paying him an armed visit. When Nucky asks what Chalky’s doing there (which seems less like opening negotiations and more like deliberate obtuseness), Chalky says, with a grin that tells us he remembers Narcisse’s words of wisdom about Nucky not long ago: “Standing here, with my friend.” (And though Nucky comes through for Chalky here, Chalky’s right not to lay stock in Nucky’s protection; the variety and enthusiasm of the many racial slurs delivered by Nucky and company in this episode alone reach Tarantino proportions, with the same eyebrow-raising effect, just in case we weren’t sure what white Atlantic City thinks of the North Side.)
What Chalky wants, of course, is Narcisse gone, and Nucky helps him because that’s right in line with what he wants. One of the prickliest, most electric scenes in an episode full of them: Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Wright’s face-off in the Mayor’s office (after Nucky hilariously kicks the Mayor out). Nucky’s never happier than when he’s playing middleman in a position where he’ll come out on top no matter who wins, except when he has a plan in place to make sure he’ll win the way he wants to. And yet, who could blame Narcisse for believing him when he says, “I bet on a horse to win. He didn’t even place. Today is a different day.” What Nucky wants, he says, is Chalky dead. Narcisse, thrilled to find a confluence of motives, grows a catlike grin that cracks in half as soon as Nucky plays his ace and mentions Daughter. (Jeffrey Wright will, with any justice, be looking at an Emmy this year.)
And if there’s a scene that could top Nucky and Narcisse, it would be Narcisse and Chalky, circling back to all the magnificent antagonism of their first meeting, except that instead of the privacy of Chalky’s office, sacrosanct and elevated, it’s in the thick of things, and Narcisse has made himself at home in the middle of a dance floor on which he’s not allowed. Chalky pretends to be everything Narcisse ever accused him of, and Narcisse seems as offended by Chalky’s manner as by Chalky’s attempt on his life. But Narcisse can afford to be a little offended, since he’s brought insurance in the form of a young woman (no surprise). It’s Maybelle; Maybelle who wanted more than her beau, who wanted to know more about Chalky and his work than Chalky knew was safe to give. You know in the instant before Richard takes the shot what’s going to happen, but the horror still spirals out as Michael Williams comes apart at the seams; the ensuing firefight seems like a footnote to Chalky losing the very last thing he had to lose.
In fact, Chalky doesn’t even get revenge against the man who took it. Narcisse lives, and good old J. Edgar himself sweeps in to deliver an out: If Narcisse wants to see sunlight again, he’s going to turn over ongoing intel on Marcus Garvey. Hoover, who until now has seemed more an impression in a cameo than a character, blossoms in a single scene into a more insidious villain than Knox promised to be. “Who do you think gets to decide what the truth is?” he asks, like they don’t both know, before outlining Narcisse’s fate for him. Narcisse thinks Garvey’s a hero, but Hoover couldn’t be less interested: “You are just a peddler and a pimp, sitting in a jail cell.” But no peddler pimp is so horrible that there aren’t bigger enemies out there, and all Narcisse has to do to be a free man is to answer, “Yes... sir.”
And that about sums it up. In a season of Boardwalk that’s been more overtly about race than previous ones, the themes have often been muddy; as far as the show’s concerned, there’s no way to win. Chalky, who often behaved with relative honor among thieves, has been mercilessly ground into the dirt, which has only been possible because of inaction on the part of his allies (allies he’d helped when they called). Narcisse, who took it all away from him under high-handed religious auspices and across a genteel veneer, was on the verge of triumph amid the underworld, but still could barely keep the peace sitting in the club he ran. And here, he finds himself dismissed as callously as he ever dismissed Chalky and wins only through submission. Of course, together they could have run Atlantic City, but they were divided and conquered practically from the start; every deck was stacked against them.
That leaves us with the faithful soldier. Richard, who had something approaching a full life, was contending with an enemy he’d never had before this: hope. He asked Nucky for Jimmy’s body—a serious favor—in a wild bid for freedom from the last hold Gillian (and Jimmy) had on his life. (Nucky, cagey as ever, about an anonymous source possibly calling in a body: “What would you do for that anonymous source?” Richard, who’s never been very good at pretending: “I would do whatever you asked.”) But hope had hold of him, and with it came something to lose. His hand shaking in the balcony of the Onyx Club was as much a shock as his mistaken shot; his horror on realizing his murder would have been almost impossible for him to live with, if he was going to live.
But he won’t. That much we know by now. In the wake of a slow-building year, the damage done by the club-swinging FBI is laughably small compared to rest of the wreckage. Another ambitious young man is nursing his first grudge against Nucky. Gillian’s trapped and grieving what she always secretly knew was true. The Thompson brothers are separated by more than geography. Chalky is wrecked and will have to start again from nothing. As the season wraps, even the most innocuous setups of things to come (Rothstein blithely ushering Margaret’s family to their new digs) are just tragedies in waiting. It doesn’t mean they won’t be intriguing—Van Alden pulling up to pick up Eli opens up a host of possibilities to make the Chicago storyline even more long-suffering and grudgingly cooperative than it is now. But the majority of them are doomed to failure, because that’s just how this world is.
Chalky’s storyline is perhaps one of the most tragic the show’s ever given us: Having spent several years being begrudged by those who had no problems using him to help solve their problems, he aimed higher, and spent the season being punished for it. He’s lost his club, his safety, his reputation, his control within the community, his lieutenant, his mistress, and his family. He finishes on the porch of a crumbling house, down to an entourage of two, emptied by grief.
But that’s not where the season ends. The season ends the way it started: with Richard, who has played antagonist and ally; killer and savior; Tin Man and the Thief of Bagdad. A killer, then, has paid for his collateral damage, but a man of surprising conscience has vanished, too, from a world that didn’t have many to spare. Amid a dream of coming home whole again, Richard goes out with the tide.
Bring on Season Five.
- “All of which answers the question why the envelope is short.” Mickey, I know there’s a very large chance you won’t survive next year since such a point was made of your life insurance policy this season, but stick around a long as you can, all right?
- Second-best comedic line delivery of the night goes to Nucky, upon his arrest at the train station by feds looking for Eli: “Are you going to charge him with canceling a meeting?”
- In a season of great performances, Michael K. Williams and Jeffrey Wright deserves all the kudos they might receive, and even more that they might not.
- Speaking of soldiers, the Capones get folded gently back into the season wrap; Al Capone suspects Torrio just long enough to be proved wrong, as Torrio himself gets gunned down in his yard. He survives but knows when to throw in the towel, and the last we see of Al Capone this season, he’s accepting Torrio’s network like it’s a benediction.
- One of the episode’s most striking frames is the shot of the Capones sitting in the hospital hallway (an empty chair in the middle as if for Frank), with Van Alden standing nearby, bisected by a doorway: a reluctant soldier.
- As much as it’s going to be a disaster, I want to note again that Margaret is moving into Rothstein’s digs with Rothstein seeming chuffed to no end. Their relationship has been played in the uncanny valley between horror movie and romantic comedy, and this blip of bliss amid the chaos of the finale fit right in line.
- It’s interesting that Will’s throwing his cheekbones around in his father’s defense now; it’s even more interesting that Nucky, having barely skirted the edges of history repeating itself with Eli, gives him, “I’m not the person you think I am” without any apparent awareness that he’s looking a potential Jimmy 2.0 in the eye. We’ll see how that pans out next year.
- Thrilled? Furious? Yes. You can compare notes on the season with Terence Winter himself; Todd VanDerWerff has an interview with him coming up at midnight Central on the main page.