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'Boardwalk Empire' Season Finale Recap: Is Nucky's Luck Running Out?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Dec 6th 2010 1:30PM
['Boardwalk Empire' - 'A Return to Normalcy']

Perhaps we shouldn't have expected too much excitement from an episode that chronicled (if only tangentially) the election that charismatic firebrand Warren Harding.

OK, that was a bit of 1920s humor (the kids love that). Not to be all spoilery (wait, can you spoil historical events that took place 90 years ago?), but Harding wasn't exactly known for his personality, more for the corruption that soon engulfed his administration.

But that's getting a little ahead of events, and in any case, the politician under the most pressure in 'A Return to Normalcy' was Nucky Thompson -- though he assumes that, personally and professionally, he's mostly in the clear.

For now.

As was the case with most 'Sopranos' seasons, in which the real fireworks often took place in the second-to-last episode of the season, most of the big 'Boardwalk' blowups happened in the penultimate episode of season 1. The rather wan season finale set the stage for the challenges Nucky Thompson will face in season 2.

'Boardwalk,' a handsomely made, thoughtful and worthy drama, is probably never going to be a grab-you-by-the-lapels show -- not unless it ventures into a Sideways universe in which Nucky fights zombies. But seriously, what the show is now is often fine. Up to a point.

'A Return to Normalcy' dialed down the show's deliberate pace even further, and though there were a few very good scenes, the overall pace and tone felt plodding at times.

A few of you asked why I stopped doing 'Boardwalk Empire' recaps mid-way through the season. The main reason was that recaps were starting to take over my weekends (I also review 'Supernatural,' which airs on Fridays. True, HBO did send advance DVDs of all but the season finale of 'Boardwalk Empire,' and I kept meaning to get my 'BE' reviews done during the week, but various tasks often kept me from that. The end result was that I was spending big chunks of Saturday and Sunday writing about TV, which wasn't ideal. I love TV, but I need a break from it once a week.)

Another reason I gave up the recaps was that 'Boardwalk Empire' seemed to review itself. The show quite often tells you what it's about, in very literal terms, as in the episode in which Hardeen talked about people being willing to deceive themselves. When a show is that literal about what it's doing on a weekly basis, I didn't always find that I had all that much to add.

Of course, any show in its first season is frequently in world-building mode, and that kind of setup takes time to pay off and can often seem a little dry and exposition-y. And it's a testament to the show's many memorable characters that I wished we'd spent more time with some of them. After Chalky White's great "bookshelves" speech, I couldn't wait to dive headfirst into his tangled relationship with Nucky, but after that, we only got a few measured glances at that character.

Same goes for Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein. It's to 'Boardwalk's' credit that the show wanted to bring us such a panoramic view of the gangsters of that era, but, in trying to keep us up to date with Chicago, New York and Atlantic City, we didn't get to spend a great deal of time with any of those men. I'd watch a whole show about Richard Harrow -- Jack Huston's presence in those scenes is off the charts -- but I'd settle, in season 2, for a narrower focus on a rich set of lead characters whose relationships are as strange and interesting as Jimmy and Richard's.

All in all, 'Boardwalk' is an admirable series, but in its season 1 finale, it wasn't a gripping one. The scenes between Nucky and Margaret Schroeder were well played, but they were suffused with quiet resignation. The back-slapping political moments dragged, quite frankly (we've seen too many scenes of backroom deals this season), as did any scenes with Harding's dim-witted paramour. I know she was there to provide a counterpoint to the intelligent Mrs. Schroeder, but Harding's girlfriend was simply predictable and bland.

All in all, in 'A Return to Normalcy,' the story lines came together in ways that made sense. But sometimes I wish 'Boardwalk' made a little less sense.

I went to see Lookingglass Theatre's excellent interpretation of 'Peter Pan' on Sunday, and the production got me thinking about how great works of art sometimes last because they don't make a ton of sense.

If you'll indulge me for a moment, here's what I mean: J. M. Barrie's iconic work is full of ideas that contradict each other. Mothers are hated and adored, childhood is worshipped as a paradise and feared as a territory of cruelty and loss, and the characters exhibit both remarkable resilience and serious emotional damage.

It's because 'Peter Pan' captures an entire world of evolving and contradictory emotions that it has lasted, I think. Real life is like that -- full of situations that remain unresolved and impulses that clash and meld and burst apart. Barrie didn't necessarily try to make a coherent statement about those complicated feelings and evocative ideas, he just created a compelling holding pen for them.

I'm not saying 'Boardwalk Empire' should be like 'Peter Pan.' I'm saying it shouldn't be afraid, in its second season, to be messier and more digressive and more willing to take chances. Right now, the show is like the straight-A student who spends every night at the library. Everything lines up just so; stories are built in a very deliberate, efficient fashion. There's no coloring outside the lines. For a show about the licentiousness of Prohibition, 'BE' can be pretty uptight. It needs to go out, get drunk and go a little wild.

Though ideally, it should not make a showgirl pregnant in the process. Among the things I liked least about the last quarter of the 'Boardwalk' season was the super-weird journey of Agent Van Alden. I wish the show had kept him as a believably committed and incorruptible adversary of Nucky and all things illegal. Many had issues with his murder of Agent Sepso in the river, but I actually think Van Alden's story line started going wrong the week before, when he slept with Lucy.

Sometimes 'Boardwalk' is too opaque and reserved (for example, earlier in the season, I had no idea that Nucky didn't get the road money). In this case, I honestly had no idea why Van Alden bedded her. To experience the kind of sin Nucky engaged in regularly? Because Van Alden felt that he, by failing in his job as a Prohibition agent, was a worthless man? Just because? This was an example of a show that's usually too thematically explicit leaving us hanging.

I actually thought Van Alden might try to get information about Nucky's activities from Lucy. But no, he just slept with her. At least the murder of Sepso sort of jibed with his insanely intense religious beliefs. But now that Van Alden is a murdering philanderer who may have gotten a showgirl pregnant, what kind of antagonist is he for Atlantic City's most successful purveyor of sin?

Of course, part of the idea was probably to show that nobody can resist the temptations of that New Jersey fleshpot. But it just seems as if Van Alden will be less effective in future, though, as always, I'll be interested in watching Michael Shannon's performance. To say the actor is committed to this wackadoo role is putting it mildly. No one else could have sold that river scene the way Shannon did.

But why didn't Van Alden say to Lucy, "I am sure you have made the acquaintance of many men in the past few weeks. We may have shared a cocktail or two but I'm not the father of your child. Good day to you, madam. I said good day!" But Van Alden was left in a strange state of limbo. Will he return to Nucky's stomping ground in season 2, or was Lucy's visit a sign from God saying he should get out of Dodge?

Still, at this point, Agent Van Alden is probably the least of Nucky's problems (and that's probably by design). Thanks to his Chicago connections, Nucky was able to end the war with Rothstein -- for now. But now, Nucky will have to face an enemy within. Three enemies, in fact.

It's taken me a long time to warm to Michael Pitt as Jimmy, but he's slowly grown into the role and Jimmy's become more interesting as he's come into his own as a man. I never really felt much for the character, however, until I saw the look on Jimmy's face after Angela cut her hair. He was so hurt. He looked like a little boy who had been slapped.

Everything he did after that made total sense. Jimmy has been let down by Nucky, who acted as his mother's pimp and apparently doesn't regret it. He's tried to patch things up with his common-law wife, but she can't get over her own heartbreak. He's really got nothing left. Why not take down Nucky -- the only father figure he's ever had -- and be done with it?

And you know what? Maybe that's not such a bad idea. I've really enjoyed Steve Buscemi's subtle performance all season long, but I began to dislike Nucky after his scene with Jimmy. Of course it was hard not to feel for Nucky's pain in that beautifully acted scene with Mrs. Schroeder. All season long, Buscemi has given us the impression that Nucky is a man who carries a lot of pain behind his capable facade, and now we know why.

But I get the sense that 'Boardwalk's' writers can't quite decide where Nucky falls on the spectrum of evil. The man who had that tender scene with Mrs. Schroeder was not the same man who talked to Jimmy about his mother's relationship with the Commodore. Sure, Jimmy was drunk and belligerent, which put Nucky on guard, but if Nucky had expressed even the mildest regret for his actions regarding Gillian, maybe Jimmy would not have made common cause with the Commodore and Elias to oust the town's power broker.

Then again, maybe Nucky's downfall -- or a season in which he's fighting enemies on many fronts while figuring out how much of his heart he can entrust to Margaret -- will allow 'Boardwalk Empire' to get more messy, more weird and more willing to go for the emotional jugular. Though the finale wasn't particularly impressive, season 1 has been, overall, a worthwhile journey, and there are some interesting pieces in place for season 2.

I'll drink to that.

A few more notes:

* Shea Whigham did a wonderful job of showing not just Elias' anger at Nucky, but his disappointment in his brother. The fact that Nucky can't see how his endless manipulations affect others will probably be his downfall.

* I never cared much about Angela's Lifetime-meets-Cinemax affair with the photographer's wife. I hope the show either makes Angela far more interesting next season or jettisons the character.

* Likewise, we can take it as a given next year that Nucky is a political fixer. The machinations regarding Harding and the local ticket were either too abstract or too dry to hold my interest.

* I thought it would have been more interesting had Gillian been the one poisoning the Commodore. Seeing her interact with him now, given what we know about how old she was (and how old he was) when he started sleeping with her, that whole relationship is just off-putting to say the least. I thought Gillian poisoning the man who destroyed her childhood made a certain amount of sense, but apparently she's just waiting to be remembered in the old man's will.

* Too bad Jimmy doesn't realize that, at this point, he's just the vehicle for a different man's ambitions. The Commodore doesn't care for Jimmy at all -- the older man just views his son as a convenient stooge he can use as he attempts to get revenge on Nucky. The sad irony is, Nucky actually cares about Jimmy, in his own way. As was the case with Nucky's wife, he has a hard time showing giving his love or attention to anyone.

* Given how reticent Margaret is, we don't know how much of her reconciliation with Nucky was driven by real affection and how much by fear of poverty. One of the thing the show has done, somewhat relentlessly, is demonstrate that everyone has a price. What's hers? Aside from financial security for herself and her children? Will she get a measure of independence and autonomy if she gives Nucky a child first? In any event, Margaret is more interesting when she's more than a mere foil for Nucky. I hope she gets more to do next season.


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whyty

can anyone tell me why they changed Nuckies real name from Johnson in real life to Thompson for BE.Is it a legal thing?

January 12 2011 at 6:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eric

I disagree with the assesment of Van Aldens character; however I do agree that he is not the run of the mill antagonist in the story. Van Aldens character is like every other character in the show, actually human. To portray Van Alden as a completely pious man would be disingenuous because the human character is infinitely flawed, even those who are supremely religious. BE has no "good" guy or "bad" guy, but rather good people capable of bad things and vice versa. BE's characters all reside in the gray area, as do most of us in real life.

December 09 2010 at 1:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Anthony

I find your need for characters to be painted in one light to be troubling. Are people all either good or evil? And if so, are they consistently this way? And to what degree? Part of us not "knowing" who Nucky really is, is a testament to the layers being developed in his character. The same goes for Van Alden, how many cops NEVER break the law? I think his weakness shows his inner struggle and makes his seem a more plausible character. Its unfortunate that we feel the need for the character to be finitely one way or the other. I do however agree the show is "spread a little thin" in terms of developing ALL the characters. ( It almost feels like a "Capone" based spin off series could be a must) I'm not sure what we're looking at for a turnaround here, but I can't wait for season 2 to kick off.

December 08 2010 at 8:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
EricK


Admire your views on "Mad Men," but really disagree with your "down on BW Empire" view.

The actors are fan-friggin-tastic on this show. The players playing Richard, Nucky, Al Capone and Jimmy are fabulous. So are many of the supporting characters.

Margaret reminds me of Carmella Soprano, figuring out how much BS she can take. Like Carmella, she's essentially bought off and seemingly makes her peace.

The great performances make up for the sometimes slow pacing. The pilot ep turned out to be the toughest to take all season. I was highly skeptical of this show...1920s Jersey didn't seem like my cup of tea. But after 12 eps, man I'm drinking it now.

I think BWE might be one of those gender gap shows. Men may just like it more than women, on balance. It's largely a show about Men Doing What (They Think) Needs to Be Done. The women are not empowered as they are on Mad Men.

At the end of the day, I'm just thankful that the Sopranos led to two of the best shows ever to air on TV...BWE and Mad Men. David Chase has quite an impressive "coaching tree."

December 06 2010 at 11:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MosquitoControl

I loved this show.

I felt like quite a bit happened. There was emotional impact, as opposed to The Walking Dead, which is an emotional void and an entire waste of an amazing premise.

December 06 2010 at 9:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy Martin

I don't think the maid has anything to do with it. Nucky paid off the maid to take the fall to cover for Gillian......or to cover for Nucky who might have been paying the maid to poison him. Either way, the maid, if she did it, did not do it on her own.

December 06 2010 at 4:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike

"...but Harding's girlfriend was simply predictable and bland."

Isn't that the point?

And I believe that Gillian is absolutely involved in the poisoning. The maid didn't rat her out because it would've made things even worse for her. Instead, we see her get a "pardon" from Nucky, and a wad of cash - because she kept her mouth shut. And because Nucky is in on it, too.

December 06 2010 at 4:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jessica

Maybe I missed something, but what did the maid show Nucky after he gave her cash and showed her out - a page from her bible - was something written in there, was a passage highlighted...Any thoughts?

December 06 2010 at 4:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Wes

I really enjoyed this first season. Slow paced but great.

I really enjoyed the scenes in the finale where Jimmy, Al and Richard (who I could also watch a whole show about) tracked down the remaining brothers. It was great to see Al grab an apple from the grocery bag of the man he just shot.

Jimmy has really came along way since the first season and it'll be interesting to see how far he'll go against Nucky next season. The whole thing with the Commodore being his dad should have been a bigger climax. Also I agree with you about the poisoning. Very strange that it was the maid.

Van Alden's decent has been strange but fascinating to watch. Michael Shannon is an amazing actor. The more that was revealed about the character, the more interesting he became. I think his wife will be out of the picture and the baby is a sign from God that he needs to stay in Atlantic city and clean it up. By any means necessary. I think he will get a lot more blood on his hands.

December 06 2010 at 2:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jake

I thought the finale was quite phenomenal actually. Van Alden seems on some level to be making amends or at least regret what he did. Also, the scene where Nucky was telling Margaret how his wife died was truly heartbreaking.

December 06 2010 at 2:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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