Boardwalk Empire's Season 3 Finale: The Resurrection of Nucky Thompson

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Boardwalk Empire S03E12: “Margate Sands”

Boardwalk Empire is misunderstood. Because of its pedigree—HBO, its Sopranos connection, a glorious cast, etc.—most critics, including myself, have wanted more from the show at various times during its three years on the air. There’s an assumption that any big drama series that airs on a big cable network, especially any big drama series that airs on HBO, is going to be unbelievably thematically rich and very applicable to the sort of close textual read that has become the norm in reviews like mine.

But Boardwalk Empire isn’t that kind of show, or at least it isn’t that kind of show to the degree people want it to be. Instead, it's a much more straightforward gangster story that, while interested in complex characterization and the fairly regular metaphor or allusion, has really never aimed to get caught up in the same kind of psychoanalytic digressions that The Sopranos enjoyed.

This is okay. In fact, it’s pretty great. Not every show should try to be like The Sopranos, even if it's made by someone who worked on The Sopranos. This is a fact I've remembered at the end of all three seasons of Boardwalk, but for reasons I’m about to address, tend to forget when I’m watching Episode 4 of a 12-episode season. I forget because I can’t think of a drama on the air that relies more on viewers having seen the whole season before really making a judgment, on the whole and on the individual pieces.

Without getting too hyperbolic, I would argue that no drama does endings better than Boardwalk Empire, partially because of the dramatic impact they have on the show's overall seasons. While I still get frustrated with how disconnected the threads can be halfway or even three quarters of the way through a 12-episode sequence, or how false some the connections of those threads can seem at times, the show has for three seasons now managed to pull everything together in a really powerful, satisfying fashion. And sure, Boardwalk Empire’s version of a conclusion doesn’t necessarily produce as big of a thematic payoff, but the show’s singular, underlying message—that in this world, no one can really be that happy—is always reinforced in important ways.

With that in mind, “Margate Sands” provided yet another example of Boardwalk Empire's closing abilities and though it lacked the exceptional emotional wallop that Jimmy’s death provided in last season’s ender, this one delivered relatively substantial conclusions to a number of the show’s disparate stories. The episode probably cleaned up some of the big messes a bit too quickly and too easily, but each scene built to the next in a legitimately exciting fashion. And somehow, just about* every important character was well-served in this final offering of the year.

* Sorry, Van Alden. Until 2013. I hope you ironed many a face during your time away from this episode’s events.

The entire episode was pretty strong, but the last third was on whole other level. Once Gillian entered Gyp’s room and their uncomfortable sexual encounter began, I was on the edge of my seat until the episode’s conclusion. The stand-out sequence was Richard’s journey through the mansion, which was beautifully staged and directed by Tim Van Patten and driven home by Jack Huston’s silent, steely performance. For a moment there, I actually thought Richard was going to die before getting to the surely terrified Tommy, and that’s a testament to the show’s ability to convince me that anyone could die at any moment. But thankfully he didn’t, and now Tommy is safe in the arms of a family who can take care of him—even if Richard isn’t going to be part of that family. No matter how hard he tries to get back to that picture he carries around, Richard knows that he’ll always be hamstrung by how his past has turned him into the bloody mess he is in the present.

Meanwhile, by the time Gyp got stabbed to death on the beach, it felt like his time had come, unfortunately. While I think the slightly more subdued version of the character from the earlier part of the season could have buoyed the series for a couple of seasons, Gyp had become an ungainly, cartoonish villain who started to annoy me more than anything else. Bobby Cannavale did great work, but it’s probably time to move on.

Despite the frustrations I have—and I know you folks have—with Nucky, this episode got a lot of mileage out of Nucky outsmarting everyone on the Eastern Seaboard. Last week, we saw that Nucky was tough enough to shoot himself out of a sticky situation, and here he simply sat back and did what he really does best: politick. He convinced Rothstein to invest in the distillery in exchange for Joe’s backing in the fight against Gyp, and then used his political connections (i.e., Gaston and Mellon) to get Rothstein in trouble for having a connection to said distillery. In just a few swift moves, Nucky eliminated his Gyp problem, got back at Rothstein for the lack of support, and fortified his relationships both inside and outside of Atlantic City. Nucky’s had his fair share of issues this season (more on that in a moment), but I have to admit that it was pretty great to watch him use all of his unrelated resources to basically get other people to do everything he needed. In the process, I think Nucky learned what kind of person he has to be if he wants to continue to thrive in this world.

Much ado was made last week about Capone’s visit to Atlantic City and Chalky’s big role in the penultimate episode, but neither character had a whole lot do in the finale except argue with one another over who will become the true fan favorite of the show's wise-cracking, violent supporting characters. The episode didn’t even bother justifying why Capone came to help, but that ultimately didn’t matter once Stephen Graham and Michael K. Williams were on screen together doing their thing.

Ultimately, “Margate Sands” pulled together the important stories and served the most important characters. I’ve grown to really appreciate the show when it’s on a slow-cook early in a season, but boy does Boardwalk Empire hum when it gets toward the end. And more importantly, this episode—and really, the final few—made all those slower episodes in the beginning worth it. Though frustrating, we needed to see Nucky’s weird distractions and witness how they caused his temporary downfall. We needed to watch Richard discover the family unit he always wanted in order to understand the risks and sacrifices he made. And I guess we needed Gyp to get annoying to wish that he would just die in the end.

This is a season that was ultimately about the tension between haves and wants, and the kind of trouble you can get into when you aren’t willing to be happy with what you've got. Of course, in a time and a world like this one, the prevailing sense that everything is up for grabs and no one is satisfied is easy to identify. Nevertheless, so many characters spent the season trying to get more for themselves, mostly in terms of money and power but occasionally other things as well, and for many of them, that journey didn’t end particularly well.

Nucky began the season on top of the world. Think back to the premiere, when he was literally giving away gold in a treasure chest. But like we've seen before, Nucky couldn’t be still. All the wealth and power and presumed happiness weren’t enough for him. He needed a new muse and unfortunately, so much of what happened to Nucky in this season’s back half boils down to his infatuation with Billie. That relationship turned him into a distracted gangster and businessman, but also a jealous and petty individual who learned his money couldn’t make everything okay, or give him the attention he wanted. At the beginning of the season, Nucky could do no wrong and most importantly, believed that.

But by the end of this episode, when he had gone through some real hell, it seemed like Nucky had finally realized that what Jimmy said was true: He cannot be half a gangster, no matter how hard he's tried. And more importantly, he knows that he’ll be best served by going underground, staying there, and using his smarts and political connections a bit more surreptitiously. Nucky can still be a gangster and a politician—he just can’t try to do so publically.

Just about everyone else wanted more than they had and struggled to get it as well. Margaret tried to raise awareness and improve women’s rights and she ended up miserable, pregnant, and alone. Owen wanted a life with Margaret but couldn’t let go of his half-assed loyalty to Nucky and ended up dead. Gyp wanted everything and ended up with nothing. In the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, you could almost say the same thing about Gillian, but at least she still has her life. Richard tried to build a family, only to realize he might not be the perfect choice to lead one. Van Alden wanted a life away from crime and booze and just got roped back in. Even those who ended up with something they really wanted—like Eli, who re-established a trust with his brother—are still left lacking. These characters are never satisfied and most of them are never, ever happy. But that drives them to keep making big choices, and it definitely makes for great television.


Notes


– The opening sequence, with the mayor answering questions about the rising violence in Atlantic City, was economical and entertaining, but full of some really terrible dialogue. The media laughing at the mayor when he said that he and not Nucky ran AC was a truly awful, cliché touch.

– It’s unclear how much trouble Rothstein is actually in for his connection to the distillery, and despite Mellon’s power, I can’t imagine the government can just make Rothstein go away if he'd never even visited the location.

– The part of the episode where Luciano got interrogated and gave up his supply, only to learn that Rothstein had a role in the whole set-up just to teach him a lesson about staying calm during a hectic time, was a bit busy and unclear. I know the episode was trying to misdirect us away from certain things, but I think I wrote down a bunch of question marks during that scene.

– Was anyone surprised about the low body count here? Gyp was the only major character who bit it, and after all the build-up, I would have guessed more “important” deaths. Related: Who do you think should have died? And you can’t say Margaret because you hate her for no reason.

– I’d just like to thank you guys for the comments, votes, RTs, and likes over the course of the season. This is the first show I’ve covered all the way through here at TV.com and I’ve really enjoyed it. Hope to see you back here in September 2013.



The final Gangster Power Rankings of Season 3


1. Nucky (previous rank: 3): How fitting, we end where we began: With Nucky on top. It’s been a long, tumultuous run, but for the first time in the show’s history, I think Nucky deserves this kind of respect.

2. Richard (previous rank: N/A): I guess that scene from last week with him unloading all the guns was worthy set-up, huh?

3. Tie: Chalky and Capone (previous ranks: 2 and N/A): Despite their issues, these two fan-favorite characters ultimately worked together to help Nucky. While their motivations are different and complicated, it was damn fun watching them interact and work together. More of this in the future please.

5. Margaret (previous rank: N/A): No way I’m finishing the season by leaving her out of the rankings. Yes, she’s alone and pregnant, but it takes some real stones to not be persuaded by Nucky and his money when she’s at that lowest point. Haters gonna hate.


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