Man, this show. Just when I felt like I had really figured out Boardwalk Empire's storytelling rhythms, it managed to zig when I was sure it was going to zag. "Farewell Daddy Blues" disallowed us some of the big fireworks and showdowns we expected to see, the ones that most of the season had been building toward. And in their place, the episode delivered a couple of powerful sequences, a few major deaths, and a whole lot of fascinating setup for next fall. Those characters who I thought were going to die lived, and one who I never hoped would go away finally—and honestly, probably fittingly—perished. I assumed the finale would be brutal, but just not in this way.
Before we get to that main death, I want to give credit to Terence Winter for the way in which this episode was constructed, particularly with regard to how it played on long-time viewers' assumptions based on Boardwalk Empire's typical finale structure. Generally, the first three season finales followed a similar(ish) pattern: Somehow, some way, Nucky escaped the terrible circumstances he was in, usually thanks to a last-ditch and violent effort from supporting characters we love. There's been a lot of stuff going on every year, but that's the gist. And the show set us all up for that same kind of story again. Last week, Eli organized the meet between the power players in the organization, giving his brother away to the FBI once and for all. And "Farewell Daddy Blues" began with Chalky pointing a gun at Nucky's head for his presumed betrayals. Nucky was in the corner again. But by the midpoint of the episode, it seemed clear how it was all going to break: Nucky had figured out Eli's dealings with Knox/Tolliver, and the FBI was going to kill him for yet another Thompson-brother backstabbing. Meanwhile, Nucky had convinced Richard to take out Narcisse (in exchange for revealing the location of Jimmy's body, thus building an even better case against Gillian), solving that annoyance and hopefully regaining Chalky's trust in the process. That's the classic Nucky Thompson Last-Minute Bailout that makes this show tick.
But then, it all fell apart. Nucky couldn't bring himself to shoot Eli at first, leaving just enough time for Willie to show up and force Nucky to really rethink his decision. What a sequence that was, with Eli outwardly admitting his attempts to stab Nucky in the back and making his point about how Nucky eventually takes everything anyway. A few weeks back, I wrote about how this season has really emphasized that second point, and the finale only hammered it home more. Just about everyone who gets involved with Nucky ends up dead, and rarely is it directly by his hand. Eli was just the first person to recognize this, and he's been trying to find a way out for a while now—really, going all the way back to the second season. That tension only clamped down further when Eli revealed the full logic behind his plan (that he joined up with Knox/Tolliver to protect Willie from going to jail). In that moment, all three Thompson men knew what kind of awful circumstances they were in, with Eli being the only one who was truly willing to face the consequences. He later did so, head-on, in an extremely intense fight with the over-the-edge Knox/Tolliver. Although Boardwalk Empire uses violent altercations like that pretty regularly, they tend to go on for so long that you (or at least I) can barely keep watching because they're so extreme and it's unclear who's going to survive. Knox/Tolliver did not, and now Eli has been exiled to Chicago, where he'll have to find a way to coexist with Van Alden, a former foe. The show keeps finding ways to A.) preserve Ei's life when I'm convinced he's going to die, and B.) move more and more characters to Chicago. That's pretty impressive. Although I did expect Eli to bite it in this episode, hats off to Shea Whingam, who has just been tremendous all year long as Eli's frustrations with his brother slowly boiled to an explosive degree.
Meanwhile, the second prong of Nucky's plan somehow went even worse. He maneuvered well enough to set up what seemed likely to be the final meeting between Narcisse and Chalky, and had Richard waiting in the wings to put Narcisse away, but then everything went to hell. Richard, all shaky and sweaty, couldn't focus up and snipe Narcisse from a corner of The Onyx, only pulling himself together to fire the shot right when Chalky's daughter, who'd previously been captured by Narcisse, walked into the crosshairs. To make matters worse, Richard was clipped by a stray bullet in the hysterical aftermath, while Narcisse was arrested and Chalky managed to get away. In itself, this was a painful scene to watch. It seemed like Chalky's daughter was in line for a bad time once she encountered Narcisse last week, but to go out like this? Ugh, that's rough. And if Chalky ever sobers up, gets off that porch, and discovers that Nucky had a role in her death? Ohhhhh boy. Hell to pay.
The good news is that Richard didn't have to live with the fact that he gunned down Chalky's daughter. The bad news is that Richard, unquestionably the show's most fascinating creation and arguably the heart of the whole operation, is dead. Although his death further signified the destruction that often accompanies associating with one Enoch Thompson, you can't deny how moving his final moments were. Watching him bleed out under the boardwalk, imagining a world where he actually got on the train, returned to Wisconsin, and built a family with Julia and Tommy, was heartbreaking. That his face was intact in the vision only made it that much more powerful.
For the second time in three seasons (or the third time, depending on how much you loved Owen), the show has killed a MAJOR and beloved character, and I imagine that this one is going to be tougher for people to swallow than Jimmy's murder. The time we were able to spend with Richard in the aftermath of Jimmy's death was wonderful, but in a way, it was probably time for him to go, either to Wisconsin or to the Wisconsin in his mind. As this episode showed, he'd been domesticated, and had rediscovered the humanity he was convinced the war stripped away. I understand the desire to see him get a happy ending, but it's nice that he went out knowing that he wasn't a cold killer who couldn't connect with people. His exit isn't something I'm happy to see, but I understand it, and that's about as good of a death as you're going to see on television. Bravo to the show, and to Jack Huston for his awesome work in this episode and over the last four years.
So, very little went as planned for Nucky, but ultimately that was a good thing for Boardwalk Empire—and probably an appropriate thing. Season 4 was the show's strongest to date, and capping it off with a surprising, moving finale only further reinforced that it's grown into one of the best shows on TV. Plus, there's all kinds of fascinating stuff to look forward to in Season 5: Eli in Chicago, where Capone is now in charge, but also Narcisse's survival and his newfound deal with Hoover and the FBI and whatever the heck is going on with Margaret and Rothstein. Perhaps more than ever before, Nucky has no clear support (Mickey doesn't count) and that could be the most interesting story of them all. Great season, pretty great finale.
– Gillian's gotta go away now, right? How will she serve as an epic buzzkill from prison? And with Gillian locked up, Tommy safe in Wisconsin, and Richard dead, Jimmy's spectre will have less of an impact on the show moving forward. It's apt that his body was discovered (and hopefully reburied) in this episode.
– If there's anything I've learned from period pieces, it's this: J. Edgar Hoover was such a prick.
– I know people were a little frustrated with Willie's prominence in the story early in the season. I'd say that paid off pretty darn well, right?
What'd you think of the finale? How about the season as a whole?
AIRED ON 10/26/2014
Season 5 : Episode 8