This is a new thing that we may be doing from time to time. Because while wise men will tell you that it is the journey, not the destination that matters, the ending of a story casts an outsized shadow over the whole. A strong one can redeem a lot of rough spots on the way there, while a weak one pretty much kills the potential for it to be better than “pretty good”. The idea is that I’ll do a look back at a season of a show I’ve been following but we haven’t been covering week-to-week the week before the finale. I’ll give a brief(ish) take on how it’s been so far, and then engage in some speculation on what the finale will do or what it needs to do to salvage the season. Then I’ll check in the following week with a look at how the finale met, exceeded or subverted my expectations. First up: HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster epic Boardwalk Empire, drawing its third season to a close this Sunday.
The biggest question for Boardwalk Empire coming into this year was whether it could bounce back from the loss of Jimmy Darmody. Killing off the second lead is a big move for any show, but particularly here, where Buscemi’s Nucky, despite the top billing, was frequently a passive figure, largely content to preserve the titular empire, which was in his grasp from the pilot episode. Not that there weren’t plenty of threats to that empire to react to, but Jimmy was the one pushing the limits, pursuing goals and being the more dynamic force in moving the plot forward for the first two years. How would the show function without him?
Very much like before, as it turns out. Season 3 had the same lurching pace and difficulty balancing the focus across its enormous cast that the other 2 had early on, only to collapse them into a bloody, explosive run to the finish line in the last few episodes. Even ancillary characters like Eli’s son and Chalky’s son-in-law made fairly large contributions to keeping Nucky alive in his hour of need!
This seems to be the pattern for Boardwalk Empire in all its seasons so far. A collection of slow, somewhat repetitive episodes in the first half of the season, and then just when I start wondering if it is going to remain appointment viewing, it roars to life, barreling into a bloody final stretch that wipes out several of its most appealing characters, but leaves me eager to sign on for more.
Which is not to say that absolutely everything has paid off as spectacularly as it possibly could have. It’s hard to say that Van Alden or Margaret’s storylines have really coalesced into anything explosive (the former’s hot iron freakout was as thoroughly predictable as it was entertaining). Or that Capone, Luciano and Lanksy didn’t spend most of the season in a holding pattern, constrained by history from getting too interesting too quickly, regardless of what kind of jolt the seasonal storyline could use at any given point. Luciano’s drug arrest in the penultimate episode should mix things up, but given how he and Meyer have been ineffectually shopping the heroin around since the middle of last year, it hasn’t exactly been a nonstop thrill ride to get there. Most of the time it’s only the performances of Michael Stuhlbarg and Stephen Graham keeping the scenes removed from the primary action in Atlantic City alive.
Perhaps because it has so many main characters that it cannot kill or credibly threaten, the show has to go a bit overboard abusing its original creations in order to prove that it’s playing for keeps. And perhaps because it wants to be extra careful not to go to far in lionizing those real-life crooks, the folks who take the loss tend to be among the most sympathetic characters. The show can be genuinely painful to watch because of it; it’s one thing to watch an old man get scalped or dickish sheriff get burnt alive, but it’s another thing, and worse in my opinion, to see likable characters such as Billie Kent (if this season accomplished nothing else, it put Meg Steedle on my radar in a big way) or Owen meet less graphic ends. If Richard Harrow doesn’t survive this week, my finale write up will end up being just a long string of expletives and then I will sulk for weeks.
The biggest issue with the season has been the primary villain Gyp Rosetti. The guy is a psychopathic cartoon, which has made him alternate from legitimately imposing to simply grating from week to week. When he bashes an innocent motorist’s head in over a perceived slight in the opening scene of the first episode, it’s establishing his evil/crazy bona fides. Ten episodes later, when we’re still spending an entire episode waiting for him to do the same thing, it’s gotten rather tedious. But while I think ultimately he was too broad for the reality of the show (if you maybe wondered how Tommy Devito made it as far as he did in the mafia, you’ll be gobsmacked that this guy ever made it out of grade school without getting locked up or beaten to death), but for next week at least it doesn’t matter so much if I hate him in the way the show wants me to or just because he doesn’t fit within it. Both hates will serve to make his grisly demise more satisfying.
I will say though, it’s a damn crime that William Forsythe left for the by-all-accounts turgid The Mob Doctor, because what if it were Manny Horvitz (another great original character I was sad to see go, who fit the world much better than Gyp ever did) marshaling Masseria’s forces against New Jersey? This would be a totally different ballgame, but a more satisfying one, I think.
But that’s not the situation we find ourselves in, and despite the unevenness of the characterization for the bulk of the season, Gyp’s siege of Atlantic City has been effective stuff, and produced a terrific episode last week. Honestly, it was so good that it sort of hurts the premise of this column, since it already tied together and redeemed so much of the iffy storylines from before that the finale doesn’t have a ton of heavy lifting left to do. If it delivers on the promise of those final scenes of Richard tooling up and Capone promising to clean house, it’ll be a corker. If it does anything else, it’ll be amazing. So anyway, here’s the lowdown on what I want and/or expect from Boardwalk Empire’s season finale:
Gyp Rosetti is murdered in especially brutal fashion. But I was wanting and expecting this to happen in the finale from literally the first scene of the season. It’s essentially a given.
Some indication that Stephen Root’s Gaston Bullock Means will continue scheming through next year. I didn’t mention him above, but his downright Coen-esque combination of loquacity and venality has be a delight throughout the year, and along with Rothstein has been the only historical character whose scenes never drag. Not worried on this score either.
Capone leaving a pile of dead bodies behind, and going home having cemented a tighter bond with Atlantic City. While Van Alden has gone from one of the most problematic aspects of the show in its infancy to one of its most amusing and oddly sympathetic characters, for the most part the Chicago stuff frequently seems very disconnected and inessential even for a show so diffuse in its plotting. It’s Graham’s performance and my interest as a local in that period of the city’s history that keeps me interested, but if they can keep these two parts of the show in communication with each other more than twice a year going forward it will only help things.
Eli will have moved fully into Owen’s position as number 2/chief enforcer after spending a year plus in the cold for trying to kill Nucky. This is pretty much already complete, but it would be a real waste if he was a casualty in the war as soon as they’ve repaired his relationship with Nucky to the point where having it deteriorate again would actually matter.
Richard will put some of those guns to use on Rosetti’s men. I’m hopeful that he will take the practical route of coordinating his move with Nucky rather than going on some sort of kamikaze strike that can really only end one way. I don’t know whether he intends to kill Gillian as well, and am actually somewhat indifferent. I like Gretchen Mol’s performance (and also, you know…nipples) enough that I’m not desperate to see her go, but with her son and his father dead, the character has outlived a lot of her usefulness to the show and I would enjoy Richard repaying her previous cruelty to some extent. This one’s a toss up, as I could see one, both or neither surviving the finale depending on how Richard, one of the most intriguingly inscrutable characters on TV, decides to play it.
Margaret wasn’t even in the last episode, a first for the series as far as I recall. I’m sure she’ll still be the lead next year, but don’t expect anything substantial from her in the finale. I’d say there’s a decent chance she doesn’t even appear.
Chalky will get his jazz club and some money, but really what I’m hoping for is that he personally kills a goon or two his own self. With a double barreled shotgun. And if he wants to lightly hum “The Farmer In The Dell” to himself while he does it, I’m cool with that too. Probably a long shot, but hope springs eternal.
Eddie will live. I’ve never been in love with the character, but the rule of thumb is that if someone is shot on a TV show and doesn’t die right away, they’re in for a full recovery. I’m at near 100% certainty on that.