‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘A Return to Normalcy’: Leave the gun, take the apple?

Senior Television Writer
12.06.10 112 Comments

HBO/Abbot Genser

“Boardwalk Empire” has wrapped up its outstanding first season, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I get the rag…

“We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.” -Nucky

That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? What can we live with? What sins are we willing to commit, and what crimes done to us can we let go of?

It’s a question most of the major “Boardwalk Empire” characters have to ask themselves in “A Return to Normalcy,” and the answers vary quite a bit.

Nucky, of course, has learned to live with sin by the bucketful. After the tragedy with his wife and infant son(*), he’s been able to view the world almost exclusively in business terms. He ends the war with Rothstein because it makes good sense financially and politically, just as he forgave Jimmy back when he realized he needed muscle to fight the D’Alessios, and just as he’ll invite Eli back into the fold after the election’s won and the Republicans no longer need to pretend to be reformers.

(*) It’s funny: though this is Steve Buscemi’s show, Nucky by nature is such a detached, cool character that Michael Pitt has been getting the flashier material for quite a while now, and Jimmy has seemed the more vibrant figure. And so I watched Pitt play the scene where Angela tells Jimmy about his night terrors, and I watched the many small emotional shifts he made throughout that scene, and I again thought, “Wow, I like Buscemi, but the kid’s walking off with the show here.” And then a couple of scenes later, there was that pause in the middle of Nucky’s story – the one moment where he’s not the clever, emotionless chess grandmaster, but rather a grieving father and widower studying a wound that has yet to heal, nearly eight years later – and I was reminded of just how good Buscemi can be. I imagine Pitt will continue to get the juicier scenes going forward, but that’s not a flaw in the show, but rather a part of the design. If Nucky was a series of exposed nerve endings like Jimmy, the contrast between the two men wouldn’t be as interesting, and those rare moments where he reveals his true feelings wouldn’t be as powerful.

Nucky’s two chief lieutenants, and his mentor, are less forgiving of him. Even with his job back, and a cut of Rothstein’s $1 million payment, Eli’s not going to let go of being dumped by Nucky – and it’s amusing that he should wind up in an alliance with Jimmy, since he previously resented how Nucky cut the kid slack that he’d never give to his brother. And Jimmy is stewing over what he learned about Nucky and his mother, and over being used as Nucky’s muscle rather than part of the political machine. Add their grudges to that of the very wise, very bitter Commodore, and you have a threat from within for season two that should be even more compelling than the threat from without that Rothstein provided.

(Jimmy does, on the other hand, forgive Angela for her transgression, acknowledging how much he’s changed since he left for France, but there still seems to be a huge gulf in between them, as evidenced by his reaction to her new bobbed hairstyle.)

Margaret has gone back and forth throughout the season on what she’s willing to accept – from both herself and others. But hearing Nucky’s confession, and seeing Nan Britton pining over a man who was clearly never going to ask her to live in the White House, and then getting a sign from above in the superstition about the rag in the cake making its recipient destitute, Margaret realizes she and her kids are almost certainly better off with Uncle Nucky than without him. She finally seems to embrace Nucky’s world wholeheartedly, showing up for the victory party in a flapper dress and requesting some champagne with which to toast Nucky. The sins committed in the past by Nucky, and by her, are ones she can live with.

At the beginning of the episode, Agent Van Alden seems to have realized that the sin in Atlantic City is too much for him – that actions like sleeping with Lucy and murdering Agent Sebso have made him no better than the vile bootleggers he seeks to punish. But like Margaret, he gets a sign from above, in the form of one of Nucky Thompson’s mistresses showing up at his office – only it isn’t the mistress he wants to see, but the one who’s been willing to take him to bed. Lucy offered to have a baby for Nucky, but he rightly saw that she wouldn’t be a fine maternal figure. Now her condition will almost surely tip the scales of Van Alden’s self-loathing enough to make him retain his post, particularly since Supervisor Elliot seems not the least bit concerned about Sebso’s death, or Van Alden slapping down a potential new partner for cracking wise.

Ultimately, “A Return to Normalcy” seemed as much a prologue to season two as a concluding chapter to season one. We got resolution to the war with Rothstein and the D’Alessios, and the election – as Nucky cleverly used the former to help himself in the latter, branding his ticket as the clear choice for law-and-order, even as he acknowledged that the alleged crimes of Hans Schroeder and the D’Alessios were committed under the watch of his machine – and a more honest place in which Nucky’s relationship with Margaret can exist. But we also have the Commodore, Jimmy and Eli plotting against Nucky, and the announcement of Lucy and Van Alden’s demon spawn, and the question of whether Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky might be planning a break from their own boss, and of course Nucky being owed a favor by the new President of the United States.

In the show’s opening sequence (which grew on me as the season went along, either through familiarity or just because I like the Brian Jonestown Massacre song so much), Nucky stands in his suit and hat on the edge of the beach, letting the waves wash over his shoes. Near the end of the finale, Jimmy stands in a similar position, contemplating his next move – and whether he’s ready to betray his father figure for his actual father, and succeed both the Commodore and Nucky as the boss of Atlantic City. As much as I enjoyed this show’s inaugural season, that is a storyline I cannot wait to see play out in season two.

Some other thoughts:

• Martin Scorsese wasn’t available to direct the finale, but you wouldn’t know it from the fantastic work by Tim Van Patten, who pieced together great performances (the two aforementioned scenes from Pitt and Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald throughout the episode) and gorgeous imagery (the many faces of Nucky on display in the three-piece mirror, Margaret entering the victory party like Dorothy opening the door into Oz). And the trademark “today I settle all Family business” sequence – with Nucky sermonizing for the local press corps while Richard, Capone and Jimmy eliminated the remaining D’Alessios – was very much worthy of the master.

• The D’Alessio massacre provided a nice bookend to the series premiere’s climactic sequence with the murders of Big Jim and Hans Schroeder, and we also got the return of Eddie Cantor, whose song accompanied our final montage here.

• Clearly, I was wrong on Gillian as the Commodore’s poisoner. I took Jimmy’s reaction to the stuff, and then his conversation with Gillian near the end of last week’s episode, to mean that he’d figured out she was doing out and wanted to know her endgame. But it appears it was the maid, whom the Commodore humiliated once too often.

• Nice to see Chalky and his special lady friend enjoying the victory party, even if not all of the guests were so happy to see them there.

• In many ways, Terence Winter and the other writers have been trying to show how the world of 1920 wasn’t too different from what we know of today – certainly, Nucky’s move with the press conference seems very much the sort of thing that could sway a 21st century election – but there are always those moments that remind us of how far we’ve come in other ways, like the victory party guests being dazzled to realize they’re hearing a radio transmission from all the way in Pittsburgh.

Finally, I’m scheduled to interview Winter late Monday morning, and my hope is to get a transcript of that conversation posted ASAP. So look for that sometime early in the afternoon.

But as for the finale, and this first season as a whole, what did everybody else think? 

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