Bloody ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season Finale Recap: ‘Margate Sands’

Senior Pop Culture Editor
12.03.12 215 Comments


Nucky Thompson has dropped his flower and become an anonymous man. Margaret Schroeder said goodbye to her husband (and Owen’s baby) and has returned to the same Brooklyn neighborhood where she was once rejected. Gillian Darmody was left withering on the floor of her whorehouse, sadly reminiscing about Nucky selling her to the Commodore as a 13-year-old girl, after having been injected with heroin by the now-fallen ape king, Gyp Rosetti. The heroin-less Lucky Luciano needs to start all over again. Arnold Rothstein appears to be headed to prison for some time. Richard Harrow is ostensibly without a home. “George Mueller” was nowhere to be seen. After such a confident, beautifully plotted, fantastic season, so much is left unknown after the events of “Margate Sands” — and that’s the best decision Boardwalk Empire could have made.

We’ll get to Richard Harrow’s Shotgun Massacre in a bit, but there are other things to discuss, like Stephen Root whispering into James Crowell’s, and a million slash stories were written, and Chalky White and Al Capone coming THIS close to a bare knuckle brawl that would have broken the Internet. But more to the point: a common criticism of Boardwalk Empire, at least before this season, was that it was a gorgeous looking show with a fantastic cast, but it wasn’t saying anything; it was shiny, but unsubstantial. It just kind of…existed, not quite as intentionally aimless as The Walking Dead, but never as stable as its forefather The Sopranos, either. At times in season one, it seemed like HBO had finally gone full Reader and created a series that existed only to win awards. But then the second half of season two happened, when arguably Boardwalk‘s best character, Jimmy, was gunned down by Nucky, and from that moment on, you weren’t sure what to expect, except bloodshed. The show finally had stakes. That sense of thrilling uncertainty existed throughout season three, and especially in its finale — with every claustrophobic camera angling, it seemed that Richard or Rothstein or Chalky was about to get popped in the head. Or knifed in the back by a man whose cousin you brutally beat with a shovel, in Gyp’s case. (A part of me wishes he had escaped from Jersey unscathed, only to reappear at an unknown time later in the series, but that wouldn’t have played into what Boardwalk‘s trying to do. More on that later.)

It took awhile (too long, for some) for the show to truly matter, but the wait was necessary. There’s a famous story about Jack Shepard, from Lost, and how originally, he was going to die in the pilot. But according to Alan Sepinwall in his new book The Revolution Was Televised, “Steve McPherson, then the head of the ABC studio, made a convincing counter-argument that it would teach viewers not to trust the show, and the writers ultimately agreed with him.” Boardwalk had to earn the right to kill Jimmy, and although it seemed like it took forever while it was happening, his death came at the perfect time. And allowed for the brilliance of season three, where death counts were well into the hundreds. (I counted 20 corpses in last night’s episode-opening montage, and there were approximately 60 all told in “Margate.”)

Still one question is left unanswered, though: what is Boardwalk Empire trying to say? There are many guesses, and just as many right answers, but here’s my theory: before the finale aired last night, I predicated that Nucky was going to defeat Gyp, obviously, but also pack up and leave Atlantic City for the meatier pastures of Chicago, where he’d be in closer contact with Capone’s crew. I realized this was a dumb prophecy right around the time of Joe Masseria’s conversation with Gyp, who’s trying to convince “The Boss” that despite their team’s body count rising, there’s a greater purpose to what he’s trying to accomplish. To which Masseria responds, “This is their home. That’s why they fight.” Boardwalk Empire, and season three really highlighted this, is a show about pride, about where you come from mattering. That’s why Nucky didn’t skip town, that’s why Eli keeps trying to patch his relationship up with his brother, that’s why Margaret wanted to return to Ireland with Owen (well, that and her monster of a husband), that’s why Richard’s always feels like he’s floating around the edge of the plot, that’s why Chalky came to Nucky’s defense in his battle against the invading Rosetti troops, and so on. Gyp didn’t care about Atlantic City or Tabor Heights as living, breathing organisms; he saw them as disrespectful pricks and vaginas waiting to be conquered, and that’s why he lost (notice his final speech, about heading to another “hick town”). Money matters, too, no matter what Nucky says, but not as much as getting to where you need to be, where you feel is home. Otherwise, you’re stranded in a crumbling house in *shudder* Brooklyn.

Or maybe it’s just about some F*CK YEAH METAL scenes, like Richard Harrow going all Taxi Driver.

Probably that one.

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