‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘To the Lost’: Nucky, get your gun

Senior Television Writer
12.11.11 540 Comments

A review of the “Boardwalk Empire” season 2 finale coming up just as soon as I take the ducks…

“I died in the trench, years back. I thought you knew that.” -Jimmy

“You don’t know me, James. You never did. I am not seeking forgiveness.” -Nucky

Well, that was not at all what I expected.

And several days after seeing it, I’m still processing exactly how I feel about it. I respect the hell out of it; I’m just not sure it’s what I wanted.

The early passages of “To the Lost” played out roughly how we all figured the season would end: Jimmy realizes he’s not cut out to be king, apologizes to Nucky and together they clean up most of the mess that’s been made by this failed coup. Margaret marries Nucky to invoke spousal privilege, Jimmy and Richard force Neary to take the fall through a “suicide” note, Jimmy gives Chalky everything he wants (and more) to end the strike, and everything’s hunky-dory, right?

Well, no. We’re not going to move into the new season with a return to the status quo from late in season one, with Nucky as the brains and Jimmy as the muscle. We’re not going to do anything with Jimmy at all. Jimmy’s dead, because once upon a time he pushed Nucky to stop being half a gangster, and an all-gangster Nucky won’t forgive everything Jimmy did to him this year – and is willing to pull the trigger on Jimmy himself.

So here’s my dilemma: On the one hand, I have to applaud Terence Winter(*) and company for having the guts to follow this story to its natural conclusion. We spent several days last week on this blog discussing another cable drama that backed away from killing several characters this season, even though the logic of the story so far suggested they needed to die. This was not that, not at all. Jimmy did too much to just skate away with a few reproachful words from Nucky. The only reason to keep him around is because he’s one of the show’s best characters, and Michael Pitt is one of the show’s best actors. And that shouldn’t be how stories get written on shows like this. The story had taken Jimmy to a place where he probably needed to die for his recent sins, and Nucky being the one to shoot him is a major landmark in the journey of the guy who’s the show’s actual main character. (Check the opening credits if you don’t believe me.) Winter had the courage of his storytelling convictions here.

(*) I interviewed him the morning after watching the finale, and we talked at length about the decision to kill Jimmy and various other bits of leftover season 2 business.

On the other hand, Jimmy was my favorite character on the show, and by far the more compelling half of the Nucky/Jimmy war this season. I understand why he had to die, and respect that Winter had the courage to do it – especially since, as he tells me in the interview, this arc wasn’t originally designed to end with Jimmy’s death; the writers just realized it was inevitable as they started to get into it – but I do wonder how I’ll feel about “Boardwalk Empire” when season 3 rolls around and Jimmy’s not limping from room to room, pulling his knife out of his boot and trying to cheer up Richard.

But that’s something to be considered next fall. If we’re judging “To the Last” just as an episode, and also as the conclusion to this season, then it was terrific. If anything, Jimmy’s death gives this whole season much greater weight. Suddenly, it’s not the story of two men going to war and realizing they need each other much more than they realize. Now it’s the extended, tragic conclusion to the too-brief life of James Darmody, who was damned from birth, almost overcame things through the kindness of Nucky before his mother’s unnatural love sent him running to fight in a war he didn’t believe in, and returned with his body and soul permanently scarred. Richard’s more obviously touched by what happened to him in Europe, but Jimmy came home just as empty. Most of his actions these past two seasons have been born out of a sense of unrest, a desire to feel something after his time over there, even if that something is an irrational sense of jealousy of Nucky and protectiveness of Gillian. He tried to fill the empty place by becoming king of Atlantic City, but he was a bad king, and the throne was more trouble than it was worth, costing him Angela (a woman he could have loved if his mother hadn’t ruined him) in the process. It’s clear in his final scene that Jimmy knew what was coming – why arrive unarmed otherwise? – but looking back on the rest of the finale in light of what happened there, there’s a sense that Jimmy knows from the beginning how this will end. Everything else that he does is a prolonged apology to Nucky, one of the few people on this earth who tried to do right by him in his short, tortured life, or else a chance to say goodbye to Richard and his son. He knows how this story ends – probably even welcomes it – and where some people might view his parting words to Nucky (about how killing a man will make him feel) as a bitter taunt, Michael Pitt plays it more as the last bit of friendly advice he has to offer the man. He knows Nucky needs to kill him, and he wants Nucky to understand what that will do to him.

And if the show has to lose Michael Pitt, he couldn’t ask for a better send-off than these last two episodes, which took us from Jimmy’s horrifying origin story through his resigned, oddly peaceful (even while shooting Klansmen and county treasurers) final days. As I’ve written before, the camera loves Michael Pitt, and some of the most striking visuals from the life of this series have involved framing him interestingly and just letting him stand there. There were a few of those tonight, like Jimmy smoking in his undershirt as Nucky and Owen pull up, or Jimmy watching Gillian from a distance, calculating how much of his life’s ruin can be traced back to her. Beyond being a great camera subject, Pitt got to put in time with most of the key (surviving) figures in Jimmy’s life. No farewell with Capone, but he made his peace with Nucky, imparted a bit of wisdom to Tommy(**), made it clear to Gillian that he was done taking instruction from her and, best of all, asked Richard to make an effort to let go of the war and find a way to live in this strange peacetime world. I’m glad Richard survived, but I will sorely miss those two together, and wonder how Richard will make a go of it now that the only two people he connected to since the war ended have been killed. 

(**) Not since Janice wound up as the guardian of Bobby Bacala’s kids have I feared so much for the future of a kid character on a TV drama. And, frankly, my money’s on Janice being a better mom to those two than Gillian will be to Tommy, even with the illegally-inherited fortune from the Commodore. Oy. 
So Jimmy dies because Nucky has to punish someone for the attempt on his life, and because when presented with a “He said, he said” situation, decided to side with his brother over his surrogate son. Is his transformation into a full-fledged wiseguy enough to compensate for the loss of Jimmy? We’ll see. Jimmy was always the flashier part by design. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and rarely bothered lying to anyone. He came at you head-on. Nucky’s always moving at odd angles, and he almost never lets anyone see what he’s really thinking and feeling. He opened up a bit to Margaret earlier this year – and nearly paid for that with his freedom – and we occasionally see him lose his temper and put the reserved politician facade to the side, but for the most part, he and Jimmy complemented each other well as the two central characters: one hot and the other cool, one direct and one deceitful.

As I’ve written in the past, I think a little of Politician Nucky goes a long way, where his best moments this season have been Gangster Nucky (the brawl with Eli, for instance), or at the very least a more honest Nucky. I imagine we’re going to see much more of the gangster from now on, but I wonder about the honest man. The brief days of treating Margaret like a co-conspirator are long gone. She marries him to help scuttle Esther Randolph’s case, because she believes that he loves her and the kids (which he does, I think) and because he makes himself appear vulnerable to her, but the instant the mistrial comes in, he’s back to lying to her the way he does to the rest of the world. Nucky pays a steep price for his freedom when Margaret assigns the deed to his highway land to the church, but this doesn’t seem quite like the Margaret of the past few episodes. Yes, she’s still giving money to God to pay for her sins, but this is a much more calculated move, more akin to the Margaret of much earlier in the season. Nucky betrayed her trust to get an enormous, life-altering (for both of them) favor, and the bald lie about Jimmy re-enlisting is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nucky’s gotta pay, and he does. And I wonder if either of these two will trust each other again, or if their marriage from here on out will be a collection of forced politeness and attempts to outmaneuver one another.

That actually sounds kind of fun, come to think of it, even in a Jimmy-less world.

“To the Lost” wound up neatly paying off most of this season’s major plot threads, or at least bringing them full circle. We began the year with the KKK assaulting Chalky’s warehouse, and this episode opened up with Chalky, Dunn and their crew getting very personal vengeance on the surviving shooters. The land speculation discussed in the premiere came up again in a big way, and obviously we got the conclusion (for now) of Nucky’s legal troubles. Nucky and Eli reluctantly re-align (and I imagine season 3 will jump ahead either to right when Eli is being released from prison or not long after) and Van Alden is once again keeping house with a woman who is not his wife.

Mainly, though, it was a great, inevitable farewell to the character who was at least #1A to Nucky’s #1 status. Jimmy Darmody may believe he never came back from the war – may have only seen his time in the trenches when his life flashed before his eyes, his mind omitting everything before or after – but he did come back, and he did touch people’s lives, for good or (mostly) for ill. He didn’t die in a trench, but at a war memorial by the ocean, in a torrential downpour, with the memorial’s statue appearing to show more sadness (the rain on its face looking like tears) than Jimmy himself did.

It was a hell of a run, even if it ended much more quickly than we – or even the man who wrote the script that killed him – might have liked it. I don’t know what a Jimmy-less “Boardwalk Empire” will look like, but I know he’ll be missed.

Some other thoughts:

* This year’s version of the classic “Godfather”-style montage involved a wedding and a priest, but was mainly driven by Esther rehearsing her opening argument in what should have been a masterful takedown of Nucky Thompson and his whole wicked enterprise. Instead, we got to see her case fall apart piece by piece, even as she was preparing to make it. Rough stuff, and the transition from the woman screaming at the sight of Neary’s corpse to the classic “order in the court!” moment was amusing – sick, but amusing.

* In the end, the only person to wind up doing serious prison time for this investigation is Deputy Halloran, poor bastard. I’m not sure exactly how Eli gets away with only doing two years, but it’s probably for the best that we didn’t have to watch Nucky and Bill Fallon do those particular negotiations.

* Well, it appears there’s life left in Nelson Van Alden – or, once again, “Mr. Mueller” – as a character, after all, as he runs away with Sigrid the nanny posing as his wife. And unbeknownst to him, he’s set up house in Al Capone’s backyard in Cicero. Hmm…

* Somehow it has escaped my notice until now that Erik Weiner, who played the late Agent Sebso (the reason for Van Alden’s current status) in season one, got the gig by impressing Winter with his “One Line on The Sopranos” rap video. Last week he put out another video about poor Sebso, this one directed by “Boardwalk” researcher Ed McGinty. Both are well worth your time, I would say.

* As I suspected that Nucky and Jimmy would reconcile in this episode, the opening scenes – Jimmy helping out Chalky, and Nucky meeting with Manny – briefly felt to me like we had jumped past the reconciliation and were now watching each man solve the other’s problem. Of course, Chalky and Jimmy’s negotiations had been recently established, and Manny did wind up helping Nucky kill Jimmy, if not in the way Manny might have meant it in the synagogue basement.

* With Jimmy dead, I imagine Owen will only become more prominent. But will Katy be long for the Thompson household now that he’s giving her the cold shoulder?

* Nucky loudly encouraging Emily to walk was both very awesome and very shameless. Sometimes, you can do a good thing for more than one reason.

* Which is the funnier line in the Nucky/Eli reconciliation scene: “Yes, and how about those Phillies? And my brother tried to have me killed,” or “There’s a character named Eli?”

* A few weeks ago, it looked like the young turks were ready to overthrow their wise old mentors. But Jimmy’s dead, and Lansky and Luciano have, for now, decided they’re better off making Rothstein a partner in their heroin business rather than trying to steal his business.

So go read the Winter interview and then tell me: what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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