Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Friendless Child’

A review of tonight's “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I catch you in a good mood…

“So I did one thing for him, and then another…” -Lindsay

Though we have one episode of the series to go, “Friendless Child” essentially brings the story of Nucky Thompson's empire to a close. He gives it all away – save maybe whatever he's doing with Margaret and the Mayflower Grain stock – to Luciano and Lansky, whose takeover of crime in New York and New Jersey is complete, even as they have bigger plans to make organized crime be truly organized on a national scale(*). The war's over, Nucky conceded utterly – choosing to save Willie over continuing a fight he'd likely lose anyway – and that's the show, right? A boardwalk empire falls, and you roll credits.

(*) Probably the biggest casualty of the decision to end the show now – and skip over seven years in the process – isn't the dramatization of the Atlantic City Conference, nor the death of Arnold Rothstein, but the chance to see Charlie and Meyer begin plotting this huge transformation of their own careers and the mob in general. It's not like they're obscure characters suddenly being shoved into the forefront, but this is still an enormous leap from their roles as lackeys to Rothstein, Masseria and others, even if they were always reluctantly serving as underlings

This season's flashbacks, though, have made clear that Nucky's story isn't just about the construction of his empire, but the loss of his soul in the bargain. And both the flashbacks in “Friendless Child” and the present-day scenes – particularly that gorgeous sequence at the end where he reads and re-reads the letter from “Nellie Bly,” with Gillian's words overlapping each other until all that's clear and important is the pleading tone of her voice – suggest that the story has to end not on the empire, but on the man who built it. Who is this grouch in the expensive pinstriped suit, how did he get to this point, and is there any chance of forgiveness for his many sins?

As was the case last week, there was nothing of import revealed in the flashbacks that we didn't already know. Yes, we see Sheriff Lindsay apparently resigning his position rather than continue serving as the Commodore's pimp, but the broader strokes about the Commodore's pedophilia and Gillian's tragic future are already there. And as was the case last week, we find that seeing these things – getting to know the scared but poised girl Gillian was even before Nucky delivered her to her rapist, seeing a glimpse of another of the Commodore's many shattered victims, seeing on Lindsay's face the weight of being accomplice to the big boss – is ultimately more powerful than having been told them.

For so long, it felt like Winter and Korder were simply keeping Gillian around because they liked Gretchen Mol, in the same way that Van Alden and other characters stayed past their usefulness because the actors were too good to say goodbye to(**). But knowing what we know about their connection, and seeing now how crucial this one act was to everything that followed – that giving Gillian to the Commodore wasn't just one of Nucky's many sins, but the first (and worst) – has made clear her importance to the larger story. A few years ago, if you had told me that the final season of the show would build to a story with Gillian as the emotional centerpiece, I'd have wondered how the series could have gone so askew. But it's unfolded in a way that makes devastating sense.  

(**) The one obvious exception: Jimmy. 

“Friendless Child” arguably had too much plot to deal with – the entire Nucky/Luciano war begins and ends in an hour – and as a result wasn't as satisfying as last week's farewell to Van Alden and Chalky. Then again, “Devil You Know” had the benefit of bringing two characters' stories to a definitive end, where “Friendless Child” eliminates some side characters (more on that below) but leaves the real closure for next week's finale.

Nucky's scenes with Mickey's apprentice Joe Harper suggest that he is not, in fact, Tommy Darmody come looking for his father's mentor (and killer), but simply an echo of Nucky's past: another poor, polite kid come to make his fortune working for the lord of Atlantic City. Nucky knows how that story goes, and does his best to prevent history from repeating itself by giving Joe enough cash to get the hell out of town and start a respectable life elsewhere. Based on the look on Lindsay's face as he hands young Nucky his badge, and based on what we know of Nucky's adult life and career, I imagine Nucky wishes someone had done the same for him all those years ago.

Nucky hopes history won't repeat itself with Joe, but I'm expecting history to repeat itself with the way this show ends. We have years of evidence telling us that “Boardwalk Empire” ends its seasons incredibly well, and I look forward to nothing less as Winter, Korder, Van Patten and everyone else brings Nucky's story to a close.

Some other thoughts:

* RIP, Mickey Doyle and Archimedes, who get shot by Luciano and his men during the stand-off. Like Nucky, I'm amused Mickey lasted as long as he did – and I'll be curious to see if the finale deals with the old business about his life insurance policy. Also, I wish the show had introduced Archimedes sooner.

* The song Siegel loudly performs from Nucky's office was “My Girl's Pussy,” by Harry Roy, an actual hit of the era.

* Given that both “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Knick” film in New York, it's not surprising the two shows would share a few actors. But given the relatively close periods (the Nucky/Mabel flashbacks take place three years before the events of “The Knick”) and other contexts, it's amusing to see Maya Kazan playing a very similar role in both shows (as Mabel here, as Eleanor Gallinger there), and ditto Reg Rogers (as Bertie's dad on “The Knick,” and as Willie's boss Robert Hodge here).

* The costume and makeup people outdid themselves with Eli in this episode. He's looked awful (by design) all season, but he somehow looked even more of a wreck when he came to see Willie outside his office.

* I wondered if we would be returning to Chicago again after Van Alden's murder, but Mike D'Angelo and his boss's appearance before a judge to get an arrest warrant for Al Capone suggests we'll get at least one more glimpse of Stephen Graham in the finale. Then again, maybe that was just misdirection for the hit on Maranzano – one of the few times in the show where a significant fictional crook has gotten to kill a real one – so we would assume Eli and the goons with him were Treasury agents in Chicago on the way to arrest Capone.

* Madeleine Rose Yen and the writers did an excellent job of making young Gillian evoke Gretchen Mol's performance as the adult version, in the same way that Marc Pickering has been so good as young adult Nucky.

The series obviously ends next week, and I hope to have a review and one last Terence Winter interview, but that may not happen right after the episode airs like I've been able to do all season. Stay tuned.

As for “Friendless Child,” what did everybody else think? Are there certain events and/or characters you want to see in the finale? Any predictions on how Nucky's story is going to end?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at