Season finale review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Farewell Daddy Blues’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” season finale coming up just as soon as I count how many cows I see…

“Me? I don’t have anything. Sooner or later you wind up taking it all. Can’t help it.” -Eli

Though the previous three “Boardwalk” finales haven’t been identical in their details, the broad strokes of all of them have involved Nucky solving most of his current problems with a mixture of cleverness and brute force. Some characters we love die (Jimmy), and some we hate (Gyp), but in the end, Nucky largely accomplishes what he sets out to do.

“Farewell Daddy Blues” was different. We again see that Nucky has a pretty good plan in place: 1)Cancel the meeting with New York; 2)Kill Eli for his betrayal; 3)Have Richard Harrow deal with the pesky Dr. Narcisse problem, in exchange for giving him the location of Jimmy’s body to ensure Gillian’s conviction; and 4)Get the hell out of this stinking city and enjoy the tropical paradise of Cuba with Sally. It still leaves his operation entangled with Joe Masseria, but that’ll be Mickey Doyle’s problem to sort out, no?

Only this time, virtually everything goes awry. Willie shows up right as Nucky’s about to put a bullet in Eli – a bullet he arguably should have pointed his way two seasons ago, when he sided with Eli over Jimmy – forcing Nucky to spare his brother, then exile him to Chicago after Eli murders Agent Tolliver. The FBI attention cancels his travel plans, and worst of all – for our sake, if not for Nucky’s – an injured, gun-shy Richard botches the hit on Narcisse, instead killing Chalky’s daughter and being so frozen by this mistake that he gets fatally wounded by Narcisse’s men.

It’s an incredibly dark ending, and one that costs the show one of its greatest creations in Richard.

Where Jimmy’s death was frustrating because there was so much possibility to his story, Richard’s feels more appropriate. Since Jimmy died, he’s existed on the margins of the series, kept around not because he serves some vital story function, but because Jack Huston was so marvelous at playing this unique, riveting character. Richard was defined at first by his friendship with Jimmy; with Jimmy gone, the writers found things for Richard to do, but rarely anything central. He got his big moment in the spotlight with his one-man assault on the Artemis Club in last season’s finale, but that in turn created a new problem: Richard had now been shown to be so superhumanly capable with guns and combat that Nucky could just solve any problem by pointing Richard at it. Instead, the writers sent Richard out of town, made him realize he had lost the stomach for killing – because his relationships with Jimmy, Angela, Tommy and Julia had reconnected him with the humanity he thought he’d lost along with half his face – then brought him back to town for a happy, peaceful reconciliation and marriage with Julia. A Richard who goes back to being a killing machine is fun, but it’s a betrayal of everything that happened to him previously in the season. At that point, he pretty much has to be written out, either with the happy ending of going to Wisconsin to unite his new family with his old one, or the tragic ending of him finally catching one bullet too many. And this is not a fundamentally happy show.

I’ll miss Richard. I’ll miss the economy of motion Huston played him with, and how both he and the directors understood when we needed to see Richard’s good side (including the very final shot of the season), and when the painted mask would tell us everything he was feeling. Of the many colorful characters, real and invented, that “Boardwalk Empire” has given us, Richard felt the most wholly original. But perhaps it’s better to say goodbye before he’s turned from a man into a superhero.

And the sacrifice of Richard for now allows the show to keep both Chalky and Narcisse alive. Pretty much from the midpoint of the season, I’d been bracing myself for the eventuality that we’d be saying goodbye to either Michael Kenneth Williams or Jeffrey Wright by season’s end. I understood why it would likely have to happen, but I didn’t want it to. Chalky was another of the series’ most vibrant characters – he essentially turned into the co-lead of season 4, shoulder-to-shoulder with Nucky in terms of screentime and importance to the narrative – and Williams was doing perhaps the best work of his impressive career this year. And Wright was just sensational as Narcisse.

The logical, predictable way to end things would have involved one man triumphing over his nemesis. Instead, Chalky suffers a horrible loss and retreats back to Oscar’s house in Maryland, while Narcisse remains nominally in control of Chalky’s empire, but now really a puppet of J. Edgar Hoover. There is more story to tell with these two, and I’m glad we’ll get to see it.

I suppose if the season had to take out a major character, it could have been Eli. And as a Jimmy Darmody fan who would have preferred season 2 ended differently, I could have gotten on board with that idea. But this was a really strong season for Eli, as well, as his envy of his older brother wound up costing him everything. Shea Wigham plays Eli’s rage so well, and the brawl with Tolliver(*) – fought with a saw, vases and every other potentially deadly object in that drawing room – was perhaps the most savage the show has ever done. “Boardwalk” is ultimately a more stylized, glamorous show than “The Sopranos” was, but when it comes to close-quarters violence, the two shows share an aesthetic belief that it should be as ugly as is humanly possible. That thing was a whopper, and I’m all in favor of bringing more of Atlantic City to Chicago, rather than simply contriving excuses once or twice a season for Al to come to the Jersey shore.

(*) Only disappointment there was that Tolliver, like Van Alden before him, turned out to be a nutjob. It’s less satisfying when that’s how the Thompsons get their victories, as opposed to Nucky simply outmaneuvering someone smart and focused like Rothstein or Esther Randolph.

Thanks in large part to the Chalky/Narcisse war, this was an incredibly satisfying season of “Boardwalk Empire.” But I think of where we left things – Chalky in exile, Narcisse working for the feds, Nucky without a reliable second-in-command, Margaret in cahoots with Rothstein, Eli and Van Alden both having to take orders from Capone – and it makes me even more excited to speculate about next season than I feel pondering the one just finished.

Rest in peace, Richard Harrow. You deserved much better than what life gave you, but at least you found happiness and peace before the end, and died to protect what you loved.

Some other thoughts:

* I interviewed both Terence Winter and Jack Huston about the events of this episode, and the season. Look for both those posts to appear at 1 a.m. Eastern, and I’ll link to them here in the morning. Update: Here’s Winter, and here’s Huston.

* I assume next season will begin with another jump in time like the previous ones have, which means we’ll be deprived of seeing Eli and Van Alden’s conversation in that car, and whatever negotiation they have that will keep Nelson’s identity a secret from Capone. (For those who have forgotten, Eli and Nelson had several notable encounters back in the first season, and as Winter put it to me, “I don’t think you ever forget Michael Shannon.”) 

* The Chicago stuff has largely gone down according to history, including Torrio going into retirement after a failed assassination attempt.

* We briefly see Margaret and her kids moving into the apartment Rothstein arranged. Part of her sidelining this season was for story reasons, part because of Kelly Macdonald’s pregnancy. I’ll be curious to see how she’s incorporated into things next season. Similarly, I wonder exactly how Gillian is going to remain part of the show (which Winter says she will be) from her prison cell. 

* Poor Tommy. He keeps losing everyone. Still, he’s better off with Julia, and with Richard’s sister and brother-in-law, than he’d have been staying with Gillian.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at