Season finale review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Margate Sands’

“Boardwalk Empire” just concluded its third season. I interviewed creator Terence Winter about the whole year, and I have a review of the season finale coming up just as soon as I file a complaint with the department…

“This is only money. It doesn’t mean anything.” -Nucky

There’s an aside in “The Sopranos” chapter of my book where David Chase acknowledges that writer Terence Winter (who, remember, wrote “Pine Barrens”) came very close in the final season to convincing him to resolve the fate of the Russian. Chase ultimately decided he didn’t want to do it, to the frustration of Winter.

These are two men with tremendous respect and affection for one another, but that disagreement illustrates one of the key ways that the mob show Chase created differs from the one that Winter created.

Chase was interested in a lot of things on “The Sopranos,” and the plot only occasionally crept into the top 5. It was a show about psychology, dreams (literal and figurative), being a parent and a child, millennial anxiety, and a whole lot more. It could effectively tell straight-ahead mob stories (the Tony/Junior feud in season 1, or the Tony Blundetto arc of season 5), but that was often a byproduct of things Chase had higher on his priorities list. If he didn’t feel like he needed to see Furio or the Russian again, then we weren’t going to see them again.

“Boardwalk Empire,” on the other hand,is first and foremost a classical gangster story. It aspires to more than that, and at times is incredibly effective at plumbing the psychology of its characters and the social mores of the 1920s, but the top item on the agenda is always going to be making sure the plot gets resolved effectively.

And we’ve seen over these past few episodes just how effective Winter and company (here co-writing with Howard Korder, and with Tim Van Patten behind the camera) can be at resolution, even in a season that seemed to be wandering far afield for a while.

Margaret’s time trying to teach women about prenatal health – and, by implication, birth control – pays off when she gets pregnant and chooses to have an abortion with the help of her friendly new neighborhood doctor. Richard’s season-long tug of war with Gillian over Tommy’s future comes to an end (for now) with him leaving the boy with Julia and her father – a family unit he feels too ashamed to be a part of now that Tommy and Julia have both witnessed the violence he’s capable of. All of Nucky’s machinations in Washington come into play as he’s able to use his Andrew Mellon(*) connection to help win the war against Gyp and Masseria – and screw over Arnold Rothstein as revenge for Rothstein’s earlier refusal to back his play – just as his earlier estrangement from Eli is resolved as the two enter the Commodore’s house with only each other as trusted back-up. And Gyp ultimately isn’t killed by Nucky or Eli or Richard, but by Tonino, who’s doing it to save his own skin, but also on some level as revenge for his cousin – a stand-in for the many people we saw Gyp kill or badly harm while he was having one of his animal outbursts.

(*) I have to admit to getting slightly lost in all the Nucky/Rothstein/Mellon/Masseria dealings the first time through the episode. But Winter clarified a bit of it, and I pieced together the rest. Nucky  sacrifices his control of the Overholt distillery to convince Rothstein to get Masseria to withdraw his support from Gyp. Rothstein, meanwhile, has arranged for the crooked cops on his payroll to steal Lucky and Meyer’s heroin stash for his own use, essentially cutting them out of their own deal with Masseria (and in turn using the heroin as the excuse for Masseria to finally cut ties with Gyp’s losing campaign). And Nucky has Capone and Chalky’s men kill Masseria’s soldiers, rather than let them simply return to New York, as a warning for Masseria to not attempt another coup of Atlantic City.  

Virtually everything tied together by the conclusion of “Margate Sands.” We began the season watching Gyp beating a man to death within spitting distance of the Atlantic, and one of our final scenes is Gyp – relatively (for him) calm, despite his complete and utter defeat (or perhaps because of it, since he suspects death is coming and will be at peace from his self-hatred) – being killed on the beach. Our first glimpse of Nucky this year was him seemingly in full-on gangster mode, but he spent the year fighting that role – or any kind of responsibility – by obsessing over Billie Kent and leaving Mickey and others to run the empire. Our last glimpse is him on the boardwalk, having just been approached by a stranger as a figure of infamy, rather than the minor local celebrity he had when he was just the crooked county treasurer, and he seems to accept what he’s become. He finally throws away the flower on his lapel (more of a politican’s accessory than a gangster’s) and the camera pans up his body again in a mirror of the opening credits. Nucky was once so troubled by having killed Jimmy that he asked Richard about those feelings; now, his body count is much higher, and he’s made peace the idea that it won’t be stopping now. He’ll get his hands dirty, whether literally (helping Eli fix the car engine) or figuratively (going into the Artemis club himself, rather than sending lackeys), though his plan going forward is to insulate himself, in a conversation with Eli that very much echoes the kinds that Tony Soprano had in the show’s later years.

And yet I liked that both the gangster and politician sides of Nucky were in play for the resolution of this. He picks up his gun, but he also uses his connections with Andrew Mellon, Gaston Bullock Means and Esther Randolph to fully accomplish his plans. He still has the old moves available to him.

The highlight of the finale, though, was Richard’s solo assault on Gyp’s forces, a gratifying, exciting – and, in the aftermath, sad – payoff to a season of him trying to build a normal life for himself. Jack Huston moves so well and precisely that you believe Richard would be so effective against the remnants of Gyp’s forces (especially given what a good action director Van Patten is), and the rescue of Tommy was a beautiful (if bloody) moment – not just because Richard the master sniper figures out a way to get off a better shot while it appears he’s surrendering, but because the show has spent all season showing how deeply Richard cares for the boy(**). So when we see them hug through the bloody glass, it means something – just as it does when Richard walks away from Julia’s house, because we know what he’s giving up.

(**) Like Gillian, he’s transferred his feelings for Jimmy to his son. The difference is, Richard channels those feelings to try to help Tommy, where Gillian does it in ways that are primarily pro-Gillian.

Even Gillian gets a moment of humanity before the season is done. When Nucky finds her on the floor, still overcome by the heroin she’d intended for Gyp, she’s reverted to the 13-year-old girl that Nucky pimped out to the Commodore. Gillian’s a monster, but she didn’t spontaneously turn into one. She was a girl abused by men, who grew up into a woman permanently twisted by the experience. It’s a moment that would have been a perfect, tragic farewell for the character if Winter had chosen to kill her off just then(***), rather than keeping her around for plans to be explored next season.

(***) Gillian does not die of the heroin, per Winter. Remember that it wasn’t the heroin that killed Roger, but the drowning (which she could only pull off because he was too doped to fight her). Presumably, she was going to eliminate Gyp by some other means – possibly using his trusty belt – once he was knocked out.

Similarly, we’ll see what Winter has in mind for Margaret – beyond “Kelly Macdonald is a great actress we have under contract, so let’s use her” – but her story also reached some closure tonight. Margaret is back living in humbler circumstances, in the same neighborhood as the family that’s rejected her, and she in turn rejects Nucky’s latest attempt at forgiving and forgetting.

We know she’ll be back because this is how the show works, but we also know that in the end, it’ll likely make narrative sense. I spent the first half of this season remarking that it was nice to see all these great characters again, but that their stories didn’t seem particularly connected to one another, and often felt like excuses just to take advantage of the actors at hand. By the end of the season, I wasn’t saying that anymore, because – like Nucky’s desperate yet effective plot against Masseria and Rothstein – everything clicked into place in the final stages.

And that’s “Boardwalk Empire.” It may not have the mystery or emotional depth of “The Sopranos,” but it lays out its story and makes sure all the pieces fit together very, very well at the end. And when you get to the end, that can feel awfully satisfying.

Some other thoughts:

* In “Skyfall,” the first time you see James Bond, he’s completely out of focus for several seconds, but you know it’s him because Daniel Craig’s silhouette (those ears in particular) is so distinctive. I felt the same way about Capone walking out from the headlights in the opening scene, to make it clear which side just won that particular gun battle.

* Speaking of Capone, the episode wasn’t all fan-service, as Nucky and Eli shut down what was surely going to be an epic Capone vs. Chalky fistfight. Probably for the best, as it’s hard to imagine both walking away from that, and we know Capone can’t die and don’t want Chalky to.

* Loved Bobby Cannavale’s impression of Steve Buscemi in Gyp’s farewell scene.

* No Van Alden this week, so this season was primarily about getting him from Point A (disgraced Treasury agent turned fugitive wanted for murder) to Point B (small-time bootlegger tied to Capone), and we’ll see much more of this next season.

So go read the Winter interview (where he clarifies a bunch of issues from the finale, and the season), and then tell me, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at