Spoilers for the season finale of Boardwalk Empire coming up:
Lead TV characters often develop a signature move over time: a gesture or expression that comes to define them. Think Ralph Kramden’s gesturing into the air on The Honeymooners or Larry David’s incredulous stare on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Nucky Thompson’s signature move is reaching into his pocket, producing his bankroll, and peeling off a sheaf of bills. That wad of cash is his magic wand; he waves it and problems go away. Distraught mistresses calm down, associates’ feathers get smoothed, criminal matters get hushed up.
That move has worked for him in the past, and it works for him again, in ways big and small, in “Return to Normalcy,” the season finale of Boardwalk Empire. But we also end this very successful season with hints that his trick is losing its magic.
“There are consequences to what you do that you can’t buy out of with money,” a bitter Eli tells his brother, who, in the flush of political and business victory, is not really listening—and perhaps, not really capable of understanding. Business is business, politics is politics (and politics is business); we hear him tell this to people, in one way or another, throughout the season and in this finale especially.
In a way, as has often happened this season, the events in the characters’ lives here parallel what’s happening on the historical and political scene. The landslide election of Warren G. Harding—which had always seemed like the natural climax of the season—was premised on the title concept of the “return to normalcy”: that is, after a period in which the country suffered its involvement in the gruesome Great War and went through a period of reformist upheaval at home, it was time for everyone to calm down and focus on quietly prospering. So too does Nucky return to the rational argument—be it with his family, his business associates and even his lovers—that everything would be better if people would agree to be adults and not be ruled by passions.
Some are more receptive to this idea than others. The like-minded Arnold Rothstein, seeing a confluence of interests, seeks a deal for Nucky to quash the investigation into him for the Black Sox scandal. (Also implicit is both men’s realization that they can hel[ each other make a pile of money if they put the past behind them.) Nucky, despite the attempt on his life, agrees over Jimmy’s objections. He demands the D’Alessios as partial payment, yes, but even that is as much cold political calculation—a way to win the election on a law-and-order message—as it is revenge.
We shouldn’t assume that it’s easy for Nucky to bury the past. We’ve had hints that his family history weighs heavy on him. (The Commodore’s reference to Nucky’s “drunk Piney”—a reference to South Jersey’s Pine Barrens—of a father suggests there was at least some truth to the horrid story he told the Women’s Temperance League in the pilot.) And we hear that explicitly in the story of his losing his baby and his wife, delivered with wonderful modulation by Steve Buscemi. In fact, it’s probably because Nucky came so hard by this lesson that he expects others to as well.
But it’s easier to be calm and let business be business when you’re on top. That comes harder to the Commodore, who lost five years and his power to Nucky; to Eli, who right or wrong feels that he’s just as good as his kingpin brother; and now to Jimmy, who has learned the truth about his own past and, consequently, that Nucky nurtured him out of guilt more than love. There is not much to bring the three men together—Jimmy until recently hated and resented his father, while the Commodore does not seem to have any special respect for Eli; but they are bound by feeling used by a Nucky Thompson who thought that peeling a few layers off his bankroll would make everything all better between them.
Matters with his “kept woman,” Margaret, are more complicated—even if he described their arrangement in cold terms when they quarreled, he clearly has real feelings for her—but they boil down to something similar. Nucky believes that they’re both sophisticated adults who understand that they are making compromises for their own advantage: “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.” What’s more, he believes that Margaret knows this deep down, but that she is—maybe selfishly—maintaining a superior moral facade while making the same calculations as he does. Maybe he’s wrong, but maybe not entirely; she returns to him at the victory party, and I doubt that even she could untangle how much of that decision is genuine feeling (deepened by Nucky’s confiding his heartbreaking story) and how much is the rag in the cake talking.
So Nucky Thompson gets what he wants in almost every way at the end of this first season. But his victories are tempered by the fact that the people around him are increasingly conscious of the fact that their relationships with him are provisional, and the time may come—may already have come—when they decide that Nucky is not worth what he asks of them.
To continue the political analogy the episode makes, it is not a spoiler to note that Harding’s giant victory was shortly followed by a notorious period of corruption and scandal in Washington. So as we look ahead to Boardwalk Empire’s second season, it makes sense to end on a quote attributed to President Harding, as he was later embroiled in scandal:
I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my goddamn friends. They’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* So apparently I was wrong (and I’m relieved I was not the only one) to assume that Gillian poisoned the Commodore. Or was I? I still had a shred of suspicion that Nucky was really paying off the housekeeper to take the fall for Gillian, whom he still feels obligated to protect. But if that were the case, I would have thought she would have given a hint of that when she talked to Nucky alone; instead, she still seemed to behave like a guilty party, so maybe I indeed did get tricked last week.
* So Van Alden is going to be a daddy? As I’ve said before, while I love watching Michael Shannon, I’ve felt his character became too much a caricature of the righteous, insane hypocrite, and now his story has been complicated by that oldest of TV tricks, the one-night-stand pregnancy. But maybe here two dramatic wrongs will make a right: now that Van Alden seems to have pushed his behavior too far even in his own judgment, and now that he has (I assume) a reason to stick around (i.e., guilt), I’m hoping the character can get righted in season two.
* The way the final episode played out led me to focus my writeup mostly on Nucky, but damn, what a great performance again from Michael Pitt as Jimmy, who said so much through his subtle reactions and expression of hurt with Angela and Nucky; he makes the character a fearsome man and a wounded child at the same time.
* Finally, Boardwalk Empire would not be worth watching if it were only eye candy, without the writing, performances and ideas to back it up. But that said, the final minutes of “Return to Normalcy” really spread the show’s peacock feathers, luxuriating in the lavish set of the Ritz ballroom and ending with a breathtaking pan of the (mostly CGI) panorama of the recreated Atlantic City coast of 1920. I don’t love Boardwalk Empire only for its looks, but they sure don’t hurt.