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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Do It Yourself

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, head down to the basement of the synagogue, fire up the DVR and watch last night’s season finale of Boardwalk Empire.

I didn’t receive an advance screener of the season two finale of Boardwalk Empire, “To the Lost.” That means I saw everything—including that scene—just as you did, and then sat down to write this. This doesn’t leave me much time to compose and reflect on a thoughtful review, but in a way I’m glad. Had I seen the episode ahead of time, I would feel obligated to look at it with some perspective, with my thoughts collected, and with enough composure to say definitively how I feel about its choices and what they mean for the direction of the show.

Instead, with the gunsmoke still clearing from my flat-screen TV, I don’t have to. I can just say with you: Holy crap almighty, they actually did that.

OK, I’ll venture an initial thought, which I reserve the right to change: it feels like Boardwalk Empire just aired an excellent series finale. It just happened to do it, very likely, several seasons before the show will actually have to conclude. Jimmy Darmody is dead. It was a move that was breathtakingly well-executed, that made sense narratively—for reasons I’ll get into in a bit—and was as tragically wasteful as a young man’s death in a war. (Which, as Jimmy notes, in a way it was.) It showed that Boardwalk Empire, like Nucky, has the stones to hold that lump of cold metal and do what it believes needs to be done, and I have to respect that.

But structurally, I have to wonder: what does the show become now? I don’t care who gets to walk on the beach in the opening titles: for all practical purposes, Michael Pitt, not Steve Buscemi, has been the star of Boardwalk Empire to date. As an actor, Pitt has been magnetic, giving blood and passion to the show’s meticulous history. And as a character, Jimmy has had the compelling story and history—the Lost Generation killing machine, warped and wounded by his experience Over There, the kid who acted while others spouted platitudes, the future (or so we thought he was) of Atlantic City and organized crime. He seemed naturally like the character through whom Boardwalk Empire was going to tell the sordid story of the ’20s (with Nucky connecting the story to the era’s political corruption). Instead, that was, in an astonishing blindside, done. And waiting until we had two seasons invested in him to do it, you could say Boardwalk Empire out–Game of Thronesed Game of Thrones.

With Jimmy gone, a number of the series’ elements are suddenly cut loose. Richard Harrow is still a great creation, but how does hit fit into the new order? Al Capone is still out there and has a lot of history to make, but what, is he going to buddy up with Nelson Van Alden, now playing house in Cicero? Gillian’s twisted history with him seemed to suggest a long, messy family future, but instead turns out to be one last piece of backstory for a life gone bad. (And she’s presumably left with Jimmy’s now-orphaned son.) And Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano are still slowly, slowly, prefiguring the modern drug trade that history says they will pioneer, but I’m definitely worried that taking Jimmy out of their orbit threatens to turn their story (even with a great performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) into more of a historical re-enactment.

But none of this is to say that, in terms of sheer character and story, killing Jimmy was the wrong thing to do. From where I sit, collecting my jaw from the floor, it feels right now like the most logical thing for the show to do. Considering what unfolded this season, all the shit that went down between them, for Nucky and Jimmy to partner up again and get back to old times would have felt like a contrivance. I have to admit it: as the first half of the finale went by and everything seemed to be smoothly falling in that direction (as in the Godfather montage in which marriage and “suicide” took care of Nucky’s trial), I was ready to be disappointed. It would be too convenient to put them back together. Whatever their history, Jimmy betrayed Nucky utterly: he didn’t just try to have him killed, he joined forces with the men who wanted to erase Nucky’s legacy like a sand castle. Having criticized enough series for feinting at big drama, then pulling back—the recent season-ender of Sons of Anarchy jumps to mind—I can’t blame Boardwalk for looking cold and hard at what the logic of its story demanded.

Thematically, the death made even more sense. They called it the Lost Generation for a reason. Jimmy was a member of a generation of Great War soldiers whose lives were ended, literally or figuratively, before they could really start: they died, they were broken, they went home with half their faces missing. Jimmy was ill-used by the forces of politics and war they way he was ill-used by his parents: he never had a chance. Or, rather, he had a chance—a theoretical one, to become a leader and grab power—but he was brought down by those very forces: by the impetuous violence that had become habit for him, and by the meddling of his mother and his father’s generation.

The usual TV-show structure would have said that Jimmy’s getting lost this season was a setback that he would learn and come back from, but no, it was him being thrown off track by forces that were in place at his conception. “I died in the trench,” he tells Nucky, and he did—if not years earlier, if not when he was born.

And that waste of youth, that perversion of the natural order, was poetically, bloodily expressed in that gripping murder scene. It was the circle of life spinning backwards: the older man finding his power by killing his (figurative) son, instead of the other way around. Look at the inversion as Nucky pulls the gun on Jimmy: it’s Jimmy who is stronger in the moment, calmly taunting Nucky about the nerves he knows he has, telling him about his own first time.

Jimmy is much, much older than Nucky there. And in taking Jimmy’s life, it’s Nucky who completes a transformation. Very early in the series Jimmy tells Nucky, “You can’t be half a gangster.” And indeed, Nucky has to become a whole gangster—by killing his other half. Well into middle age, he is going through the transitions of life someone of Jimmy’s age might: marrying, having children, assuming the full mantle of leadership by doing his own wetwork. He finally learns what Jimmy knew: This is something he has to do for himself.

Now, is a full-gangster, do-it-yourself Nucky going to be, alone, a compelling center for a third season (and more) of Boardwalk Empire? I couldn’t tell you. I hope so—if only because, in its final episodes, Boardwalk Empire feels like it’s found a voice beyond being Prohibition Cliffs Notes. (I’ll be honest: had I seen this and the previous episode before I finalized my Top 10 TV shows list for 2011, that list might be different.) It’s become not just epic but operatic, with memorable side characters and a sense of humor. But up to this point, Nucky has been more like a dapper, droll master of ceremonies for Boardwalk Empire: the show will need more to continue than exactingly re-created history and Nucky and cronies toasting Warren Harding. (In a valuable field that, unbeknownst to him, now belongs to a Catholic church.) That he and his pals (even the worthless, undeserving Eli) should succeed by eating the younger generation makes perfect, historically tragic, sense—I’m just not sure I want to see the epilogue of how all that plays out afterward.

But will I eagerly tune into a third season to see whether it works? Damn straight. Because when a show manages to surprise you like this, sending off a central character well but unflinchingly—well, that’s just something you gotta do yourself.

Now for a last hail of bullets:

* Anyone else out there wish Boardwalk Empire simply replaced Van Alden with Randolph (or had her as Nucky’s chief adversary in the first place)? I do hope we see more of her; him, I’m not so sure.

* After Margaret was knocked flat by a case of the Catholic guilts, it’s good to see that she hasn’t entirely been broken by her choices and marriage, slipping the financial shiv to Nucky just as she seemed to reconcile with him. (Albeit in a financial move that itself seems motivated by the Catholic guilts.)

* Much as I believe Nucky not forgiving Jimmy, I’m not sure I thought he would forgive (or believe) Eli, either. Is he just keeping Eli because he believes he can be controlled? Is a family tie too much for Nucky to break?

* “Et tu, Eli?” “What?” “Shakespeare. Julius Caesar.” “There was a character named Eli?”

* So do we see Gretchen Mol having a role going forward? I thought the reading of the Commodore’s will might suggest that, but your guesses as to what happens with her are welcome.

* “A man who orders up murder like you and I order coffee.” I guess Nucky and I have something in common now: I make my coffee myself.