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You Win Or You Die: The Ruthless Beauty of Boardwalk Empire’s Finale

In Nucky Thompson's own game of thrones, the story gets ever more sprawling, and--as the season 4 finale proved again--few people are safe.

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Paul Schiraldi / HBO

Spoilers for the season four finale of Boardwalk Empire below:

“I would do whatever you ask.”

The natural comparison for Boardwalk Empire is to other mob- and crime-based dramas like The Sopranos, but watching the season 4 finale, I realized that it actually has a lot in common with Game of Thrones.

There’s the sprawling story, of course. (The show could just as well open with a map showing little clockwork towers of booze and guns rising from Chicago, New York, Florida, and Atlantic City.) There’s the wide range of characters, which the show is unafraid to keep separated by distance and story; Al Capone and Van Alden are off in their own Illinois world, connected to but distanced from the rest of the events, like Jorah and the Khaleesi across the Narrow Sea. And although Boardwalk Empire organizes its individual seasons around discrete arcs, it also seems to be biding its time and playing a long, long long narrative game about a war for power among families.

And then, as “Farewell Daddy Blues” made achingly clear: it kills people you’d think were not supposed to die.

There are limits on on the mortality in Boardwalk Empire that Thrones doesn’t have to deal with, of course. Its Capones and Rothsteins, whose dates and means of death are in Wikipedia for all to see, can’t die unless the show were suddenly to become speculative alternative history. (Johnny Torrio’s surviving the hit that seemed to kill him suggests it’s not.)

So it’s the fictional and fictionalized characters at the center of the story who pay the ultimate price. At the end of season 2, the show killed off its second lead (or arguably co-protagonist) Jimmy Darmody; whether or not there were off-screen factors in the decision, it made it as clear as a bullet to the face that the usual rules of TV invincibility did not apply here. When your time was up, it was up, regardless of the talent of the actor or the affections of the fans.

Last night, time was up for poor Richard Harrow. As with Jimmy’s death, I can imagine this being a breaking point for some fans, the show killing off possibly its most sympathetic, decent and–strange as it may seem to say about a multiple killer–sweet character. Indeed, it was awful. It was cruel, not just that he died but when, just as he seemed finally on the verge of putting together some version of the life he’d pasted together in his scrapbook.

But it also felt right. In some ways, Richard was like one of the revenants from The Returned. Yes, he came back from the war, yes, he re-started a life, and yet in many ways he was already dead. He died when he was horribly wounded in Europe. He died when his best friend and compatriot Jimmy was murdered. He died when he accepted a career of doing the thing he was best at–murder–and he died a little more with every person he killed, however deserving.

So he had to die again, a final time, to experience a glimpse of the simple life he wanted, returning–unwounded and loved–to a humble home and a woman who loved him. He may have saved the rest of his new family in his final deal, but he could only have this perfect ending in a dying dream. Even if Richard’s hands hadn’t shaken, his fingers hadn’t slipped, and Chalky’s daughter had not died, you feel this would not have been the life for him. Even if somehow he escaped, weren’t drawn back for one more job with one more target, the wounds would have been there–wounds that that mask was only a symbol for.

Boardwalk Empire is a story of the 1920s, but it was also a story of what came before them: through Jimmy and Richard, it was about the Great War and the generation of young Americans who had their futures stolen by it even if they were lucky enough to survive. The mobsters shooting tommy guns in the streets are an echo of the mechanized slaughter in Europe–the promise of technology turned into the reality of mass butchery. Art movements like Dadaism and Surrealism evolved partly in reaction to that history, a way of making sense with the failure of rationality. And there was something fittingly surreal, Dali-like, about the last image of Richard’s half-face lying beside him in the sand, broken and eerily perfect, as Richard stopped breathing and the sea sighed on and on.

Those gorgeous final moments capped off a season 4 that was a distinct improvement on season 3. I know a lot of fans loved how the storylines of season 3 came together at the end, but as I wrote about the finale last year, plot mechanics alone don’t make a great story, and Gyp Rosetti’s cartoonishness drove the whole show toward a more extreme version of itself. Season 4 was even more sprawling, and arguably more disjointed, and yet it was richer overall.

The Chalky-Narcisse conflict especially was the trifecta: it spotlighted a fantastic, sometimes underused actor in Michael K. Williams; it gave us a subtle, mesmerizing Jeffrey Wright as a villain who sees himself as a savior; and it made best use of the Harlem Renaissance-era black culture that has been the shows freshest take on the 1920s. Yes, there were a lot of threads–and that was with Margaret practically AWOL in New York. And as the finale showed, there were beats we’d seen before: an overzealous investigator losing his marbles; Nucky pulling a gun on his treacherous brother Eli; two men exhaustedly wrestling in a period room and clobbering each other with the good crystal. But Richard’s death brought the series back to the emotional themes of its first two seasons, exposed the aching, beating heart under all that set design.

There is a game of thrones going on with Nucky and New York and Chicago, Chalky and Narcisse, J. Edgar Hoover and the Mob. But Boardwalk Empire at its most interesting is not just concerned with history’s boldface names but with what soldiers do. They serve, they kill, until one day their aim fails by a fraction of a fraction, and they die.