Much in the same way as the death-focused drama series Six Feet Under, HBO greenlit Boardwalk Empire season 2 pretty much straight away – a no-brainer considering the premiere drew 4.8 million viewers, the highest number for an HBO pilot since Deadwood back in 2004.

Boardwalk Empirelike most of the shows HBO churns out – is aimed at a patient audience… those who want to spend time engrossed in the world the show offers and don’t necessarily need “crash bang wallop” moments to be entertained (although that’s not to say Empire doesn’t have plenty of those as well).

The season one finale of Empire, entitled “A Return To Normalcy,” certainly delivered more of the excellence the show has been putting on display all season, wrapping up most of the threads left dangling throughout – while still leaving doors opened and questions unanswered for the second season to come.

“A Return To Normalcy” Review (Contains SPOILERS)

It is always the hope that the culminating episode of a TV series’ season will be one that gives you everything the show’s got – putting everything important on the table, and perhaps  providing those shocking moments that make for excitement-fueled “did you see that?!” discussions around the water cooler the next day. However, this finale was not the season’s best episode – that honor would have to go to the penultimate episode, “Paris Green.”

Having said that, “A Return To Normalcy” was still a very solid episode that managed to tie up a lot of stuff that’s littered the first season plot. Arguably the biggest of these was the seemingly impending war between Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). Some fans of the show may have been disappointed that a full-scale war was ultimately avoided because of a deal struck between Nucky and Rothstein, particularly those fans who came to the show with a passion for The Sopranos, HBO’s most successful (not to mention one of the its most violent) shows. Empire has certainly had its fair share of violence over this past season, and maybe to some that has been a promise of more bloodshed to come in the finale. But alas business won out over violence (see, the two don’t always have to go hand-in-hand!), as Nucky and Rothstein reached an agreement that, “this war ends here,” although nothing’s to say that more… disagreements won’t occur in the future.

As part of the the Nucky-Rothstein deal, Nucky agreed to use his political powers (read: contacts) to stop an impending indictment of Rothstein over his “fixing” of the 1919 World Series. In return, Nucky demanded $1 million in cash (that’s over $12 million in today’s money!) and the location of the remaining D’Alessio brothers, whom he subsequently blamed for the robbery of Rothstein’s shipment (as seen in the first episode of the season) – while at the same time having them killed: Jimmy, Al Capone and Richard Harrow stepped in get rid of each of the brothers.

Although introduced quite late in the season, the awkward relationship between Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and his father has been very fascinating to watch and one of the better character/plot points brought into the show. I’m very curious to see where that relationship goes in the future, that is if Jimmy’s father doesn’t die after being poisoned by his maid.

Speaking of which, we discovered only in this last episode of the season that it was the maid who was poisoning Jimmy’s father after all. And I can’t be the only one who was actually relieved considering that Jimmy’s suspicion seemed to turn dangerously to his mother last episode. Of course Jimmy’s father demanded the maid be arrested, but Nucky stepped in to save her day by not only letting her go but giving her money with which to make her disappearance. “He’s got an odd sense of justice,” Jimmy casually remarked to his father about good ‘ol Nucky not long before Nucky’s brother, the newly re-appointed Sheriff Eli Thompson, walked in to discuss something with Jimmy and his father. That “something” (as we can presume from the remark Jimmy’s father made to him) was for Jimmy to, “take back the city,” from Nucky. “How is that supposed to work?” inquired Jimmy – but I guess we’ll have to wait until next season to find that out exactly.

As has become a trademark of Empire over this season, the finale had many-a-memorable moment – but probably the best to be found in this particular episode was the conversation between Nucky and Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald), who were together until a heated argument caused their split last episode. Nucky has displayed a more sensitive side than a lot of the men he chooses to surround himself with, but it his revelation of what happened to his wife and son some years prior that truly made him a character with whom we could empathize. We found out that Nucky’s son only lived a few days before passing away and yet his wife refused to accept it, even continuing to look after him after he had died. Nucky’s son was buried but his wife still couldn’t handle it, so she slit her wrists with Nucky’s own razor a few days weeks later. Although hurt by the way Nucky has treated her, this revelation has obviously warmed her to him once again and by episode’s end she decided to stay with him.

One of the show’s most interesting characters has been that of Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). After providing us with a few of the show’s most memorable moments so far (the self-flagellation, the killing of his Jewish partner after trying to baptize him, that sex scene), there was a threat of him leaving Atlantic City as, according to him, there was nothing left for him there. However, like an anchor thrown into the water, he is presumably going to be weighed down to Atlantic City with the fact that the woman he had an affair with, Lucy Danziger (formerly a “lady friend” of Nucky’s), is pregnant with his child. With him being a man of faith I am curious to see his reaction to this news not just because the woman bearing his child is not his wife but also (as we learned earlier in the season) his wife is not able to have children. That’ll be that sign from God Van Alden demanded lest he leave the city, eh?

Although it was arguably the “safe” option to end Empire‘s first season with the election results (of both the Atlantic City Mayor and the next U.S. President) it certainly allowed for a definitive ending stamp to be put on the season as a whole. Edward Bader was, after all, elected the new Mayor of the city and Warren G. Harding was elected the 29th President of the United States. The title of the episode. “A Return To Normalcy,” refers to Harding’s campaign promise but is that really an apt description for most of Empire’s characters? As we have left them at the end of this initial season, many characters are certainly trying to return to some sort of normalcy – whether that be Jimmy and his wife trying to get back to the happier times they had before Jimmy went off to war, or Nucky and Margaret reconciling. But as a whole things certainly aren’t perfect for any of the characters, and I thoroughly look forward to what’s in store for them and us in season 2.

As a whole Boardwalk Empire is not only one of the best new shows to appear on TV in 2010, but also one of the best things on TV right now in general. When that peculiar and alluring opening title sequence comes on every week I have the same sort of feeling I had with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and most of those other phenomenal shows HBO has put out over the last decade or so. With only one season come and gone it’s probably a bit early to tell if Empire will have the same classic status as those TV shows, but as it stands, with its cast of well written characters, compelling and complex storylines and attention-grabbing aesthetics, I see no reason to doubt the show.

Did the season finale of Boardwalk Empire tie up enough loose ends for you while still keeping you interested in what’s to come? What about the first season as a whole?

You can expect season 2 of Boardwalk Empire to air in the Fall of 2011.