1921 has been a rough year for the characters of HBO’s period drama Boardwalk Empire. After ending season 1 on a bit of a high, season 2 has been something of a downward spiral for Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and by association, all the other factions vying for control of Atlantic City and a piece of the black market booze trade.

The ensemble drama has taken some surprising steps during the course of its second season, the most important of which has been the apparent usurping of Nucky’s power by upstart Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), through the puppet mastering of his father, Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman). Whether it is the lure of money and power, or the wish to see Nucky no longer seated at the head of the table, Jimmy and the Commodore have managed to assemble an impressive cadre of criminal types – many of whom, like Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), have come directly from Nucky’s own camp.

This betrayal by Nucky’s brother (Eli) and the young man he helped raise (Jimmy), has left Nucky against the ropes, with numerous legal charges pending against him that even the collective might of all his various contacts and favors cannot stop. So, showing he is, indeed, smarter and more dangerous than Jimmy and the Commodore give him credit for, Nucky relinquishes his role of Atlantic City treasurer and begins to flood the booze market in and around the area through his new Irish contacts – courtesy of right-hand man, Owen Slater (Charlie Cox).

While Nucky is fighting back, and refuses to take this downturn of events lightly, the confluence of circumstances has not affected him alone. As season 1 featured the building of the various characters in the world of Boardwalk Empire, season 2 has largely been about tearing them down, exploring the notion of consequence for the various acts of malfeasance and lack of contrition enacted by nearly every major player in the series.

This notion was made abundantly clear in the penultimate episode of season 2: ‘Under God’s Power She Flourishes’. Following the death of his wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) at the hands of Manny Horvitz (William Forsythe), Jimmy recalls the succession of events that led to the couple’s son, Tommy, and the disturbing incestuous turn that led him to give up the promise of a Princeton education to join the war. Despite the horrors he witnessed overseas, Jimmy’s Oedipal transgression remained unfinished — that is, until Jimmy killed his father after nearly strangling his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol).

While those events were no doubt meant to shock, they also served to explore just how far Boardwalk Empire would go to seek punishment for its major characters. And no one is more cognizant of this than Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who is convinced that her relationship with Nucky and tryst with Owen has led god to send punishment by way of Polio – leaving her daughter Emily without the use of her legs.

Now, with the threat of Nucky’s trial looming, Jimmy finds himself in the precarious position of seeking to make amends with the man he betrayed. Meanwhile, Margaret, in search of penance, is asked to weigh an offer from prosecutor Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson, The Amazing Spider-Man), which could spell doom for Nucky. Given the events of the last two episodes, the finale ‘To the Lost’ had a lot to live up to, and it dutifully and eloquently delivered the end to what has been a masterful season.

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Coming full circle, the finale opens with Jimmy and Richard rounding up the Klansmen responsible for shooting up the warehouse run by Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams). Utilizing Chalky’s relationship with Nucky to arrange a meeting, Jimmy offers to pull Nucky out of the proverbial noose he put him in – basically admitting he no longer wants, or was never fit, to lead.

Later, as Nucky tends to Margaret’s sympathetic nature, asking that she help save his life by marrying him (so she cannot be compelled to testify), Jimmy and Richard secure a confession from the newly appointed treasurer of Atlantic City, shortly before making his death look like a suicide.

Perhaps putting the well-being of her children first, Margaret agrees to the marriage. That, coupled with the forced confession/suicide note effectively forces a mistrial in the case against Nucky – which also sets Eli free, but sends traitorous Deputy Halloran to prison for murder.

Having tied up nearly every loose end, Nucky confronts Eli about his role in the assassination attempt that left a hole in Nucky’s right hand. The two agree that Eli’s confession and subsequent jail time for the murder Nucky had been charged with, will be penance enough for the betrayal of his brother.

Later, Jimmy meets with Nucky, Owen and a seemingly captive Manny Horvitz to apparently seek vengeance for Angela’s murder. Despite the duplicity, Jimmy is not caught unaware (having come unarmed and excusing Richard from joining him), and stares down the barrel of Nucky’s gun while explaining his death means nothing – he died years ago in trenches.

Nucky responds with a bullet, saying, “You don’t know me, James. You never did. I am not seeking forgiveness.” 

After the season premiere, it was obvious that the characters would be in for a tumultuous period. And as Boardwalk Empire brings its second season to a close with such a dark exploration of guilt and consequence, it is Nucky’s refusal to repent, while others wallow in attrition, that oddly steadies the series’ aim at the future.

Michael Pitt’s Jimmy was not only a major character in the show, but also, largely because of the talent in Pitt’s performance, proved to be one of, if not the most, interesting character in season 2. To do away with him is not only a bold and shocking way to end the season, it also points to the strengths of Terence Winter and his writers, and their belief in the material that no change is too big for them to handle.

Boardwalk Empire returns to HBO with season 3 in the fall of 2012.