With all of this season’s talk of interlopers, impostors and (briefly) shape-shifting rabbit-gypsies, season 3 of Boardwalk Empire has been possibly the most thematically rich offering of a series that, more often than not, excels at a kind of precision storytelling. As such, there is a real feeling of follow through in regards to how the death of Jimmy Darmody, and the betrayal that led to it, made Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) a more solitary figure than he’d ever been before.

By the end of ‘Margate Sands,’ things haven’t really improved in that regard. Nucky’s not just looking to give up more of the limelight, he’s looking to vanish altogether into a kind of isolated state that will fortify his endeavors, and help to make him virtually untouchable. But at what cost will this vanishing act come? As he says to Eli (Shea Whigham) after the fireworks have ended, he doesn’t want anyone to know who he is, and no one will get close that they don’t already trust. That’s a rather bold statement coming from a man who has already been lonely and isolated in a different sense all season long.

Season 3 has been a deconstruction of Nucky Thompson, who thought he was alone in his life (before and after Billie Kent), alone in his business and alone when his world literally came crashing down upon him. While Nucky was busy becoming a full gangster, he learns there’s little value in letting the world in on the display. In a way, Nucky proved he was the interloper and the impostor by realizing the gangster game is changing and that, in a way, notoriety and the need for others to make a name for themselves played a major role in the violent events that brought the season’s conflict to a close.

The finale opens up with a line of men being mowed down in a hail of bullets. It’s the kind of violence we had been expecting to boil over from last week’s intense episode, but at first we’re unsure which side the casualties are on. The episode then moves to a montage of gunfire and stabbings, while the press hounds the mayor for answers to all the bloodshed. Instead of calming them, or providing concrete answers, Bader is laughed out of his own press conference for daring to suggest Nucky Thompson doesn’t control Atlantic City. And with that, ‘Margate Sands’ opens up a wave of aggression that reaches nearly all corners of the Boardwalk Empire universe.

Nucky and Eli are holed up in a lumberyard, reminiscing over a straight razor and a car in need of a good mechanic. As Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) see tensions between their two sides increase, Nucky begins to wonder why he didn’t just get out while the getting was good. Why did he have to grab more when he already had so much? He and his brother went from having Atlantic City in their hands to being on the run from a psychotic interloper convinced he was owed everything that belonged to the man who ran the boardwalk. But as close to ruin as the Thompson’s came, it was clear in Eli’s tone that making it through the war with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) would be the hard part; building a new domain would come easy to his older brother.

And so, Nucky plays on the one thing all gangsters have in common: greed. The thread with Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) being busted for selling heroin may have seemed a tad stray, but it coincided perfectly with the way gangsters see the world as money, profit and percentages just waiting to happen. Luciano takes a swing at fortune and empire and misses; he winds up losing his best bet to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi). But not Nucky; he plays the long game, too, and winds up on top by first dangling the derelict distillery belonging to Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) in front of Rothstein’s face. Then, in exchange for 99 a percent stake in the distillery, Rothstein gets Masseria to abandon Gyp Rosetti. After that’s all said and done, Nucky turns around and has Mellon instruct Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) to shutter Overholt, and arrest those in charge – namely, Rothstein. It’s a great bit of maneuvering that displays just how well Nucky can play the game, and how the larger the problem, the more expansive the solution will be when he turns the issue into his advantage.

But Nucky doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. By sheer coincidence (and the fact that everyone hates Gyp) Rosetti and his men flee the Artemis Club after Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) storms the place in search of Tommy Darmody. It’s a brutal scene that sees the masked man reveal the extent of his violent side. And while he manages to secure Tommy, Richard knows that such violence will follow him his whole life – whether he ever unpacks his guns again or not. With his nature in mind, Richard walks away from a potential happy ending with Julia Sagorsky (Wrenn Schmidt) and her boozy father, who, shares a rare moment of sobriety and tenderness with a man literally and figuratively scarred by violence.

The massacre at the Artemis Club shows how quickly the walls were closing in on Gyp, and how inevitable his end was. Gillian narrowly missed giving the Sicilian “rather a lot” of heroin – and instead finds herself on the receiving end of a potentially fatal high. Though her ultimate fate isn’t revealed, Gyp’s is already written in betrayal. Knowing he’s doomed, Rosetti and his few remaining men gather on the beach to discuss where they’ll regroup and rebuild their short-lived empire. Unlike Nucky, however, those in Gyp’s employ decide it’s best to leave things in ruin and Tonino Sandrelli (Chris Caldovino) ends his boss’ life before Nucky revokes Tonino’s Atlantic City privileges. Ultimately, Rosetti wasn’t really interested in building an empire; he was, at best, capable only of destruction, and of making meager gains through brutal conquest. Those kind of men don’t last, and they certainly don’t make a name for themselves.

So by the end of it all, alone on the boardwalk, Nucky Thompson finds himself approached by a man who at one time would have meant something to the persona he’d constructed. Nucky opts to ignore such recognition, and instead vanishes amongst the people who are out and about, becoming just another face in the crowd.

Various other items:

  • Rothstein: “Mr. Doyle? Doyle: “Am I disturbing you? Rothstein: “Yes.”
  • Rosetti offers up a few more gems before checking out. Roughly approximating the ages of his two daughters (16 and 14), and then complementing Gillian’s parenting skills made for a nice one-two comedic punch.
  • Nucky may want to become anonymous, but that doesn’t mean he’s changed on the inside. After finding Margaret (Kelly Mcdonald), Nucky forgives her for the affair with Owen (Charlie Cox), but offers no apology of his own. Instead, he proposes a life where the two no longer have to pretend with one another. She closes the door on him, but one wonders if that’s truly the end of their relationship.
  • Boardwalk Empire shines in its ability to make unfunny people incredibly hilarious. Andrew Mellon’s “Why would I claim otherwise?” to Esther Randolph is proof of that. He and the conspicuously absent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) should be in a room together.
  • After all the animosity, all it took was a nighttime ambush of Masseria’s men to bring Al Capone and Chalky White together.

Boardwalk Empire will be back with season 4 in the fall of 2013 on HBO.