[This is a review of the Boardwalk Empire season 4 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
The penultimate episode of Boardwalk Empire essentially boiled down to Nucky’s line to Sally Wheet, telling her that he wanted out, that he’d reached a breaking point, and, as we learn early on in ‘Farewell Daddy Blues,’ he was leaving behind his endeavors to join her in Cuba. After years of battling those who wanted a piece of his lucrative business – a list that includes everyone from fellow underworld entrepreneurs to his friends and family – it’s not hard to wonder why he’d be implementing an exit strategy at this point.
But there was another layer to the story of season 4; one that, despite coming from a fairly muted storyline was – in comparison to the often-cartoonish violence, and equally cartoonish presence of Gyp Rosetti, anyway – primarily focused on the idea of legacy, and to examine what, if anything, these characters had actually built – and how or to whom it would pass when the time came to move on. Much of this had to do with the burgeoning relationship between Nucky and his nephew Willie, who managed to get himself in a tight spot after dealing with a class bully in a rather extreme and unnecessary fashion, only to wind up head of his household and under his uncle’s tutelage. But there were hints of legacy all around; many of the season’s subplots hinted at the transition of power, of characters getting old – and especially of children or proxies for children. It was no mistake that Dr. Narcisse’s companion was named Daughter – who will perhaps one day inherit all the good and the bad that these characters have done.
The transition of power didn’t come without some bloodshed, though, as Al Capone was granted Johnny Torrio’s territory and business – especially now that Dean O’ Banion is out of the picture – after Torrio nearly met his end in a violent (and suspicious) assassination attempt. Meanwhile Chalky White found himself in a battle with Dr. Narcisse over territory and the Onyx Club, but what it really came down to was a battle over two daughters. And finally there’s Tolliver, who with his baby face and his petulant attitude, was a fairly distinct representation of the next generation staking its claim on one that wasn’t quite ready to go out. He’d parlayed himself into a role in the understated death of Nucky’s manservant Eddie, who took his own life after a fateful run-in with Agent Tolliver dredged up old wounds and left the disgraced man with what he felt was the only option: It was time to move on.
More importantly, however, Tolliver had also sunk his claws into Eli Thompson, nearly gaining access to all of the top organized crime figures on the East Coast. Ever the upstart, though, Tolliver wasn’t quite prepared for the humiliating fallout when Nucky sniffed out the conspiracy and confronted his brother with yet another betrayal. It began to look like all the goodwill Eli had built up over the last two seasons was about to be washed away with a bullet between the eyes, but the arrival of Willie stayed his uncle’s hand and perhaps saved his father’s life – though Nucky would latter proclaim he could never kill his own brother.
Eli’s betrayal was more than just a retread of past unfaithfulness, though; it was a reminder of events that had been buried and forcibly forgotten. It was an aspect that bled into the literal excavation of the past, as Richard Harrow requested the location of Jimmy Darmody’s final resting place, so that Gillian would forever be removed from Tommy’s life, and the young boy could grow up in Wisconsin on Harrow’s family farm with the Sagorskys and what was left of his clan. While it looked to be the definitive end of Gillian Darmody, one more child would factor in to Richard Harrow’s artfully presented demise.
Hired to eliminate Dr. Narcisse, Richard’s bullet instead wound up striking Chalky’s daughter Maybelle dead in front of her father. Narcisse would be arrested and fall into the hands of J. Edgar Hoover, Chalky would escape in grief to Ocar’s home in South Carolina, and Richard Harrow, the show’s tragic, forever-wounded character would at last find peace beneath the Atlantic City Boardwalk – although he was really hundreds of miles away, home and whole at last.
Of all the criticisms that befall Boardwalk Empire, the idea that it is written with little in the way of clarity toward connecting the sometimes-disparate plotlines, and that it is too interested in fan service at the expense of dramatic integrity, generally feels like the two most prominent negative assessments of the show. For its part, ‘Farewell Daddy Blues’ managed to dispel that notion in fairly convincing fashion. Yes, there were bits of clunkiness and heavy-handedness here and there, but by and large, the episode handled itself with such deliberate precision and with a much more distinct throughline that it delivered a more affecting story and finale that went beyond merely tallying up the body count; it changed the perception of the season as a whole.
Generally, in shows like this, nothing good can come for the characters when the past hovers like a vengeful specter, issuing a constant threat of reprisal and the “vague feeling of unease.” Jimmy’s murder has been hanging around the show for two seasons now, and it was finally time to put him and those still mourning him (or his wife) to rest. Nucky is, for all intents and purposes, immune to such things; there’s the future to think of and he’s got a bright, shining new protégé and surrogate son in his nephew Willie. With Eli making his way to the Midwest, Nucky finally has the family he never managed to build on his own. It’s the last piece of his empire, and, perhaps, the one person who may carry on Nucky’s legacy.
Boardwalk Empire will continue with season 5 in the fall of 2014 on HBO.