[This is a review of Boardwalk Empire season 5, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
With the birth of Luciano and Lansky's criminal empire, it makes sense that the final season of Boardwalk Empire would ultimately find itself being about family. And when it's not about direct blood relations, it's about the people who, having no one else, come to rely on those that might otherwise fit the bill. There's a fine line between the sort of crime family Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel have built and the family of criminals the Thompsons have turned out to be, but in the end the series leaves it to the audience to decide which one is more lethal to those who call themselves a member.
In the case of Benny Siegel, it winds up being his saving grace after he's taken hostage by Nucky. The opposite would be true of young Willie, whose family name has him serving as a glorified file clerk in Robert Hodge's office, and later is reason enough for him to be kidnapped and held in exchange for Siegel – and everything Nucky calls his own.
With Nucky's willingness to hand everything over to Luciano and Lansky, in order to save Will's life, 'Friendless Child' feels a lot like the end. Were it not for the underlying concept of family crossing paths with the season-long focus on Nucky's past that now has him thinking about reparations for what was done to Gillian, the goings-on of the episode would have been suitable for a finale (with a few tweaks here and there, of course).
The episode opens up with Hodge taking to the radio to discuss his plans for taking down organized crime. As he recounts the acts of shocking violence stemming from the war between New York and Atlantic City, there is a hastiness to the montage of black and white crime scene photographs, as they give over to short sequences of the players who're left standing – or a headcount, if you will. It just reads like the end, a lingering sense of conclusion that's felt throughout as the characters are given over to plot and a frustrated Nucky attempts to use the captured Siegel as leverage to set meeting with Luciano.
The idea behind 'Friendless Child,' the notion of two gangs coming to a head seems like it should be a simple, straightforward affair, one that delivers tension through the inevitability of conflict. And yet much of the episode is divided between the troublesome young Nucky flashbacks, focusing on Gillian's arrival in the Thompson household, even as Nucky and Maybel (who I only just realized is also Gallinger's wife Eleanor on The Knick) are expecting their child.
While it all ties together – it's easy to see how the threads of Gillian ending up in the cruel arms of the Commodore and Nucky's desire to care only about his family bleed into his decision to surrender his empire for Will's life – so much of the flashback winds up supporting the letter from Gillian that sets up the finale, Nucky's submission to Luciano and Lansky somehow feels insubstantial in the moment.
Perhaps that's due to the fact that there is still another hour left and Luciano and Lanksy aren't necessarily done with the now forcibly retired Mr. Thompson, and that Gillian and Nucky's relationship to one another had become so distant that it took seven episodes of flashbacks in order to make it fee relevant again. But it's also because, despite Nucky's choosing to sacrifice everything he's worked his life to obtain, he still has an ace up his sleeve; namely, Margaret's efforts to short the stock of the Mayflower Grain Corporation.
Although it was fragmented at times, the episode did manage a few surprises. For one, the assassination of Maranzano and the safe return of Will felt like easy fodder for a tense finale, so seeing that thread resolved here opens the door for the series finale to focus on a smaller, more intimate story that will hopefully substantiate the heavy use of flashbacks and the ongoing efforts to construct a thematic resolution built on Nucky reconciling the man he is with the man he wants to be.
Hopefully, the answer lies in his response to Gillian Darmody's letter, but there's still a chance it will come courtesy of Charles Luciano and Meyer Lansky.
The series finale of Boardwalk Empire, 'Eldorado,' airs next Sunday @9pm on HBO.