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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: The grand finale

December 5, 2010 |  9:51 pm

For a lot of people, "Boardwalk Empire" had to have a dynamite finale in order to have a successful first season. I would have been more forgiving of a finale that simply moved things forward an inch or two, given how much I've enjoyed much of the season, but even I was feeling deflated by the first third of "A Return to Normalcy." There's not a lot that happens, and while everything in that first third is beautifully written and acted, it's hard not to fear that this is all going to end with a long, quiet exhale, rather than the bang the season's been leading up to. It's often realistic to end on a bit of anticlimax, honestly, but Nucky and his team had been tracking the D'Alessios for so long that the audience could be forgiven for just wanting to see a little violence. "Boardwalk Empire" has always been handsome, but it hasn't often been visceral, and "Normalcy" was the season's last, best shot at hitting the audience square in the gut.

Fortunately, "A Return to Normalcy" delivered that punch to the gut in spades, probably starting with the scene where Margaret sees the names of Nucky's dead wife and son on a gravestone while she's out for an All Saints' Day prayer service on Halloween night. The election's in a few days, and Nucky's been so busy that he and Margaret haven't had to have contact in the wake of her leaving him. Seeing those names on the grave, though, brings back to her all of her feelings for the man, which originally went well beyond the simple pleasure in the nice things he could buy her. When this show started, there was a deep, almost needful connection between the two, perhaps based on a subconscious understanding of how much each had lost. So Margaret goes to Nucky, and as he tells her the long, sad story of how he lost his wife and child, that connection seems to come back ... until she tells him that, no, she's not going to be anything other than Mrs. Schroeder to him from now on.

People take steps toward change in "A Return to Normalcy," but they don't actually change, not really. Margaret takes this stand; she needs to know just how much sin she can live with. But when she gets the rag that prophesies destitution in her cake, how close she could come to losing everything is thrown right back in her face. It's rather too cute, honestly, and a bit too easy to just have Margaret rush back to Nucky in the wake of this, but run back she does, as the episode ends. The closing montage, set to a Vaudeville performance, reveals all of the characters in moments of crisis, save Nucky and Margaret, who seem happy to be back together. They seem happy, that is, until they walk out onto the boardwalk, the sun coming up in the east, and look out over the waves. For just a moment, the briefest hints of indecision cross both of their faces, and then the camera pans up to take in the whole of the boardwalk, with all of its delights slumbering for the moment. They and the series will be back in due time.

But if "A Return to Normalcy" found its spine in the story of Margaret and Nucky coming back together, much of the rest of the episode was devoted to the election of 1920, the election that gives the episode its name (from the speech Warren G. Harding gave upon being awarded the presidency). Nucky marshals every trick up his sleeve to make sure that his Republican candidates win, which means finally closing off the business of the massacre in the woods from the pilot. He makes a deal with Rothstein to end the war; Rothstein won't serve time for fixing the World Series, and in return, he'll give Nucky $1 million and the locations of the remaining D'Alessios. The sequence where Harrow, Jimmy and Al Capone track down the D'Alessios is thrilling, intercut as it is with Nucky's speech about how the Republicans stand for law and order and are closing off the massacre the Democrats have tried to make political hay of. Drums beat ominously on the soundtrack, the D'Alessios are mowed down by gunfire, and Nucky turns it all to his advantage. It's no christening montage from "The Godfather," but as a way to close off this season's major mob plotline, it more than does the job. Nucky's on top of the world, and there's nothing that can take him down.

Or is there? The Commodore, still festering with rage at how Nucky pushed him out years ago, gathers his son to tell him that it's time to take back Atlantic City in the Commodore's name. Jimmy, understandably, is a bit disturbed by this notion, but the Commodore has one last ace up his sleeve: Eli Thompson, who's been reinstated as sheriff but still rankles over the way that his brother treated him after he was shot trying to keep the wheels of his brother's corrupt machine spinning. It's a wonderful twist, in that it's at once completely expected and completely unexpected. We suspected Eli would turn on Nucky somehow, but like this? It makes the Commodore instantly more compelling as a character (apparently, he's got a grand plan), but it also sets the stakes for season two up in grand style. The Commodore, Jimmy, and Eli against Nucky? I'm thrilled to watch that.

In fact, "A Return to Normalcy" works well as a way to close off the stories from season one but even better as a way to introduce new stories for season two. Van Alden (who has somehow managed to skate by with the lie he's constructed about how Sebso died, perhaps because he made a major bust between last episode and this one) has gotten Lucy pregnant, putting a stake through the heart of any dreams he may have had of pursuing other employment. Nucky and Rothstein have become strange bedfellows. Margaret has her doubts about what she's chosen to do. Chalky remains an enigmatic figure on the story's edges. And somewhere out there, the Commodore is plotting his revenge. This is all juicy, juicy stuff, and it makes season two that much harder to wait for.

A first season is usually all about introduction, about making sure that everybody watching the show knows the characters and world so well that subsequent seasons can tear those characters and that world apart. If "Boardwalk Empire" moved too slowly for some, it was worth it for the way the series pulled all of these stories together in grand, sweeping fashion at the end. The world and characters have been intricately, beautifully set in motion. Now, we wait to see where Terence Winter and his writers take them from here. If "A Return to Normalcy" is any indication, these characters, like the nation they're a part of, can't expect anything like normalcy any time soon.

Some other thoughts:

  • --Seriously, the Van Alden stuff is getting a little predictable. I thought his killing of Sebso would force him to confront his growing insanity, but it seems it just made him even more entrenched. Fortunately, the show has thrown him together into a storyline with Lucy, which should be fascinating.
  • --I hope this show releases a soundtrack. I really enjoyed the music throughout the season, and some of the original performances would be nice to have on disc too.
  • --Season two wishlist: More Richard Harrow, please. He was a great character.
  • --One of the things I love about the show is how it drives home the fact that political corruption is the same, no matter the era or party. There will always be people looking for dead voters to cast ballots and other ways to subvert the actual will of the people. And there will always be a substantial ground game by all sides to turn out their voters.
  • --And with that, we're done for the season! I will hopefully be back later in the week with some thoughts on where we've been and where the show might be going.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) gets called out on the carpet by Nucky (Steve Buscemi). Credit: HBO

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