In many ways, Boardwalk Empire‘s penultimate episode, “Friendless Child,” was a capsule of the most essential elements of Nucky’s full story over the course of the series. The waning hours of Nucky’s gangland battle with Lucky and Meyer mirror the show’s twilight as well. The gangsters are tired. Many of them are dead. There’s a new world order, and all Nucky wants now is to make amends as best he can. The flashbacks in “Friendless Child” also tied together his relationship with Gillian, and how she may be his only hope for some kind of redemption. Hit the jump for why “all I have — all I’ve ever had — is Atlantic City.”
There have been murmurs for several weeks now that Mickey’s young hire, Joel Harper (who Nucky seemed to take a shine to) is actually Tommy Darmody. There are arguments to be made about timeline and more, and I’ve stayed away from commenting on it until the show revealed more (as in, is it just a red herring, or is there really something to this connection?) After “Friendless Child,” though, the reflexive nature of Joel/Tommy being in Nucky’s employ makes sense, and he (regardless of who he is) will surely have a part to play in this finale.
Nucky’s flashbacks this season have revealed, slowly, his transformation as a hard-scrabble youngster desperate for a coin, to a young man starting to make his way under the tutelage of Jacob Lindsay (and under the patronage of the Commodore). Lindsay admired Nucky’s tenacity, and showed him what a loving home looks like. But Lindsay’s responsibilities to the Commodore extended beyond what might normally be required, something Nucky also picked up on quickly and early. He knew there were darker tasks at hand, and because Lindsay took care of them, they gave him an elevated and protected rank — which Nucky also desired.
In “Friendless Child,” though, even Lindsay had had enough. He mentions how he got wrapped up in this life, doing one thing for Commodore and then another, until suddenly he had a badge. He doesn’t seem to have the same driving force, and, frankly, greed that Nucky has. Nucky, though, having emulated Lindsay in many other ways (like in law enforcement, as well as opening his home to the hard-scrabble orphan Gillian), was ready to follow him wherever he next led. That next stop — when Lindsay literally handed over the keys — was helping transport young girls to and from the Commodore, where he bought their services from their parents, and then raped them.
Nucky, never having the strongest of moral compasses (and blinded by his desire for more), continued on in this position for a long time. We know from past seasons that he eventually brings Gillian to the Commodore, who rapes her at 13 years old. Their son from that coupling, Jimmy, would then of course become Nucky’s kind of foster child along with Gillian, as he tried to play catch-up to his previous sins, taking them both under his wing after Mabel’s death (and the loss of hope he had for a family, which Margaret briefly reignited). Nucky then, of course, killed Jimmy (and his wife Angela). Would it not be poetic, then, for Jimmy’s son to return and kill Nucky?
In the past few seasons, Nucky’s primary role may have been to just allow more interesting characters to enter and exit around him, but ultimately, Boardwalk Empire is his story. After the slaughters throughout the rest of the season thinned the cast, the show has returned to focus just on him. His fight to stay relevant, and to build his business interests back up, have been thwarted. He doesn’t have anyone to collect this wealth for anymore, and he still doesn’t really know who he is. That struggle is one he has to face now, because everything else he had is gone. That empire he longed to build has crumble, with nothing in its place. But there is one thing (or, person) to remain against all odds: Gillian. And with her, Nucky has the opportunity to again to save someone, just like he was saved. It may also be his final act.
The show is always at its best when it’s focused, and the reflexivity and narrowed nature of “Friendless Child” felt like a satisfying way to set up the finale, as well as Nucky’s final moments (be they his final mortal moments, or his final TV moments at least). The journey has had some great detours along the way (like with Van Alden, Chalky, Richard Harrow, and so many others), but as Nucky’s world collides with some of the most famous gangland history of the day (and the biggest war against those gangsters by the likes of Elliot Ness and others), it feels like the right time for Nucky hand the keys off himself, and take his bow.
Episode Rating: A-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— “I’ve played chess, and I’ve never had anyone try and kill me!’ – Nucky.
— Maranzano’s murder was brutal. I like how they wove in that historical connection, and made Nucky the one behind the hit.
— Poor Willie. He just wants to do right. Is Willie part of Nucky’s repeating history too, or is he the one who will break free? Last season, he seemed like a replacement for Jimmy, and in some ways I think he still is. This season, though, he seems to be going his own way.
— Eli is also breaking my heart. I hate to see him in such a shit position again, after we already went through this a few seasons ago. He looked broken down as hell, too, when he went to meet Willie.
— Bugsy Siegel was one obnoxious little shit, apparently. That’s an unholy trio he’s in with Meyer and Lucky, too. I loved the framing device, though, when Torrio was literally left behind during the party. Make way — there’s a new sheriff.
— Lucky: “What does that make you?” Nucky: “Dumber than I knew.” Lucky: “Good words for the headstone.”
– Margaret and Nucky are still working together, it seems, though curtly, and with both giving advice the other one doesn’t heed. Of all of the show’s major characters, I’ve been the most disappointed with Margaret’s development (or lack thereof). She had the potential for so much more, and it was just wasted in the last few seasons.
— “I’m not looking for absolution, but relief. […] Everything in this world has been taken from me” – Gillian. Nucky can relate.
— A lot of beautifully shot scenes in this episode, mostly relating to the stand-off (like the headlights casting on Nucky and Eli’s faces).
— Frankly, I think that reveal about Nucky and Gillian’s past (in more detail) could have been revealed a hell of a lot earlier, so as to engender any kind of compassion towards her. Then again, she kind of drunk-raped her son, and murdered his lookalike, sooooo …
— “You like to think it’s quick, but you’ll never know. You’ll never know until it’s you, and then you’ll never tell” – Nucky, about seeing people killed.
— R.I.P. Archimedes. Thank God someone finally killed Mickey Doyle, though. A scumbag until the end.
— “What is it you expect me to be?” – Nucky.