Season 4 Finale – Farewell Daddy Blues
Boardwalk Empire ends its epic 4th season with neither a bang nor a whimper but some unique sound between the two, perhaps a howl of despair and primal pain. It is, without hyperbole, one of the best hours of television I have ever seen, one of the most ballsy, and perhaps the single most emotionally devastating since “Everyone’s Waiting,” the famously heart wrenching finale of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under. It is an hour in which almost nothing the audience expected to happen occurred, and even what we did expect—such as the death of Warren Knox—transpired in such memorable fashion that it managed to feel surprising. It was a magnificent end to arguably the best season yet, a season that definitively establishes Boardwalk Empire as a series worthy to be spoken of in the hallowed company of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and its slightly older contemporaries Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
The season as a whole has been remarkably bleak. In a show about how 1920s America was a grifter’s paradise in which the strong preyed upon the weak, the season explored how in this context love, friendship, trust and honor are merely weaknesses to be preyed upon, and one defining difference between the winners and losers is that the winners, when exposed and brought face to face with their own hypocrisy, prove that they can live with anything, while the losers go headfirst out a window or bleed out under the boardwalk, unable to make peace with who they are and what they have wrought. It is not an accident that this season has done away with the two characters that the audience had perhaps the most unmixed affection for, nor that they both proved unwilling to go on living after breaking the codes they had defined themselves by. It is also no accident that the season was structured around the soul sick weariness that led both Nucky Thompson and his Chicago counterpart Johnny Torrio to resolve to exit the stage as the season came to a head, nor that Torrio will make it to Europe, but Nucky will not make his date with Sally in Cuba.
It’s difficult to blame Nucky for wanting an extended vacation. Unfortunately, being who he is, he feels the need to settle all family business before embarking on his getaway, and this leads to his genuinely epic confrontation with Eli, his twice-treacherous brother and lieutenant. In an episode full of powerful scenes, this is the first of four that are so intense, emotional and cathartic that any one of them alone would have marked the finale as instantly memorable. Together, they help to make “Farewell Daddy Blues” one of the great season finales in the decade and a half since Tom Fontana’s Oz kick started the Television Renaissance.
Going into the episode, it was commonly thought that Eli was doomed, so a heavy cloud of menace hung over the scene from the moment Eli arrived at the Albatross. What followed was an echo of the Nucky-Jimmy showdown in “To the Lost,” made more intense by the even more intimate nature of this betrayal, the change Nucky’s character has undergone in the ensuing seasons, and Eli’s heart-on-the-sleeve personality as compared to the dead-eyed, doom-eager Jimmy. It is an astonishing scene, raw and electric, two great actors giving the performances of their careers. Nucky is as furious as we’ve ever seen him, a wild-eyed animal wounded in the heart, and Eli, aware in equal measure of the extenuating circumstances and the fact that his previous betrayal in a way renders them moot, is still able to work Nucky, by far the more clever and manipulative brother, in a way that only a lifetime of guilt, fraternal protectiveness, jealousy and hurt feelings can make possible. Nucky hesitates, but according to show runner Terrence Winter, were it not for the fortuitous arrival of Willie Eli would indeed have joined Jimmy, Owen and Eddie in the great gang in the sky.
Put in this impossible situation, Nucky does the smart thing, telling Eli to explain to Willie what’s going on in one of the episode’s many instances of the tide of bullshit and denial receding to reveal the ugly truth. Willie, shell-shocked by the discovery that his father is a rat and his uncle was willing to kill him (“It gets easier, you’ll see,” Nucky informs the aspiring young gangster later, in a hilarious example of Nucky’s saving ability to lie to himself) runs away and Eli chases after him, which leads to next astonishing set piece of the night, an epic fight to the death between Eli and the increasingly unhinged Knox, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown after being outmaneuvered by Nucky and put in his place by his law school pal Hoover. As June, queen of Eli’s domestic façade, begs him to cut the bullshit and tell her what’s going on Knox appears, puts a gun to Eli’s head and threatens Willie, and all hell breaks loose. It is easily one of the best fight scenes in the history of television or movies, utterly suspenseful and blackly comic (I will never forget the image of Eli wildly swinging his daughter’s musical saw while a startled Knox backs away in surprised terror) in a season and series that has made a specialty of scenes like this. One of Winter’s strengths is that he has the great director Tim Van Patten as second or third in command in the show’s pecking order (along with writer Howard Korder) and sitting in the writers room, and Winter has the humility and good sense to give Van Patten his head when it comes to action set pieces and visual storytelling in general. Warren Knox gets the worst of it finally, and Eddie Kessler is avenged in memorable fashion. The scene really belongs to Shea Whigham as Eli, however. His naturalistic style often leads to him getting overshadowed by the flashier, more stylized performances in the show, but after his incredible work this season he finally seems to be getting his due. Bravo.
If the first of these four great scenes ended in stalemate and the second with the satisfying comeuppance of a wildly loathed antagonist, the third and fourth are tragic, and as intertwined as the first two. This season has lacked a clear unifying conflict like the first three had (a not unwelcome development that kept the season fresh) but the closest thing to such a spine this season has been the Chalky-Narcisse conflict. It already intersected with Nucky’s Tampa endeavor, and here it collides with Richard’s battle to keep Tommy from Gillian’s clutches with devastating consequences. In a forlorn echo of last season’s climax, Richard is once again setup to save the day, but Richard Harrow is no longer the avenging angel of “Margate Sands.” He has shared the seasonal theme of soul sick dissatisfaction, and unlike Nucky is utterly incapable of lying to himself or others. After trying to embrace the darkness within as a form of self-punishment at the beginning of the season, he discovered he was not the monster he thought he was, and his gradual reconnection with humanity over the seasons has left him unwilling to kill again. Having accepted one last job in return for a favor from Nucky that will secure his scrapbook family’s viability, he learns to late that he is not only no longer willing but no longer able, with disastrous consequences. His wounded soul and wounded trigger hand lead to an ill-timed hesitation and the shocking death of Maybelle White. Maybelle, long curious about her father’s life, incinerates like a moth in a flame; Richard unwittingly becomes Manny Horvitz, slayer of innocents, and frozen in mute horror by the enormity of his mistake leads himself open to return fire from Narcisse’s torpedoes; and Chalky, having already lost his family, club, status, reputation, and family, comes apart at the seams in an astonishing performance by Michael K. Williams. His defeated howls of “baby girl! My baby!” land like a punch in the gut, particularly to anyone with a daughter, and he is dragged away by his henchmen to Oscar’s house a seemingly broken man. Chalky’s arc this season has been devastating, and the decision to take him from the pinnacle of success to the depths of defeat while sparing his life was a gutsy one. Chalky will return in season 5, but he will be a changed man from the one we have followed up till now, and I look forward to seeing where he goes next—it can’t be much lower.
Finally, Richard, devastated by his misfire, limps away to bleed out under the boardwalk. He had sent his family packing to his sister’s in Wisconsin to ensure their safety earlier in a scene in which for the first time in the series he says “I love you”(to Tommy) and smiles(after kissing Julia, albeit with his face turned mostly from the camera, but you can make the smile out.) He promises her he will follow after them, as Jimmy asked him to promise he would try to “come home” from the life of a soldier, and she pledges to hunt him down and drag him to Wisconsin should he fail to show, which of course is exactly what she will have to do—to bury him. A beautiful montage of Richard on a train, walking along the tracks, and finally approaching his family farm, with Emma, her child and husband, Hubert, his wife Julia and father in law Paul, and foster son Tommy sitting on the porch. No longer frozen over, but green, bucolic, and Julia rises to approach and greet him. Cut to Richard’s face, first with his mask, and then unmasked but with Richard whole, handsome, the ghost of a smile on his face. He’s finally made it home to his Frankenstein family, stitched together from people he’s met and cared for along the way.
Cut to Richard’s mask on the sand, then to Richard under the boardwalk, in the spot he first kissed Julia, in profile from his good side, a single tear on his cheek, his eye unblinking, his chest unbreathing. RIP.
This episode left me as emotionally wrecked as any work of fiction I have ever seen, and in my opinion was without doubt more memorable than “Felina” or even “Ozymadias” from Breaking Bad’s recently concluded excellent final season. Boardwalk Empire is one of the great shows of all time, and hopefully by next year we’ll all have recovered enough to see what Terry Winter has in store next for Nucky and company. For the fourth year in a row, he has boldly blown up the show’s status quo, perhaps more extensively this time than ever. He resisted the urge to give us what we all thought we wanted but in turn gave us something more rich, strange, and ultimately, deeply moving and aesthetically and thematically satisfying. So long for now to one of the bravest, least complacent shows ever to grace American television.
Odds and Sods
-Nucky speaks Spanish! Albeit not as well as Sally.
-“No more plans after today.”
-“Don’t want to hear no words from you.” Chalky is both hurt and angry by Nucky’s seeming betrayal, and I wonder what will become of these two and their partnership in the future.
-I thought Gillian’s arc this year was fantastic. Winter has confirmed that she will return for season 5, as well as my pet theory that she represents Nucky’s original sin (pimping her out to the Commodore) and is an integral part of this story. That being the case, sending her to jail was another very ballsy move, and it will be interesting to see where this goes.
-Her line “Why is it a man can do whatever he wants?” seemed completely natural and organic, but I think was also a meta comment by Winter on the propensity of fans to hold not just Gillian but Margaret, Skyler White, Carmela Soprano and other women to a much stricter standard than they do the men on these shows.
-Big theme in Chicago this year was how being paranoid is necessary in an environment like this. Capone and Torrio didn’t betray each other, but it’s only natural they would suspect each other, and when Torrio hands over the reins to Capone he tells him “You win.” With that out of the way, Capone can go back to viewing Johnny as a beloved father figure. Even the people you love are out to get you in this world.
-Great scene with Nucky cutting through Bader’s bullshit. Also notice how both Nucky and Chalky preyed on Narcisse’s weakness of needing to believe everyone else is just as phony as he is. “Do we understand each other?” “We do…at long last.”
-The Thompson brothers can wrestle! Nuck pulled out a flying headlock last year and Eli busted out a spine buster and a drop toehold on Knox.
-“Don’t like it.” “Ain’t meant to be liked.”
-“We see each other.”
-“Truth is what men in power wish it to be.”
-“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
-As much as Narcisse choked on saying “yes sir” to Hoover, being a protected informant will only make him more formidable. It was also an echo of Dickie making Dunn say “yes…boss” in episode 1. Great scene.
-I think AR likes Margaret, maybe even sexually. Interested to see where this goes.
-The recognition between Eli and Van Alden was gold. These two alongside the Capone brothers? I can get behind that.
TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Influx TV Writer