Boardwalk Empire First Season Finale

Episode 12: “A Return to Normalcy”

Grade: A

In T.S. Eliot’s oft-quoted “The Hollow Men,” the poet asserts, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Boardwalk Empire’s first season was building to a number of explosive confrontations, yet the credits rolled without a bang.  Expectations were through the roof when the series premiered in September with Martin Scorsese producing/directing and Steve Buscemi finally getting the lead role he deserves.  However, those expecting nonstop excitement have been disappointed by the deliberately slow pace and are probably disappointed by the closing whimper.  But for those who’ve embraced the focus on character development and were sucked in to prohibition-era Atlantic City, the finale was sublime perfection.

Early in the season, it appeared the main focus of the show would be the struggle for bootlegging supremacy between Nucky Thompson and Arnold Rothstein.  Yet, Nucky and Rothstein (along with Torrio) forged an uneasy alliance, with Nucky receiving $1 million and the location of the D’Alesio brothers in exchange for using his political influence to help Rothstein avoid indictment for fixing the World Series.  I expected a bang, but it ended with a whimper.

Slowly, Boardwalk Empire revealed its true conflict.  Nucky’s manipulations are finally catching up to him as a triumvirate of rivals convened to plan the treasurer’s demise.  Nucky rose to the top of Atlantic City while the Commodore sat behind bars (thanks to Woodrow Wilson) and the old man has emerged from death’s door intent on setting his son atop his rightful perch; and he’ll be assisted by Eli, who warned his brother of the consequences for his deeds.  Jimmy, bitter due to believing Nucky pseudo raised him out of guilt for pimping his 13-year-old mother, no longer wants to be the hired gun for an emotionless manipulator and is ready to take back Atlantic City for all of them.

Yet, Nucky is not an emotionless robot, as his long-awaited familial confession revealed.  Steve Buscemi was simply stunning, delivering a harrowing monologue revealing his wife committed suicide after the death of their premature son – who she took care of for days after the infant’s death.  In an inexperienced actor’s hands, the scene could’ve been melancholy overkill, but Buscemi nailed it and solidified his case for an Emmy nomination.

Nucky’s vulnerability enabled Margaret to finally “meet his acquaintance” and ultimately led to their reconciliation.  That and getting the unlucky rag in the barnbrack cake – the Irish equivalent of a Mardi Gras king cake.  Moral Margaret is officially no more.  She’s chosen Atlantic City’s ivory towers over a life of praying in cemeteries avoiding choking hazards in cakes.  During the course of the season, Margaret transformed from an abused immigrant into the queen of a political crime empire and through several episodes of wrestling with her morals, she’s decided how much sin she can live with.  In seasons to come, how will she live with her decisions?

And then there was Van Alden.  I honestly don’t know what they’re doing with this character, but I am fascinated with him.  I didn’t give Michael Shannon’s performance in the amazing “death by baptism” scene justice in last week’s recap, but Shannon’s coarse portrayal of arguably the most conflicted character in a show of conflicted characters will hopefully earn him an Emmy nomination as well.  In the finale, Van Alden quoted St. Augustine (another man of faith tormented by his own sins) to his potential replacements, slapped one in the face for disgracing the memory of the agent he himself murdered, told his wife he wants to work in a feed business and discovered he’s not sterile.  Again, I have no idea where they’re taking Van Alden or what his overall role will be in the series, but I hope I continue to be surprised by this great character.

This episode’s title, “A Return to Normalcy” – taken from newly elected President Harding’s (not Hardeen’s) address – also represents Nucky’s state-of-mind as the first season closed.  In a Godfather-esque sequence, Nucky delivered a rousing press conference decrying violence while his ordered violence was carried out.  He secured a victory for his Manchurian mayor and the resulting additional term in power as the king of Atlantic City.  He overcame political, economic and physical threats and believed his world was back to normal.  Little does he know of the brewing storm that awaits him in season two.

Like many, I expected Boardwalk Empire to be the second coming of The Sopranos.  While it is nowhere near that level after one season, The Sopranos improved as its episodes increased, and I expect Boardwalk Empire to follow suit.  Boardwalk Empire hasn’t been what I expected, which, in this case, has turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Yes, it’s very slow and methodical and certainly isn’t for everyone, but after watching this season, it’s safe to say I’m hooked.

The focus of a season finale is to wrap up season arcs and build anticipation for the next season.  As the finale’s closing montage showed Jimmy strolling along the beach (a’la Nucky), I was already anticipating the season two premiere and the coming war for Atlantic City.

Additional Thoughts

  • The movie Southland Tales reverses Eliot’s line, saying “This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper, but a bang.”  I’ve angered several friends by making them watch that movie.
  • Jimmy and Angela were able to make up and vowed to make things like they were before (which always works).  While he was able to forgive her for her indiscretions knowing that he was also in need of forgiveness for his own, the sight of her head sans hair was too much.  (In his defense, she did have beautiful hair and the new do is awful.)
  • Someone else who cut off her hair amidst massive stress:

  • The “death by baptism” scene from last week’s episode will probably stick with me more than any other moment from season one.
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  • The “spooks” misunderstanding in the beginning of the episode was actually the entire premise for The Human Stain starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.  I did not care for it.
  • Chalky – easily the most underused character – made it into the party.  I hope Chalky plays a bigger role in season two.
  • Favorite line of the season: “[I poisoned him] cause if I used the shotgun, I’d have to clean up the mess myself.”
  • I expect Jimmy’s post-traumatic stress disorder to be an ongoing struggle.  It’s his equivalent of Tony Soprano’s panic attacks.
  • Steve Buscemi was creepy as hell with that mask on, though Margaret described him as “a dapper villain in a Sunday serial.”
  • Van Alden was looking for a sign from God and received a pregnant Lucy.  The Lord works in mysterious ways (though using an unexpected pregnancy isn’t exactly new for him).
  • Every time the Lucky Strike billboard is shown I think of Mad Men.  If the Emmys pit Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men against each other for best drama (which they will), which would you choose?  I absolutely love Mad Men and think that it is a better overall show, but I’d give the nod to Nucky this year.
  • Whit

    It took me a few episodes to grasp that this whole season would be a buildup and while I was tense as the hour narrowed down, expecting a bang, I am pleased with the finale. The last character shot is worth a rewind to watch Margaret and Nucky’s faces separately; both quickly exhibiting a wealth of conflicting emotions and sincerity. The three “couple” scenes played earlier in the hour (between Nucky and Margaret, Jimmy and Angela and Van Alden and his wife) were incredibly realistic as they demonstrated just how simultaneously naked and masked you can be with someone.

    The characters of Richard Harris and Chalky White are criminally underutilized and I hope to see more of both next season. Please take Lucy’s screen-time away from her-the actress’s musical cue should be a chorus of boos.

    All around an excellent finale to a season that improved with age.

  • Greg

    i liked the finale a lot but i have some questions. first of all what was the book that the murderous maid handed nucky? has she been keeping track of eli and the commodore’s conversations? more importantly during the song at the end who did luciano shoot? did nucky get doublecrossed in some way?

  • Nigel_6

    Awesome article…I suffered through two finals (two more) until I had ‘time’ to watch this finale. This episode could not have done a better job at satisfying my curiosities borne through the season and galvanizing me to promote this drama to any and everyone before next season. The subtle ending was definitely welcomed; yet, I don’t think it was so subtle. In fact, my mind was blown by several events.

    First and foremost, Lucy is pregnant with Nelson’s seed! Looks like the not quite a postman delivered. To think, he was going to rush off a farm, spend his savings (where was this money when he was considering the operation?) and miss this sign. Michael Shannon was awesome in Missing Person and rocks on this show. Last episode’s river scene made my 2010.

    Commodore’s servant was poisoning him and Nucky let her free (after paying her)! i though the creators really slipped here. After all that Commodore did for Nucky–which we learned this episode finally–I highly doubt this would be someone Nucky would take chances with especially right in front of him. Come on, really? As a side note, I really thought there was some possibility that Gillian was the one slipping him the arsenic after the scene last episode between her and Jimmy at the table discussing heirs and beneficiaries.

    Eli is turning on Nucky! Commodore is behind it and Jimmy, too! Here’s where my mind was officially blown, for good reason. Has Nucky been so ‘busy’ as to let something this troubling come to a head? We heard earlier in the episode how his child met his demise alongside his rise to the top of Atlantic City. As sad as the anecdote was, he didn’t realize what was wrong until much later. Are we to believe that he would let his selfish pursuits claim Jimmy, Commodore and Eli’s loyalty? Very harsh–sad even. Perhaps Nucky is tired of not hearing the ‘thank you, Nuckys’ and forgot about how valuable they are.

    I, too, am surprised at Margaret’s behavior, but not shocked. After all, she’s a sharp woman–too sharp for the rag and the accompanying theories (prohibition?). Deep down, Margaret probably knows that she won’t end up like Harding’s dimwit concubine milling about with hoop dreams of marriage and the White House, but who knows, Margaret may be jealous of her new friend’s potential lifestyle. There are definitely some Emmys on the horizon for this series. Buscemi, Shannon, Pitt, MacDonald all turned in stellar performances. I concur about Human Stain. The screenplay was great. The casting…not so much. Bravo, Boardwalk Empire!

  • ctrlaltdelete

    Great show!!! Dust off your mantles Buscemi, Pitt and MacDonald, the Emmy’s are-a-coming.

    I just love the various twists that BWE takes. I be completely shocked if the information that Nucky saw in the Holy Bible that the former maid of the Commodore gave to him was not the words “the Commodore and your brother Eli are plotting to take you out Mr. Thompson”.

  • Andrewkanderson

    I love Boardwalk Empire. The attention to detail, the acting, the costumes they’re all top-notch. It’s my favorite period piece show since Rome and one of my few ‘can’t miss’ shows. Which is why I was pretty upset when I did miss a few episodes recently after I had to make an unexpected trip out of town and forgot to set my DVR. But luckily I remembered my employer, DISH Network, has a live streaming site called dishonline (dot) com. I checked and the episodes I needed to catch up were on there. I was really impressed browsing the content of just how many shows there are. And it’s completely free! Definitely an awesome way DISH is adding value to their services.