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"Boardwalk Empire" Season Three: Down Here It's Just Winners and Losers and Don't Get Caught on the Wrong Side of That Line

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | December 4, 2012 | Comments ()


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Gillian Darmody may outlive us all. Or, at least outlive most of the denizens of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." It's survival of the fittest in the early Prohibition era, and not even a syringe full of heroin is enough to stop Gillian from going down, becoming just one of the many blood-soaked bodies strewn about her mansion in the Season Three finale. The war between Nucky Thompson and Gyp Rossetti (with the aid of Al Capone of Joe Masseria, respectively, and Arnold Rothstein around for fun) was just one layer of the conflict in the broader narrative. Everyone this season was out to beat the odds. Some just simply wanted to be on the winning side of whatever happened to be going down. Others were fighting a tougher battle with themselves to keep their demons at bay and maybe -- just maybe -- land a fresh start on life. Most, however, failed. Change wasn't an option for everyone in "Boardwalk Empire" Season Three, a beautiful, elaborate glimpse at a turning point in American society not to mention a grander inspection on the human condition in general. The series displays a "Mad Men"-like consistency concerning plot and character development, one big chess game unfolding episode by episode. With the exception of one character, this season's finale tied up enough loose ends to deliver a compelling story and left enough still hanging to keep fans guessing. It was a stellar year for one of TV's best dramas.

The Gangsters
The finale, "Margate Sands," brought viewers quintessential mobster action, from stabbings in alleyways to machine-gun massacres, and a flowchart almost is necessary to chronicle the amount of double-crossing involved. The entrance of Capone in the penultimate episode, brought in by Nucky's brother Eli to help take out Rossetti, was both thrilling and disturbing, that perfect mix of awe that has keeps real life gangsters (not to mention the great fictional ones) in our pop culture spotlight long after they are gone. You just can't look away, and "Boardwalk" has done an excellent job of bringing the likes of Capone, Rothstein, Masseria, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lanksy to the small screen. (Note: I don't consider history to be a spoiler, so if you aren't familiar with these men and the fact that in 1923, most are just getting started, then I can't help you.)

In a nutshell: Rothstein, knowing Luciano would go ahead with his plans to sell heroin despite his protests, set his mentee up quite nicely to be arrested for the sale (by cops on his payroll), lose the 50 pounds of confiscated heroin and ultimately lose Rothstein's favor. Luciano got to live, but now he is aligned with Masseria. Rothstein used his newfound heroin to make a deal with Masseria -- here is $200,000 worth of heroin; call off the dogs working with Gyp against Nucky. Rothstein's deal with Nucky for this aid? Ninety-nine percent ownership of the Overhold Distillery in Pennsylvania that Nucky planned to operate for U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. (Rothstein was tipped off about the property by Mickey Doyle, who perhaps was in on the con as well.) It's a deal, Nucky said, but he was a step ahead. Mellon, urged on by Nucky ally Gaston Means, later made a call to Assistant U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph, instructing her to raid the distillery and indict the man in charge -- Rothstein. Nucky was able to save his neck and gain revenge against Rothstein for refusing to help him fight Rossetti in the first place. Capone and Chalky White also got to take their pent-up aggression out on Masseria's men, killing them as they retreated from Atlantic City.

As for Gyp, this season's memorable Big Bad, the withdrawal of Masseria's men combined with the massacre of most of his own by Richard Harrow (there to rescue Tommy) left the gangster defeated, with only a few henchmen in tow. His right-hand man, Tennino, however, was easily turned by Nucky and Eli, who found him hiding in a closet to avoid the slaughter going down by Harrow in Gillian's house/the Artemis Club. It was a knife in the back -- literally -- for the boss who took everything personally.

Masseria was right: "Everyone dies. Not everyone keeps their promises."

The Brothers Thompson
Nucky spent the season coming to terms with his killing of protégé and surrogate son Jimmy Darmody at Season Two's end. "You can't be half a gangster," Jimmy told him in the series pilot, a message that didn't seem to hit home until this finale. Billie wouldn't have died if it hadn't been for her involvement with him. Owen made his own decision to go after Masseria, but it was part of Nucky's battle. Eddie almost lost his life by showing loyalty to Nucky, a loyalty the latter realized he didn't deserve when he couldn't even say for sure if his near-death servant had a family or not. And he lost Margaret, whom he can no longer coax with the promise of money and security. It's time to hunker down, only work with those he already trusts and stay out of the limelight. Even his telltale red carnation adorning his jacket has to go -- the old Nucky is gone.

He isn't alone anymore, however. If anyone earned redemption this season, it is Eli, who took his licks (for trying to have Nucky killed) by serving time and returning to be just one of many men of Nucky's. He proved his loyalty, along with his smarts, when he tried to stop Nucky's men from traveling through Tabor Heights and a subsequent ambush earlier in the season, and it was Eli who went to Chicago to seek Johnny Torrio's help for the war. He came back with Capone, however, and stayed by his brother's side throughout. Gone is the impulsive, often drunk and resentful little brother. He has accepted his spot as Forever No. 2, and it not only suits him, but he is thriving in the role.

The Women
At this point, Margaret likely barely recognizes herself. Her marriage to Nucky only bound her to this corrupt world even more, and she tried to at least make a difference in other women's lives, to help them be independent, even when she couldn't be completely independent herself. Her relationship with Owen was genuine; perhaps it wasn't a passionate, the-rules-be-damned love affair, and certainly there was a percentage of Margaret just looking for a way out. But she cared for him, and his death was a shock. Interestingly, in Owen's death, the unsafe environment at home and her abortion, Margaret found an exit. She got to walk away. She turned down Nucky's less-than-romantic invitation to return home, refusing to accept his line that money is meaningless. No part of the mess the characters are in is meaningless, and Margaret has maintained enough of her self-respect to leave behind the life she became lost in. She may be back in the same position she was in when she turned to Nucky -- on her own with two young children -- but she also may be the freest she's ever been.

Gillian's words to Nucky in the finale were more haunting, and more damaging, than Margaret's. They would have been fitting last words from such a woman, although it appears she has survived her heroin overdose inflicted by Gyp. Seeing Nucky in the hallway of the Artemis Club, she was a girl again, barely a teenager, and she was telling him about the Commodore. Nucky brought her to that much-older and powerful man, and in doing so became complicit in the killing of her innocence, and perhaps even part of her soul. She never recovered from such damage; it was all she knew. Gillian is a survivor, calculating and manipulative. But she has never had a choice. Everything she has done, from making peace with the Commodore to killing a Jimmy lookalike, was an act of survival. She wasn't smooth enough to best Gyp -- also an attempt to maintain her status quo and keep her club and life going -- but even then she didn't lose. She held onto Tommy just as she did with Jimmy, clinging to the hope of receiving genuine love and affection. Richard was right to remove Tommy from such a poisonous situation and taking him to Julia's, but knowing Gillian, she won't give up on finding her grandson.

The Favorites
Richard was given the sweetest of storylines in his love affair with Julia as he tried to make his dream of a "normal" life, complete with a family, a reality. He was close to it, too, and we can't write the two of them off just yet. But Gillian kicking him out of the house and removing him from Tommy's life was enough to make him snap. He is still loyal to Jimmy and Angela, and therefore Tommy. Perhaps it was Gillian's behavior -- her wondering if Julia were actually blind was just cruel -- that enabled his reliance on old habits (read: murdering people). His shooting spree through the club was impressive, but it was just as much a syicide mission as it was a rescue. He knew his delivery of Tommy to Julia's arms would change things -- change them -- and even though her father thinks all can be mended, Richard seems to have given up on his dream completely.

As for Nelson, perhaps be the most doomed of the characters, you have to wonder if he is simply plagued with bad luck. He tried to make a go as an iron salesman while hiding out from the law, taking his fairly hopeless trade from door to door to earn enough for his new family. But life conspired against him, and soon he was turning to the underworld to help him dispose of a body and later, using his wife's advice, selling booze to earn a living. The only disappointment of the finale is that he wasn't featured. For a moment, I expected Capone to have brought him along to Atlantic City -- Nelson is now in Capone's service, having been caught selling liquor in his territory -- but the inevitable confrontation between him and Nucky would have added too much confusion to the proceedings. It is better for Nelson to stick it out in Cicero, which Capone will very soon make his headquarters. We'll be seeing more of him in Season Four, set in 1924.

I can't wait.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. She is still sad about Owen.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Great review! Thank you, Sarah.

    So I guess the only way to keep Richard relevant is for Nucky to hire him as his security. After what Nucky saw at the Artemis Club, how could he not? You want THAT guy on your side.

    Gillian will be after Tommy next season but if Nucky hires Richard and Richard marries Julia to form a family for Tommy, I can't see what Gillian can really do about getting Tommy back to the whore house.

  • RilesSD

    This. I've been wanting Nucky to hire Harrow since season 1. Hope it works out like you said. No reason for him to leave now, especially since even Julia's dad is cool with him.

  • John W

    I was hoping Harrow was going to go all Vasquez and scream: LEEETSSSS ROOOOCK!!

  • Kala

    Wonderful writing, Sarah. You captured many of the most enthralling elements of the show quite nicely. I too, am still sad over Owen. But as far as the writing goes, I couldn't imagine them keeping him around for too much longer. No one on this show is allowed to be happy for longer than five minutes. Like poor Richard, for instance. I'm glad they let him be happy with the lovely Julia for a bit there, but after the finale, I can't imagine he'll make a quick entrance back.

    I've loved everyone's story arc except for Nucky's. Throughout the season, his pride has consistently bit him in the ass. I couldn't believe how long it took him to finally get Chalky's help. He's one of Nucky's GREATEST assets, but he treated him like trash nearly the whole time. And just when it seems like Nucky could begin to learn from his experience of having his back to the wall, he blunders with Margaret. I haven't seen a worse attempt at reconciliation since Sleeping with the Enemy.

    I imagine it would be too easy to have him be the super-charmer, but damn, it's a bit frustrating.

  • ceebee_eebee

    Your description of Gillian makes me want to cry. It's SO. PERFECT. I love her so damn much.

  • sean

    I too find her one of the most interesting characters in TV history. Vile, but sympathetic. Gretchen Mol is fantastic. Yet no one ever gives her the credit she deserves.

  • Pat

    Agreed. Her arc has just been the most interesting thing I've seen in television this year. It really speaks volume when her character goes from someone you want to drown in the tub to someone you just want to shower with love and affection.

  • DarthCorleone

    I greatly enjoyed this season. Nice summation!

    I'm wondering if we have lost Margaret or Richard for good. Their final moments certainly implied that one or both could be gone.

    The finale had me so riveted that I had completely forgotten about Van Alden, who had perhaps the greatest take-this-job-and-shove freak out moment in the history of fiction this season. I did enjoy Richard's Arnold-Scwarzenegger-Commando-style rampage; I didn't know if he would make it out alive or not.

    I guess Nucky's motive for revenge against Rothstein makes some sense, although he really shouldn't be holding that against him. Rothstein didn't owe it to him to go to war against Masseria, and Rothstein has done Nucky several favors over the course of the show. It's the sort of mistake that makes me wonder if Rothstein is the one that is ultimately going to kill him.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Agree about Rothstein.

  • DarthCorleone

    I guess you could also say that it was Nucky sticking it to Rothstein for extorting him for 99 percent when he was in a vulnerable position.

  • lowercase_ryan

    No, it was his intention all along. As soon as he hung up with Rothstein he made a comment about him taking the bait.

  • DarthCorleone

    I believe you're correct that it was his intention all along, but I think if Rothstein had been more conciliatory on that call, Nucky wouldn't have felt as compelled to call James Cromwell to bring down the indictment. I think the line used the terms "rat" and "cheese," which wouldn't necessarily imply a second stage of the trap. At that time I thought it could just mean Rothstein was a big rat and the distillery was a big piece of cheese that served the purpose of getting Masseria out of the way.

  • lowercase_ryan

    you're probably right about that. Rothstein made it very clear he thought he had Nucky over a barrel.

  • DarthCorleone

    And for that matter, why does James Cromwell want to put the kibosh on his own distillery? Wasn't the whole purpose of letting Nucky take control of it to make some under-the-table profit?

  • lowercase_ryan

    I wondered that too. Didn't seem like he had much incentive to turn them in.

  • DarthCorleone

    Or maybe Nucky told him that Rothstein stole the distillery from him, and without the same agreement of under-the-table profit with Rothstein in effect, Cromwell saw that as just recourse.

  • DarthCorleone

    The only answer I could come up with on that one is that Rothstein is such a big fish (after the Black Sox scandal) that bringing him down carries its own temptation.

  • Dunn Purnsley

    I'll bet they are setting up a major story with Nucky and Eli. Nucky still thinks it was Jimmy who came up with the idea to whack him. If he finds out from someone else (Capone) that it was Eli's idea, Nucky would take that really hard.

    Even though he has forgiven Eli for going along with Jimmy's plan, if Nucky found it was Eli's all along, he might kill Eli. He would feel like all the guilt he has been feeling over Jimmy's death was because of Eli's manipulation, since Eli clearly told Nucky that it was Jimmy's idea before he agreed to go to prison.

    Its a storyline I'd be surprised they didn't, at least, take advantage of.

  • DarthCorleone

    Good thoughts.

    I can't tell for certain, of course, but I had the impression Nucky never fully believed Eli when he said it was Jimmy's plan. Maybe he just didn't want to kill his own brother and recognized that - unlike Jimmy - Eli wasn't beyond rehabilitation. Ultimately, does it really matter whose idea it was? Eli can't deny that he went along with it, and in truth Nucky did somewhat provoke him with that confrontation in which Margaret had to break them up with the shotgun. A couple lines this season certainly indicated that Nucky didn't absolve Eli of responsibility, and I would wonder how that conversation in that room about the hit could get back to Nucky at this point. (Was Mickey Doyle in the room?)

  • Dunn Purnsley

    Well you could say that Eli mentioning "just kill him" started the snowball that turned into Nucky going full gangster and killing Jimmy.

    If my memory servers, at the conclusion of season 2 Nucky chose between Eli and Jimmy. Therefore I think he believed Eli when he said that it was Jimmy's idea. Its hard for anyone to imagine their brother, in a room full of full-on gangsters, was the one to bring up killing you. Finding out said fact... that would really hurt.

    I feel that this tidbit, small as it is, would make Nucky resent Eli more than he ever has, with reason enough to kill him.

  • DarthCorleone

    Yeah, at the end of season 2 he certainly acts like he believes Eli, but I wasn't so sure at the time. It was presented as a choice, and he certainly makes the choice of which one lives and which one dies, but he also punishes Eli by sending him off to prison. And then in that scene between the two of them during the Easter family gathering, Nucky does explicitly call him out on being involved in the assassination attempt. Eli offers to let Nucky kill him right then, and Nucky defers (which of course doesn't automatically mean that Nucky is going to drop it forever).

  • Dunn Purnsley

    That is a good point about Eli offering to let Nucky kill him.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Great review. I had a lot of feels about this but the main one turned out to be meh. The run-up to the finale was possibly the best I've ever seen. It was damn near breathtaking. And then it just failed to deliver. Yes it was good, it had all of the elements I was looking for: hyper-violent, revenge, questions answered, problems solved, etc. But despite all of these elements being present, somehow it managed to fall flat for me.

    This has always been my problem with the show. Broken down into it's base elements it should be one of the greatest shows ever, but the story telling just doesn't compel me half of the time. I blame Terrence Winter too. He just misses in inexplicable places.

    Case in point: Gyp Rossetti's death. NO FUCKING WAY DOES THAT GUY DIE LIKE THAT!!!! It just shows me a schizophrenic sense of drama on Winter's part. It doesn't make any sense, it's shitty storytelling.

  • AngelenoEwok

    I felt that was the BEST way for him to go out. The whole season I was wondering how he managed to retain any kind of loyalty from his men, as unstable as he is. Also, the guy who killed him was the same one whose cousin he shoveled.

  • Kala

    Agreed. I was glad it was one of his men and I'm glad that it was in one of the most undignified ways possible.

  • DarthCorleone

    Why wouldn't Gyp die like that?

  • lowercase_ryan

    I just felt it wasn't satisfying at all. He had these crazy relationships with all these people, then it's some guy, who's name I don't even know, stabbing him in the back. Unsatisfactory.

  • Andrew Norris

    Tennino's cousin was beaten to death by Gyp. As loyal as Tennino was, I can't imagine the choice of "Die or kill the guy who killed my cousin" was a particularly difficult one.

  • Dunn Purnsley

    He died being stabbed in the back while taking a piss. Perfect way for the ape captain to go out.

  • DarthCorleone

    Plus, that whole showdown with Gillian was pretty twisted and satisfying. I thought that was a good helping of the personal Gyp insanity for that episode.

  • DarthCorleone

    *shrug* I was quite satisfied. There's plenty of verisimilitude therein, and I don't need to see Nucky pull the trigger. We got that at the end of last season.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I was hoping for Gillian or Masseria, but I get it.

  • John G.

    Before I even read this post, I just want to thank you for finally reviewing this show. I have been locked into this show since its beginnings but it wasn't until this season that it really became a thing I couldn't stop thinking about. I thought this finale was excellent, and I cannot wait until the next season.

  • Matt Grippi

    Despite that, unbelievable final two episodes. The show lost me a few times during this season, but this justified the low points and really brought it together.

  • Matt Grippi

    I thought it was strange that we didn't see any of Nelson, not even for a minute. After an entire season of waiting to see where his storyline was going, I find it strange that he didn't even make an appearance in the finale.

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