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 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.
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.
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.