The finale of Boardwalk Empire Season 3 leaves a feeling of dissatisfaction.
On the one hand, all the requisite fireworks are there – Nucky and Eli take back Atlantic City by force (and don’t allow Masseria or turncoat Rothstein to walk away unscathed), Richard Harrow leads a one-man massacre at the Artemis Club, Gillian gets a literal taste of her own medicine, and of course, Gyp Rosetti finally meets his maker.
These events have been foreshadowed for weeks, but when they finally come to pass, they manage to fall easily short of expectations. Only Al Capone’s explosive re-debut in New Jersey comes close to delivering the punch any one of these could have been capable of.
My disappointment aside, the season finale leaves me asking one question: Who is Nucky Thompson? He’s obviously not who I expect him to be, who I want him to be – he’s too much of a romantic to be a cold-hearted gangster, but too much of a psychopath for you to root for him. He micromanages his business but walks away when things get hot. He’s eerily calm in the face of volatile opponents, but then over-emotional when it comes to his own feelings.
So who is he? Leading man or mob boss? Doting father or womanizer? Ruthless businessman or paper tiger? Tycoon or bust?
Managing the war with Gyp and Masseria from a lumberyard, Nucky spends more energy mediating squabbles between Capone and Chalky’s factions and fielding inane phone inquiries from Mickey Doyle than strategizing. He – and his empire – appear to be coming apart at the seams. Apparently smelling blood in the water, Mickey makes a deal with Rothstein that would save Nucky’s life, but effectively cost him his business. Now in charge of Mellon’s distillery, Rothstein cuts a deal with Masseria to draw back his troops from AC.
Everyone watched with bated breath as the maimed war hero Richard laid out his arsenal of weapons at the end of the last episode. We knew that Tommy was his first priority, and anyone standing in his way would be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. Ostensibly first on his list is Gillian, whose eroding role as house maven places her directly in the crosshairs of both Harrow and Gyp Rosetti. Her unfettered access to Gyp and his men uniquely positioned her to deliver a fatal blow to his organization – an opportunity that she squanders. Her attempt to incapacitate him with an overdose of heroin (an MO we previously saw her demonstrate with her son’s doppelganger) goes desperately foul and Gyp easily overpowers her, turning the needle on her, just as Masseria’s New York contingent abandon the mansion.
As Gyp’s decimated legion regroups, Harrow bursts into the Artemis, armed to the teeth and shooting to kill. He rolls through rooms, taking out anyone in his path, until finally delivering a kill shot to Tommy’s hostage taker that would put William Tell to shame – but not before ordering Tommy to close his eyes first. Covered in the blood of Gyp’s men, Harrow delivers a sleeping Tommy to Julia’s door, and is given a sharp dressing-down by her father. As he walks away, secure in his knowledge that Tommy will be protected, one can’t help but wonder if this will be the last we ever see of Richard Harrow.
Rothstein’s brokerage of peace between Nucky and Masseria is short lived – Nucky has no intention of abiding by the terms on which they came to rest. He is able to harness the simmering tensions between Capone and Chalky by sending the two groups off to dispatch with Masseria’s departing army. A week of bottled aggression leads them to destroy the cavalcade in moments – and leads the two factions to an uneasy accord – one which may grow or tumble in coming months.
Gyp, half dressed and half mad, gathers his remaining men at their meet point on the highway – a meager handful are left after Masseria and Harrow’s devastation. He’s hollow – divested of power, knowing a return to New York would mean certain death at the hands of Masseria, stripped even of his bespoke suit. From up the road, his man Tonino ambles toward him – the same man who, at the height of his delusions of grandeur, Gyp informed “owed him” in return for the brutal murder of his cousin. As Gyp launches into his swan song, he turns away from Tonino, and receives for his trouble a knife in the back.
Nucky, once more, has avoided getting his hands dirty. Surrounded by lackeys who do all the dirty work, Nucky finds himself the benefactor of a series of unfortunate events. As Gyp expires at the hands of his own minion, Miss Randolph receives a call from one Andrew Mellon informing her of his distillery being illegally operated by one Arnold Rothstein – Nucky has offered Rothstein the world and taken it away in one fell swoop.
There is one piece of business requires a personal hand, and Nucky travels to Brooklyn to attempt to win back Margaret. Margaret, wrestling with the choice to keep or end her pregnancy by the late Owen Sleater, is unmoved by Nucky’s plea. His offers of financial security for the future of her children don’t have the effect they usually do – his bribes are met only with coldness. She refuses his money, slamming the door on his offers to bring her and the children back into the lap of luxury.
Nucky is done with the show of wealth and power. His admonishment to Eli makes it clear: “I don’t want anyone coming near us that we don’t already trust.” Returning from Brooklyn, taking in the night air outside the shell of his formerly glitzy nightclub, Nucky avoids the recognition of a pair of locals – admiration he formerly sought after, found comfort in. Choosing to remain in the shadows, he exits off the boardwalk, away from the bright lights, allowing his carnation to fall in the process.
There will be no big parties and standing on ceremony in 1924. There will be no penthouses and children’s birthday parties with ponies. There will just be business.