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What Will 'Boardwalk Empire' Do Now?

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Dec 12, 2011 | 11:04am EST

JimmyAnother year has come and gone…I’m talking of course about 1921. The second season of Boardwalk Empire concluded last night, with an especially significant ending. For those wishing to avoid SPOILERS, I suggest you travel far away from this article (and the Internet in general…you’re bound to inadvertently stumble on it somewhere out there). But for the rest of you who caught the climactic ending of the season finale, I’m sure you’re just as wrapped up in the same big question as I am: what the hell are they going to do now?

If you’ve kept reading, I will assume it is safe to stop beating around the bush: Jimmy Darmody—the “prodigal son” of Nucky Thompson, the heir of the Atlantic City throne, the tortured victim of his own oedipal demons and violent internal storms, the major driving force of the narrative drama and the audience’s emotional investment in the show—is dead.

Now, this wasn’t in all senses a shocker of an ending. In the weeks leading up to the finale, we had all noticed a heightened attention paid to the development and unraveling of Jimmy’s psyche. He was tortured by his betrayal of Nucky, his inability to effectively run the town, his unhappy marriage, and, most of all, his relationship with his mother. During these weeks, I would converse with fellow Boardwalk fans about the series' events. Inevitably, no matter who I spoke to, I always heard the same two comments: “Richard is awesome,” and, “They’re really building up to something with Jimmy.”

I was a skeptic. I thought, "There’s no way they’d kill off such an engrossing, important character.” But my peers proved more skilled in the art of foresight. A few people I know mentioned that they thought the show might decide to kill off Jimmy by the end of the season, citing the expansive attention paid to the character’s internal and the rocky downfall as evidence. Again, I didn’t believe they could do it. Mostly because I didn’t believe the show could really go on without him. But as I was wrong about the choice, I very well might be wrong about Boardwalk’s destiny. But still, I wonder where the show might possibly go from here.

Naturally, Nucky is the central character on the series. But a good deal of his troubles—both internal and external—came at the hands of Jimmy this season. Not only is Jimmy out of the picture now, but the federal case against Nucky was promptly decreed a mistrial. It seems at this time that the primary source of Nucky’s problems will come from Margaret, whose distaste with her new husband's business is resurfacing. Margaret may have squandered a big business deal for Nucky in the last moments of the season finale, but really, is this a big enough conflict to drive the show—even if it results in a personal financial meltdown for Nucky, not to mention a failed marriage (that wasn’t built on too large a promise to begin with)?

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Of course, Jimmy’s family (or what is left of it) will prove more directly affected by the cliffhanger. His mother, Gillian, will now likely raise Tommy—but as horrifying as that is, we can’t really expect a period drama about political corruption to rest solely on the shoulders of a story about latent child abuse. Will Gillian take a more pivotal role in the larger story? Might she incite a revenge story on behalf of her murdered son? And if she does continue to spread her evil wherever she can, is anybody other than Jimmy truly all that susceptible to her witchcraft? And can Gillian really even function without Jimmy at all? As far as I’m concerned, Gillian has existed solely as an appendage to Jimmy’s development. Now that he’s gone, I’m not sure what at all they might do with her that works.

So, there seems to be a a lack of prospects for Boardwalk Empire's third season. Nucky’s future seems bland. Gillian’s seems questionable. The New Yorkers are expanding their trade to heroin, which might prove interesting—and there is the little matter of the fact that Al Capone is in the picture. But otherwise, what do we have to really look forward to now? Who will we invest our time in? What character remains that is so rich, so troubled, so enigmatic and yet so relatable that he can drive the show nearly on his own, as Jimmy did these past two years?

RichardWell…there’s always Richard. No one (no one that I know of, at least) can mention this show without bringing up just how fundamentally awesome the physically- and emotionally-damaged World War I veteran is. Richard is somewhat of a contrast to Jimmy-serving characters like Gillian, Angela and the Commodore. Whereas we see him deliver an invigorating world of his own, he sees himself solely as a function of Jimmy. This is best evidenced by the end of the October episode “Gimcrack and Bunkum,” wherein Richard—just bouncing back from a near-decision to attempt suicide—defines himself by his loyalty to Jimmy and his position in his friend’s and boss’ life: just before scalping the head of a man who has been a nuisance to Jimmy, Richard steadily identifies himself: “I’m a soldier.”

So what can be done with Richard? This is uniquely fruitful territory. Richard might decide to carry on Jimmy’s legacy, either as a father to his son or the man behind Atlantic City. Richard might seek a purpose elsewhere—and unlike many characters on the show, he has a value that can harbor a storyline independent of the colorful A.C. world on which so much of our investment depends. Of course, as with Gillian, there is the possibility of revenge, although I don’t know whether I’d assign this sort of drive to Richard, who is not a man consumed by (external) hate. Richard has shown himself to be unique: he admitted affection for a Chicago prostitute, he denounced Eli’s willingness to kill his own brother. He even spoke honestly, albeit subtly, with Jimmy once or twice regarding his own questionable endeavors. Richard has the value of a soul, which will make us root for him more than we might for just about anyone else in the Boardwalk universe. But, like his friend, he is also engulfed by his demons, which will drive him to dark places during episodes to come.

The series might very well rely on what it does with Richard. The writers have built up his character colossally this season, perhaps in preparation for his acceptance of Jimmy’s central role. Hopefully, we’ll see the character pointed in the right direction. Maybe he’ll grow into the villain; maybe the hero. Either one could have its place. But Richard might just be what this show needs to carry on in the era after Jimmy—so hopefully, Boardwalk will use him wisely.

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