‘Boardwalk Empire’: How Many Deaths Will It Take to Live Up to Jimmy?

Boardwalk Empire

If you caught this week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, you’re likely to agree that the ending was one of the series’ first genuine “Holy sh**!” moments in quite some time (spoilers to follow, so be wary). Following a breakup-and-makeup session with her emotionally ravaged lover Nucky Thompson, showgirl and aspiring movie star Billie Kent fell victim to cruel machinations of the mid-season formula: she is killed in a colossal explosion, courtesy of the handiwork of Gyp Rosetti, meant to do away with Nucky, and his business associates Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano.

We’ve warmed up to Billie quite a bit since her introduction in the Season 3 premiere. She has brought Nucky face to face with his thickening complex to act the father and protector of every woman he meets, usually aspiring to play the hero for those more than capable of rescuing themselves. But even with her contributions to the construction of Nucky’s character, even with actor Meg Steedle‘s onscreen affability, and even with the eye-popping means through which she was killed, it’s hard to really tread too heavily on the subject of Billie’s passing. She’s not, after all, Jimmy.

Ever since Jimmy was killed in that mind-warping Season 2 finale, the show has killed off a handful of noteworthy figures, some in particularly shocking ways. But it’s difficult to muster up the energy we had when James Darmody fell dead last year. These passings seem to be coming off more as surprising and exciting moments, rather than the weighty game changers disturb and enliven us long after viewings, as was the case with Jimmy’s.

Here’s a rundown of the major mortalities Season 3 has dealt us so far:

Manny Horvitz

Shot in his own doorway by Richard Harrow, seeking vengeance for the murder of Angela Darmody

Roland Smith

Shot by Nucky Thompson after stealing from, lying to, and all but winning over the former treasurer (Jimmy really left a hole in Nucky’s heart)

Joe Miller

Beaten to death by Al Capone after bullying Capone’s pal for his weight

Agent Coughlin

Attacked and smothered by Nelson Van Alden and his wife Sigrid in their home when they thought he had come to arrest

Roger (the Jimmy Doppelganger)

Drugged and drowned by Gillian Darmody in her brothel bathtub

Billie Kent

Killed in an explosion meant to take down Nucky Thompson, courtesy of Gyp Rosetti

All these, plus a handful of one-off or nameless characters, have met their ends over the past seven weeks. And just as they are so morbidly listed above in a fashion that seems more like a mathematical brief than a list of human beings befallen by tragedy do these deaths translate to the screen. Since Jimmy, whose murder was so powerful it took an entire summer upon which to properly ruminate, every shooting, strangling, and restaurant explosion hasn’t afforded audiences with the appropriate substance to truly mourn these characters, and to truly maintain an investment in this world.

It’s not easy for a show with as many characters as Boardwalk to make them all feel important to us, personally. Billie Kent is probably the greatest achievement yet this season. We knew her through Nucky, and largely as a function of Nucky. When she, a complete innocent, was taken down thanks only to her affection for a not-so-great man, it was tragic and sad. What we need from Boardwalk is more of this.

Sure, the series can fill its episodes with acts of vengeance on the part of fan favorite characters like Richard, Van Alden, and Al Capone. But we won’t remember these deaths the way we’ll remember Jimmy’s and, to a lesser extent, Billie’s. And while it might seem macabre to campaign for more significant deaths, it is important that we do not allow onscreen killing to become an aesthetic. While on TV we do have minor characters, in real life, everyone is the star of his or her own series. Nobody’s real world passing is “meant” to be a ratings ploy, and it’s detrimental when this is a practice to which we become accustomed on television. Our treasuring of the lives of Jimmy, Billie, and all the rest of the characters to whom we are sincerely attached is important. Appreciating all living individuals as major characters, significant people, is important. Even if we’re meant to hate them, we have to have some semblance of humanity for them.

And that’s why Boardwalk did such a bang-up job crafting Jimmy. He was a bad guy, sure, but one we knew, and one we felt that we truly lost. We’d feel the same for Nucky (bad, but important to us), for Margaret, for Richard… unfortunately, a killing off of every character like this would effectively end the show. That’s why Boardwalk needs to find a new M.O.

Instead of resorting to the obvious gangster show ploy of shocking deaths, we need to see more enlivening: more of Nucky recognizing the complexes the death of his son brought on. More of Margaret struggling to identify her own sense of morality. Death is an inevitable element that should, of course, be addressed… but when it’s addressed just to make us jump out of our chairs, that’s just selling short the great characters involved.

[Photo Credit: HBO]