S1E12: With an episode titled “A Return to Normalcy,” it was safe to approach Boardwalk Empire’s season finale with the assumption that things would try to wrap themselves up. I say “try” because — in what seems to be a common theme with this show — it’s been established that no matter how hard they “try,” the characters cannot figure their problems out. Something goes wrong. Boom. It’s fixed. But not unless something else goes wrong until, boom, it gets fixed. But then, something else goes wrong, and so on and so forth.
That’s what continued to happen in “A Return to Normalcy.” Each character kept trying to tie things up, but instead, each character kept fucking everything up.
Because Boardwalk Empire is mainly about one man, Nucky Thompson, I’ll focus this recap through his POV. Basically, at the beginning of the episode, he’s got a bunch of crap coming at him that needs figuring out. Rothstein is still pissed at him. He’s trying to find and kill the rest of the D’Alessio brothers. His brother, Eli, is also pissed at him for removing him as AC’s Sheriff and being a major dickhead about it. He has trust issues with Margaret, who has now left him. And Jimmy’s got a problem with him, but Nuck doesn’t really know it. And to top it off, the Democrat running for mayor appears to be a shoe-in, which would put Nucky and the Republicans out of a job in Atlantic City.
So, yeah. Nucky needs to sort this shit out, wouldn’t you say? And boy-oh-boy, he does. Kind of.
Let’s start with the Rothstein affair, which has been a pain in Nucky’s side since the show’s beginning. Finally, things get straightened out, and a lot of that credit comes from the public wanting Rothstein’s head for fixing the World Series. Rothstein needs help politically, so he approaches Johnny Torrio to set up a meeting with Nucky. Rothstein offers, in exchange for peace between the two criminals, that Nucky help him out with Chicago’s District Attorney’s Office. But Nucky is smart and won’t just let Rothstein set all the rules of their deal. He demands a million dollars and the location of the rest of the D’Alessio brothers. And of course, he gets it.
Now, Nucky has to settle things with his brother, kill those D’Alessios, and fix the election. So — why not just do it all at once? He calls a press conference where he blames the D’Alessios and Hans Schroeder for all the recent violence in Atlantic City. During his speech, Nucky manages to credit his brother Eli and the Republican party for taking care of the criminal element in AC (but as we really see in cuts during the speech, the D’Alessios are murdered by Nuck’s associates). Regardless, Nucky manages to make his brother look like a hero, Republicans look like they’re doing a good job, and the D’Alessios are terminated — all in about a 5-minute sequence. The Godfather, it ain’t, but not too shabby.
Nucky still has the Margaret issues to deal with. And again, it’s the party opposite of Nucky that gets the solution rolling. While walking through the graveyard on Halloween, Margaret sees the gravestone of Nucky’s wife and son. She notices that his son only lived six days and his wife passed a month prior. So, after a discussion earlier in the episode where Nucky told her that “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with,” Margaret may finally know what’s caused Nucky to be so callous. She presses him to tell her “who Enoch Thompson is,” and surprisingly, he tells her.
This moment really illustrated how powerful Boardwalk Empire can be. Some of the best scenes this season — outside of the sweet murder sequences — have come from situations where two characters discuss the way they feel. Or, perhaps more accurately, when one character gives a monologue while another listens on. Think about Chalky White’s threatening speech back when he was first introduced? Or even last week, when The Commodore told Jimmy who was really in charge of Atlantic City. Basically, there are reasons that before the show even premiered, people were excited simply by the cast list. There are great actors in this show. And when it slows down ir order to let them do what they do, it moves from being a lackluster mystery drama (with no real mystery), to an epic, novelized series where we have an extreme care for the characters and the events the unfurl.
This was one of those moments. Nucky shares everything. He tells Margaret that he had just become treasurer when his son was born. But, he was “very busy.” He wasn’t home much, and his son — a preemie — was at his frailest. When he finally wasn’t “busy” and went to pick him up, he realized that his son was dead, but his wife had been in denial. They buried the child but his wife was losing it, but again, Nucky was “too busy.” She ended up killing herself, and Nucky said that he was “very, very busy.”
It was this moment that finally sold me on Margaret and Nucky. Up until this point, I hadn’t understood the attraction to one another. I just assumed Margaret was a smart girl who was taking advantage of Nucky. And at the same time, I assumed Nucky was arrogant, and didn’t really care for Margaret beyond a physical attraction. The show tried to sell me on it — that these two really cared about each other — with stupid little scenes in previous episodes, but it was this one, where they finally sat down in the same room and Nucky revealed himself completely to her — that I actually, finally, bought it.
So, voila! Everything is fixed. The election is won by the Republicans, Margaret and Nucky’s relationship is fine, and all those D’Alessios are dead. That’s it, right? That’s the end of the season, right? Everything’s all wrapped up, nice and tight, and returned to normal? Well, no. Not exactly.
Last week, The Commodore told Jimmy (his son, for those of you who haven’t made that connection yet) that he wanted him to take out Nucky Thompson. Well, not sure if he said that word for word, but basically, he implied it. And this week, it’s continuing. Jimmy’s hanging around, talking about how he used to “hate” coming to see his father when he was a boy, and other whiny-stuff, when bam: suddenly, Eli Thompson is in the room. And it looks like they all have a plot to take down Nucky Thompson.
And one more thing to note before I wrap this up: Agent Van Alden. Can I get a WTF? Dude got Lucy preggers. That NC-17 sex scene from earlier this season musta been fun. Looks like he’ll be staying in Atlantic City to not only catch alcohol-runners, but he’ll be raising a child as well.
So, it appears that even though Nucky thinks everything is “back to normalcy,” it really isn’t. And although this is a classic plot line (where the one dude doesn’t know what the other dudes are thinking), I still thought this was a delightful way to end the season. I mean, think about it: Nucky believes everything’s worked out fine. He just has to go back to making butt-loads of money off alcohol. He’s got his woman. He’s got his brother (he thinks). He’s pinned the suspicious crimes on someone else. So, it’s alllll good, right??! No. Of course it’s not. And it’s the perfect setup for a second season full of crumbling corruption.