S2E12: There is something especially unique about Boardwalk Empire’s story structure that I don’t know if I could have really pinpointed before having watched the second season finale. In fact, I’m not certain I can articulate it with a desired accuracy still—but to attempt: Boardwalk is a show that seems to actively reject its own narrative elements. What I mean by that is, some shows invest you in well-devised storylines, constructed and foreshadowed with impressive pretense, and other shows sort of see what comes as they go along—waiting to see what develops naturally, or basing their plot devices on external factors (audience reactions, actors’ attachments and detachments).
While I do not think for a second that Boardwalk falls in the latter category, I do think that it has a very unusual way of laying down its stories. Some might call it a particularly lifelike way: nothing mandates anything else in this show. A character might be intensified and examined, imbued with promise for rich developments, only to be killed off not long after. A pair of characters might be attached to a hefty arc wherein they betray their longtime boss, vie to start their own business in the drug trade (which would produce quite a dramatic rivalry between they and the man they betrayed), only to return to his employ without much theatrics afforded to the matter. This all might be attributed to shock value. It might be an attempt to emulate the haphazardness of their world and ours. But it makes for surprising television—and one thing I’d definitely say about Boardwalk Empire’s Season 2 finale “To the Lost,” it surprised me.
“Whatever you do to try and change things, you know he’ll never forgive you.” – Richard
As one might expect from a season finale, the major storylines in this week’s episode are a lot more interconnected than those in most weeks’. And, as one might expect from any episode of Boardwalk Empire, Richard is the voice of reason/spiritual advisor/audience surrogate. He might also become a father figure to Jimmy’s son Tommy from now on, considering the episode’s ending. Considering the total mind-quake and soul-tornado that was last week’s episode of Boardwalk, Jimmy is considering rearranging his life a bit. He wants to make things right with Nucky, the only parental figure that didn’t totally demolish his emotional health. Or, at least, the one who did the smallest amount of damage.
Jimmy achieves this via Chalky (he finally gets Chalky those Klansmen he’s been looking to brutally kill out of revenge all season), and gets to speak to Nucky, alleging that he had nothing to do with his shooting—Jimmy places the blame on Eli. Now, it seems to me, especially later in the episode when Nucky first goes to visit Eli to discuss this, that Nucky is far more willing to believe that Jimmy is innocent of this crime than he is to believe that Eli is. We know that neither man is at all innocent, although Eli was more outspokenly adamant about the killing of his brother (even if he was speaking partially out of pain). In any event, Nucky’s meeting with Eli evolves from a curt rejection of his brother to a strategy to best handle the latter’s legal situation: Nucky advises Eli to plead guilty, accept a two year sentence (maximum…we can’t take for granted just how crooked the law is in this show), and promises that his wife and children will be cared for. Eli graciously accepts.
“Your version of God asks nothing?” – Margaret
“It asks that I love my family.” – Nucky
Nucky’s trial. For all the buildup, all the drama surrounding it, and the length rehearsal that Esther Randolph performs in the scene introducing it, we’d expect something a bit longer than a few minutes-long scene. But, that’s AC. Nucky has a heartfelt discussion with Margaret (and parades his “doting fatherly figure” identity around the house for extra effect), to convince her to marry him so that she won’t have to testify. Nucky submits that he has been nothing short of a horrible man, but concedes to leave this all behind him. Margaret, probably wanting to believe it more than she actually truly does believe it, accepts, marries Nucky, and robs Esther Randolph of the most significant chunk of her case against him. A mistrial is pronounced, and Nucky is declared a free man.
“I am not seeking forgiveness.” – Nucky
But back to Jimmy. Jimmy has, over the course of the second half of this season, adopted the role of most engrossing and most complicated main character of the series, with a climactic development during last week’s haunting episode. Jimmy admits overtly this week to always having wanted to kill his father. In a more subtle scene that Jimmy shares with his son, we can see that Jimmy’s fear of his mother dates back to childhood as well—he tells his son that he used to hide out in lean-tos on the beach. Without the pretext of last week, one wouldn’t think much about anything Jimmy says in this scene. But now, we can’t hear him mention his mother without fostering a slew of horrifying connotations.
Before Jimmy leaves to meet Nucky, who tempts him with the bait of Manny Horvitz (the man who killed Jimmy’s wife, and a man Nucky seems to have procured via Arnold Rothstein), he pays a severe glance to his son, who is playing with Gillian in the living room. Apprehensions about what kind of man she’ll turn him into seem to be palpable in Jimmy’s head, which is why he leaves Richard there with them—eternally. Jimmy knows what he is getting into when he leaves the house.
But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wasn’t at least a little surprised by the scene, considering if only the importance of Jimmy in the Boardwalk watcher’s investment. Nucky has tricked Jimmy into coming to this remote location on this dark, rainy night. He is accompanied by Eli, among other armed men who have it in for Jimmy. But Nucky pulls the gun on the unarmed Jimmy himself, putting a period at the end of Jimmy’s reign, betrayal, and turmoil.
The last shot of Jimmy shows him in a flashback, in the trenches, where he claimed to have died inside. But Jimmy is already long dead once there, having lost his soul before he enlisted, at the hands of his mother. When Nucky returns home the next morning, he greets Margaret with a peppy lie about Jimmy’s reenlistment, but she understands the truth entirely, and secretly signs away the family’s land deed to the church, unbeknownst to a happy-go-lucky Nucky, celebrating the building of a highway with his business partners.
And so, we end the season on some strange notes: Nucky is free, and absolved. Margaret is still ensconced in her moral dilemma. Jimmy is dead. And Van Alden, whom we only see in one brief scene, is out in the Midwest with his baby and nanny. It seems as though the show will be needing to develop some self-contained drama for next season, as everything is pretty much wrapped up at the end of this one, which I find odd. Sure, there’s a drug trade on the rise (and logically, something big must become of Al Capone). And yeah, there exist troubles between Nucky and Margaret. But now that Nucky is a free man and Jimmy is dead, who are we supposed to worry about? And who are we supposed to fear?