SPOILER WARNING: Do not continue reading if you have not yet seen the Season 4 finale of Boardwalk Empire, Farewell Daddy Blues.
A month ago, in my last Pop Culture Roundup post, I wrote about how this season of Boardwalk Empire was helping me get over missing Breaking Bad.
Now I need something to help me get over this season of Boardwalk Empire.
As I mentioned in that short commentary, this season of Boardwalk Empire has been exceptional, arguably its best season so far. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared me for the gut-punching final episode.
Fans were warned that there would be at least one major death. Most assumed it would be Eli (Shea Wingham), Nucky’s brother who had just betrayed him for a second time by cooperating with the FBI. His motivation (to keep his son Willie from facing a murder charge after he accidentally poisoned a classmate during a practical joke) was understandable, but this is not a just world we’re talking about.
We didn’t believe it could be anyone truly liked by the audience. After all, earlier this season they had already killed off Eddie, Nucky’s sweet and loyal butler, a sad and unexpected storyline twist.
What suckers we are.
They not only killed off a beloved character, they killed off their MOST beloved character, as well as one minor character whose death was completely unexpected. The whole internet seemed to be weeping tears as the final moments of the show played out.
One of the oddest aspects of Boardwalk Empire is how of all the anti-heroes that populate the television landscape today, Nucky Thompson is the most uninteresting. That’s not to say he’s poorly written or acted (I mean, it’s Steve Buscemi, come on) but it’s not like he’s a man full of rage over his unfulfilled potential (Walter White in Breaking Bad) or a sociopathic criminal who channels his impulses a certain way (Dexter) or a man hiding his true identity (Don Draper in Mad Men). Nucky isn’t tormented by angst, he’s just kind of annoyed all the time. He wants to make as much money as possible and doesn’t like the bother he has to go through to get it. Sure, he’s haunted by memories of an abusive father, occasionally feels a bit guilty about procuring 13 year old Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) for the Commodore, and misses his first wife and stillborn child, but he tends to brush these feelings away as if they are gnats buzzing around his head.
What Boardwalk Empire does instead of putting most of its energy into a central character is create a remarkably rich cast of supporting players. Many reflect aspects of Nucky’s character. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) told Nucky early on in the series, you can’t be half a gangster. The “half” motif has been repeated over and over again through the characters. In a story populated almost entirely by criminal characters, it’s not surprising that themes of duplicity and duality would appear often. But nearly every character has some kind of split in their personas. From fallen FBI agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who has become the kind of criminal he used to pursue, to Al Capone (Stephen Graham), a coke-crazed gangster but tender-hearted family man, to Nucky’s now-ex-wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who is appalled by his criminal dealings, yet seems incapable of steering clear of criminals herself.
The “half” motif was most explicit with the character of Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) a World War I veteran befriended by Jimmy Darmody during Season 1. Forced to wear a metal mask that covered the half of his face that was blown away during the war, Richard became an efficient hit man for Nucky’s gang. Yet there was a soulfulness and a genuine heart to Richard that made fans of the show fall in love with the character. He wanted nothing more than to have a normal life with a wife and family. Alone in his room, he would sit and cut pictures of family life and paste them in a scrapbook.
When in the Season 2 shocker ending Nucky killed Jimmy, many fans were worried Richard would not long survive his friend. But Richard remained as a fixture on the show, first as the avenger of Jimmy’s wife Angela, his only real friends, then later as the protector of their son Tommy. His love for Tommy put him in conflict with Jimmy’s mother Gillian, who was raising the boy in her whorehouse.
Then a miracle happened. Richard met Julia Sargorsky (Wrenn Schmidt) and fell in love. Julia was smart and self-sufficient and not immediately sure how to deal with Richard’s injuries. The writers made the wise decision to not sentimentalize the relationship and the audience took to the pairing very quickly. When Gillian’s whorehouse was taken over by mobster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), Richard stormed it and single-handedly rescued Tommy. Taking him to Julia and her father, he left them and returned to his home in Wisconsin.
That’s where they picked up the character this season, and it quickly became apparent that Richard had lost his taste for killing. He couldn’t even put down his old family dog. This was one of many ominous portents, but not wanting to believe that Richard could follow other major characters feet-first off the show, most shoved the notion aside.
Then he returned to Atlantic City and reconnected to Julia, who was in the midst of a custody battle for Tommy. In what assuredly were the most unsentimental proposal and wedding scenes, ever (and yet they were still very touching) Julia and Richard agreed to marry. With the arrest of Gillian Darmody for the murder of a drifter she used to fake a death certificate for her missing son Jimmy, it looked as if Richard, Julia and Tommy were about to become a happy family right out of one of Richard’s scrapbooks.
This should have set off more warning bells to fans, because this is Boardwalk Empire, and there are no happy endings.
This is where Richard’s story dovetails into Chalky White’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) arc this season. Richard asks Nucky to give an anonymous tip of where Jimmy’s body can be found so Gillian’s conviction will be assured. Nucky asks him what he would do in return.
“Anything you ask.”
Oh, what words. Of course, he’s going to ask the one thing that Richard can’t do anymore—become a killer.
Richard packs Julia, Tommy and his father-in-law off to Wisconsin. Again, the goodbye scene is awash with red flags (if this was a soap opera, you would have thought the train was going to crash and everyone in it was going to die). But again, we in the audience stayed firmly in denial that anything could happen to our beloved Richard.
The favor Nucky asked was for Richard to assassinate Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), Chalky White’s nemesis. Chalky and Narcisse face each other in The Onyx club. Chalky has one ace in the hole—Narcisse is desperate to locate Chalky’s mistress, Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), who has a very complicated relationship with Narcisse as well.
“A daughter for a daughter,” says Narcisse, and reveals he has Chalky’s daughter Maybelle (Christina Jackson) in his power.
This is when Richard is supposed to shoot Narcisse through the head. But he hesitates. And the hesitation brings about a stunning tragedy when Maybelle unwittingly steps in front of the bullet. She dies in front of Chalky.
Even though Maybelle was about as minor as a character as you could have on a show, her death was completely shocking and heart breaking. I think it’s because she was so innocent. Her death also brought out a part of Chalky that was mostly hidden. He seemed to almost resent his wife and children, or at least feel as if they thought they were better than him. His devastation as the light leaves his daughter’s eyes is shattering to watch.
In the chaos that ensues, Richard escapes, but not before he is shot. And yet we the audience still clung to the hope that Richard would get away and return to Julia and Tommy.
The writers played on the expectation by showing him on the train to Wisconsin. In an An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge-ish sequence, Richard walks up to the house he was raised in, Julia, Tommy, his father-in-law, his sister and her baby and his brother-in-law, all awaiting him.
The moment we knew he was gone and that this wasn’t real was when we saw him standing in front of them without his mask and without the horrific injury to his face. Richard, in death, becomes whole again.
Our final glimpse of him is lying dead under the boardwalk (the place where he and Julia first made love) his mask on the ground next to him.
Fan reaction was in some ways similar to the final scenes of Game of Throne’s The Rains of Castamere. But unlike The Red Wedding, the death of Richard hurt not because it upended an abstract ideal (i.e. good would prevail against evil) but because the audience genuinely loved the character. (Something that can’t really be said about the Starks who perish.) Also, unlike The Red Wedding, NO ONE was prepared for it. There was a lot of virtual group hugging among strangers the night the episode first aired.
What is most fascinating is how Richard Harrow’s appeal seems to cut across just about every demographic group you can name. Grief and surprise was expressed in various languages from around the world. Something about him touched a nerve. Part of it of course was Jack Huston’s superb performance, but the character himself—his duality, his humanity, something—connected to viewers.
While there were the expected pronouncements that some were now done watching the show, most probably knew deep down that at some point Richard had to die. Like Jimmy, who tells Nucky he’s already dead just before he kills him, Richard was always a tragic figure living on borrowed time. I think we were just hoping he wouldn’t die until the last episode of the last season.
And yet fate was kinder to him than to Chalky White. We can take comfort in one small thing–Richard doesn’t have to live with the death of Maybelle White on his conscience. Chalky, on the other hand, will have to live a long time with the image of his daughter dying in front of him.
Or maybe not. This is not a show where character longevity is the norm.