'Boardwalk Empire' season finale: Ending with love and loyalty betrayed

Boardwalk Empire finished out its first season very strongly, with a finale that ended on a historical note — the election of Warren G. Harding, a Republican Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson backed — as well as on a more emotional note. Nucky’s confession to Margaret about his past (his child’s death and how it drove his wife to suicide) brought Margaret back into his arms. Michael Pitt’s Jimmy tried to rekindle his marriage, but it seems such a lost cause, he was driven to find comfort in family elsewhere — with his dying father (what a wonderfully terse performance by Dabney Coleman) and, at the end, plotting with Nucky’s alienated brother, Eli, to try and take down the Nuckster.

What initially seemed like Boardwalk Empire‘s limitation — the way Nucky was an essentially passive central figure, reacting to things that happen; spending a lot of time mere glad-handing, whoring, and dispensing glib advice — ended up containing the revelation of his deepest nature. The tragedy of Nucky’s personal life is what has compelled him to be the most superficial person he can be. Buscemi played Nucky’s combination of showy bluster and hollow passivity with deceptive ease — it was a sneaky-great performance.

The season was designed, we can now see, to frame a few key supporting characters. Foremost among them was Jimmy, whose initial thuggishness didn’t square with his back-story: How did this Princeton student and brave WWI vet become such a dead-eyed lug? By the end, when Coleman’s Commodore Louis Kaestner told Jimmy his new mission should be to “take back Atlantic City for both of us,” the idea didn’t sound at all absurd or overreaching: Allied with Eli, Jimmy can indeed make a power-grab, perhaps with the aid of another ambitious young buck, Al Capone (the bullet-like Stephen Graham).

Kelly Macdonald led a small squad of strong female characters that made the show stand out among other tough-minded cable dramas in allowing Margaret’s complexity to unfold steadily. Margaret’s fears, intelligence, wiliness, and capacity for love and understanding, combined with the vivid creations of Jimmy’s common-law wife (Aleska Palladino), Nucky’s ditzy but tragic girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) and Gretchen Mol’s mysterious, strong Gillian — all of these woman took their place as equals to the male characters to whom they were subservient in social status only.

As for the agony of Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), this story line continued to seesaw between scary realism and a daring cartoonishness. Shannon maintained a grimace that contorted his face into that of a “Dick Tracy” villain. His fate, after committing a murder that’s been covered up but which haunts his religious soul, will be another subplot I’m eager to come back to next season.

I still think the decision to shoot Boardwalk primarily in the sepia tone of so many period dramas was a mistake. Atlantic City would have been better showcased, more of the character the producers wanted it to be (and distinguished from its New York and Chicago scenes) if we could have seen all the gaudy colors of the boardwalk attractions, to say nothing of the garish glow of Nucky’s red window-pane pattern suits and pearl-gray hats.

But I ended the season far more engaged by Boardwalk Empire than when it began. There’s no doubt the series transcended its initial Scorsese-influenced violence and cynicism. Even as the final episode paid off in standard HBO grisly killings, the real substance of the finale, written by Terence Winter and directed by Tim Van Patten, owed next to nothing to their previous Sopranos experience. The distinction of Boardwalk Empire was in the effulgence of the violent emotions of love and loyalty betrayed.

Did you watch Boardwalk Empire? Are you looking forward to a second season?

Twitter: @kentucker

Comments (142 total) Add your comment
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  • Shaun

    1. It’s not “Empire Boardwalk,” it’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

    2. Maintained is spelled with a t.

    3. Where was the “review?”

    • jared4ever

      You are such a boor.

      • Sally

        I really can’t wait for nezxt season of Boardwalk Empire.Buscemi is good.

    • Lori

      I love this series. At the end of season one, Nucky better watch out for his new enemies, who are right under his nose like Jimmy. I really like the character Jimmy and his family. I think he’s really confused, especially by his sadistic, sexist dad. Who has now manipulated him with the words hes always deep down wanted to hear, “I love and except you son!” I really abhor his dad. I was so mad when I heard those lines from that character and for his own reasons. It looks like Jimmy is falling for it though, I want so much to see in season two that he gets a happy ending or that his wife, angy, will love him again at least. I also don’t know what side I agree with more, but the deciding fact is that the old grouch is on the one Jimmy is falling for; the one I do not agree with. Jimmy also has the CUTEST son Tommy. I can’t wait for season two!!!

  • Chaz

    Wow! I think this is the first time I have ever agreed with a Ken Tucker review. I’m a little scared.

  • Here & There

    Love the show & looking forward to next season. The show may have been misunderstood by the masses as being too slow initially. It was excellent TV. HBO is the leader producing great TV series. I first thought Buscemi was an odd choice for the lead, but accepted him and now totally believe in him. Stellar cast.

    • Dan

      I didn’t buy Buscemi as a lead either. I thought his romantic scenes with the other girl were weird and his first kiss with Margaret strange. But I hoped they would get back together by the end of the episode – glad they did. She makes him a better man.

      • bill

        You didn’t buy Steve Buscemi was perfect for the lead role probably because you know very litte about good acting and good performances. The second I heard that he was playing the role I knew Boardwalk Empire was going to be outstading. Afer all Steve Buscemi is one of the greatest actors of his time. You’d know that to if you were more informed.

      • Dan

        Okay…never said he was a bad actor. But good actors take bad roles, or they just don’t fit. It happens.

      • Bazinga!

        Dan, don’t feel bad, I questioned the Steve as the “leading man” too, not based on his acting credentials, but his build, age, etc. However, after the first few episodes I was so very pleased with the choice; what a great actor.

        Bill, take a chill pill.

      • brian

        Steve Buscemi??? ooohh, you mean adam sandlers shadow?

      • anthony

        with all that goes on thats what you take out of it…THATS pretty wierd,you must be gay

  • Chris

    A lot of grammatical errors in the article, but who am I to judge, I’m behind on copyediting and proofing deadlines too since I skimmed this article.

    I went from not understanding this show, to not liking it – but when Jimmy went to Chicago, the show got so much better. I wish he would’ve stayed but I understand why he had to return to AC. Can’t wait for next season.

    • DC_Kvetch

      OK, if you cared so much about grammatical errors you would have used proper form: I wished **he had stayed** in Chicago..Look it up in any grammar book.

  • Tato Chip

    Jimmy wanted to go to Princeton but did not matriculate or graduate.

    • rowan729

      Sorry Tato, you’re wrong on that one. It was pretty clear in a few episodes that Jimmy did go to Princeton, he just left to join the war effort and fight for his country. Now he feels he cannot go back to the student lifestyle he had before. They don’t call him Princeton because he wanted to go there-it’s because he actually did.
      He could have stayed in college but went to war against everyone’s advice. This is a major plot point for the character and pretty obvious from the very beginning of the show……

      • Lori

        Jimmie’s really a piece of muscle thrown around. Not only in body and in mind, through out episodes it is pretty apparent to every one that he is smart, street wise I guess. I agree he did go to college the whole story was made clear when he confided in the now dead, loose, but yet classy, character “Pearl.” She was pretty misunderstood too, I hate that she shot her self on top of that was cut just to get Jimmies attention.
        Yes, he did go to college, but I guess wasn’t getting that something, but he did come back with the stomach to kill.

  • Brigid

    I loved it. It’s must see TV for me, and a great way to cap off the weekend.
    Can’t wait for Season 2!

  • Bobby’s Robot

    It takes its time to tell its story, but it’s worth it. Well done.

  • mcfly

    I love tuning in to see what new PeeWee Herman outfit Nucky will be wearing this week. Oh and also because it’s a great show.

    • Kg

      Literally laughed out loud so hard at this comment. Keep writing comments man, hilarity ensues.

  • Steve

    I hate that seasons have dwindled down to 13 episodes. As soon as this great show starts it ends and I am stuck wait 9 months or so.

    • goose

      But that is the exact reason why HBO shows are consistently good. If you had a 26 episode season for a show like this, you’d either have been bored after 4 episodes of slow motion, or nonsense time filling sidestories

    • Breckster82

      i would rather have 13 episodes of finely tuned, concise stories, than 22 episodes filled with meaningless fluff.

    • Lori

      I know I am now just learning that pain. This is the first real series that ales me to wait!!!

  • Katie

    It is beautifully acted, a very good show. I’ll definitely watch next season. I think the finale set up next season’s intrigues quite well.

  • Zippy

    This is the only show that I watch with any regularity. The sets, the costumes, the music and the scripts all superb

  • Casey

    Good recap. My most jaw dropping scene was Lucy telling Nelson he made her pregnant. I think she’s going to find Jesus, watery, take me to the river Jesus.

    • ac

      God’s answer to Nelson’s question.

    • blackpope

      lmao@your comment..reaall funny

    • Lori

      Really? My jaw dropping moment was when poor Pearl shot her self.

  • cat

    Boardwalk is a fabulous show. I can’t wait for season 2. HBO always brings the best value to the consumer – excellent programming that always delivers.

  • AC

    EW gave this show no mind other than a half assed review for the premier and finale, along with unfair jabs at the show by the EW staff when writing up their Houseviews of Atlanta Recaps.

    • freckles

      Sooo true AC. Heard NADA about Boardwalk Empire since the initial episode and now this summary. Disappointed with EW on this… but hey, make sure you summarize all those ‘original’ real housewives shows. uggghhh

    • rowan729

      Well, upon checking the EW site, there were at least 8 articles in the past two months that were related to BE or directly about the show, including previous recaps. Sure, they were not consistent with the coverage, but it hasn’t been nonexistant at all-there’s even a couple of spoiler alerts among those 8 articles since October. It’s a pretty good range of coverage for a new show that wasn’t pulling in the same numbers as, say, The Walking Dead.

      Hopefully, next season will warrant weekly recaps, until then check some other blogs-there are great reviews and analysis out there!
      I, for one, found Michael Pitt’s performance the strongest and most mesmerizing of all the characters thus far. Things are set up well for the future of this show, season 2 cannot come soon enough.

  • Alex

    Why did EW stop recapping this show?? It’s one of HBO’s most watched series ever. Disappointing. Two or three weeks and then nothing!

    • freckles

      Again, agree with Alex above. I continued to check the recaps section on Mondays for the boardwalk recap yet nothing. Booo EW, booooo!

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