Boardwalk Empire wrapped up its third season on Sunday night in a hail of bullets and a haze of sentiment. Both elements were frequently effective, even if they could not help but remind you just how uneven, how ungainly, much of this season of the series has been. Going out with Patti Smith singing a lovely, strong version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” added a coda to the way the show’s talent is, with regularity, insufficiently as well-utilized as Smith was.
SPOILER ALERT: DON’T READ THIS UNTIL YOU’VE SEEN THE SEASON FINALE OF BOARDWALK EMPIRE.
The hour began with a very St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-style of opponents, a killing spree led by an ascendent Al Capone (Stephen Graham). One of the things that made this finale (and the past few weeks’ episodes leading up to this) engrossing was that it brought to the fore characters who have been frustratingly pushed to the margins of the show, including Chalky White, Arnold Rothstein, and Capone. The latter is finally making some big moves and seems destined to take a much bigger role in the next season.
Nucky, still miraculously recovered from his concussion, was at his best as a man brought low. This is in part because playing angry, humiliated, bitter, and frustrated suits Steve Buscemi’s acting style more than the usual Nucky strutting and barking. Three seasons in, Buscemi remains a bold but problematic choice as Empire’s central protagonist; when he’s at his Nuckiest, Buscemi has little of the heft of a leading man; he’s too honest an actor. He mingles his chief-protagonist actions with a Don Knottsy rattled quality. Sharing cigarette butts with his brother, Eli, while holed up in a lumberyard, Nucky came alive to the world around him in a way we’ve rarely seen.
The resolution of the Gyp Rosetti threat was fairly easily dispatched, culminating in Gyp’s death. (Did anyone think Bobby Cannavale was going to have to endure more than one season of playing this sado-masochistic creep?) After making concessions to Chalky, Rothstein, and Capone, Nucky was able to marshal sufficient force to defeat the alliance of Gyp and Masseria. (The results of these business decisions also tee up the next season neatly.) What we were left to witness were yet a few more Gyp-as-insecure-psycho scenarios: His sexual kinks worked out with Gillian; his pre-death aria of “Barney Google,” complete with acted-out googly eyes. As I said at the top of this season, Cannavale has done the absolute best he could possibly do with a frustratingly conceived character. Series creator Terence Winter (who co-wrote the finale) pushed all the now-usual HBO buttons by having Gyp explode with wanton, graphic violence (the brutal shovel-beating he meted out two weeks ago to a head sticking out of beach sand was so predictable, I started looking at my watch to note how much was left of the hour). Having the egotistical, up-from-nothing, volatile Gyp get knifed by one of his own men, who is revealed to be now loyal to Nucky — well, what took these scared minions so long to turn on that kind of boss? Even the idiots they were played for would/should have conspired to off the lunatic before this.
Winter gave his audience one scene many have probably been lusting for all season: Richard Harrow’s revenge upon some of the many people who’ve done him wrong, pulling out his arsenal of guns and blasting his way through Gillian’s brothel to rescue little Tommy: It was Harrow as a combination Good-Scarface and Lone Ranger (Gyp flunky: “That guy with the mask — the f— was that?”). One question: Are we to think Harrow knew Gyp’s headquarters would already be under siege when he made his move (unlikely, isn’t it?), or were we really meant to think he’d planned to go there anyway, a solo avenger, on what would have been a probably doomed quest? Certainly the romance between Richard and Julia was the season’s sweetest subplot, an idyll and escape from the rest of the show’s relentless, often repetitive and tedious, downbeat tone. But it was also quite trite, a beauty-and-the-beast storyline held together by the performances of Jack Huston and Wrenn Schmidt.
The overarching challenge for Boardwalk Empire is that it remains a board-game rather than a saga. Nucky keeps moving the pieces of his Atlantic City empire around, is thwarted by a rotating group of players, and ends up the victor primarily because — well, he’s the (anti-) hero of the show. The elaborate sets, the shellacked glamor of the way scenes are shot, the attention to period detail: They end up serving what amounts to a B-movie gangster flick whose pleasures were more satisfying when we saw them in the original, Howard Hawks Scarface, or Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, or even Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. More than most of HBO’s Sunday night series, Boardwalk benefits from its gilt-by-association: Borrowed class and assumed quality it, like Nucky himself, hasn’t quite earned. Yet. There’s always next season, right?