Okay, I take it all back, all the doubts I had that Boardwalk Empire was going to be able to pull off something epic in this, it’s final, shortened season. In the third to last episode, “The Devil You Know,” we lost two major characters whose deaths were as sudden and traumatic as they were inevitable. Nucky’s backstory is finally paying off, and everyone is closing in ranks around our three (or four) final players: Capone, Luciano/Lansky and the Thompsons. Three of those characters have fates written down in the history books, and that tips the odds against the Atlantic City boys…even more so than having Mickey Doyle as their only ally.
But before we get to all the brilliant things in the episode (including the once again brilliant–and false-teethed!–Mark Pickering as young Nucky), it might make sense to go through what didn’t work. Like:
– We knew Van Alden and Eli weren’t both getting out of Capone’s place alive with Mike D’Angelo, but once Eli and the mole made it to the hotel lobby, why in the world would Mike send him off with bus fare home? We already know that Ness’s man is a sadist (the roaches!) and a coward (shooting Van Alden to save his own hide), and it’s pretty unlikely that news of Nucky’s brother’s return to Atlantic City wouldn’t trickle its way back to Chicago, so why let him live? A change of heart? A thank you for Eli’s refusal to name Mike as the Fed? (He says it was Ness who got to him.) It just seemed out of character, and a little bit too “wishful thinking” after Van Alden’s final, brutal reckoning.
– I don’t buy that the “little monkey” who turns out to be Gillian Darmody is going to be Neptune’s Consort anytime soon. But the Nellie Bly reference at the end of the episode was a nice wink–we know that Gillian was able to send a letter from the asylum and Nucky had received some correspondence from a “Nellie Bly”–so in case anyone hadn’t made that cultural connection yet (or hadn’t seen American Horror Story: Asylum, which also traded in its fair share of Bly references)…there you go.
-This is going to be an unpopular, but I kind of hated how they ended with Chalky. Not the final scene in the alley with Narcisse, which was about as finely crafted as television is going to get– Michael K. Williams’s grimace of a smile as he hears Daughter Maitland singing “Dream a Little Dream,” the cut to black with the gunshots, the skipping record over the end credits–but the night preceding it. Are we really to believe Daughter showed up, just accidentally, the same night as Chalky? That she wouldn’t have stored her daughter somewhere other than a whorehouse? That Narcisse would even pantomime an olive branch to Chalky in front of Maitland? The whole setup was so obviously rigged for Chalky’s martyrdom, but it felt so casually arbitrary: that this would be how Chalky chose to go out, with only Narcisse’s worthless promise and the final word in the argument–“Ain’t nobody ever been free”–in exchange for his life. Yes, he was on a suicide mission. But he could and should have gotten what he came for…the good doctor himself.
-And lastly: Mickey Doyle is now the one calling the troops to flock to New Jersey? Really? Mickey? This is a guy who is an operator, not an organizer. He’s a survivor, not a general. Mickey makes himself useful to whoever’s in charge, usually in the laziest way possible, and yet we’re supposed to believe he took the initiative in calling down a war; one for which he must know he’s to be on the losing side? Eh…I don’t buy it. Even Nucky seems only vaguely interested in the matter.
Now, onto what was amazing:
-Finally seeing a relevant Nucky flashback: with Maybelle at home, pregnant and only slightly maniac (though that strawberry pie looked delicious), this feels like this is the first time we understand how Nucky the Ambitious Deputy Sheriff reconciled with Nucky the Family Man. He’s been working for the Commodore, both in an official city capacity and as a shakedown goon, but he’s not getting any farther with his career. To humiliate him further, the Commodore made Deputy Thompson give a speech introducing James Neery, the man he picked over Enoch as the next alderman, and what’s worse, has started referring to Thompson with the infuriating nickname “Nucky.” (“Name’s Nucky Thompson boys, and I’m in women’s garters!” Maybelle teases.) But it doesn’t matter what happens at work, as long as Nucky has his sane wife and healthy child to come home to every night, right guys?? We know that giving Gillian to the Commodore will be his deal with the devil, but how that will dovetail with the hurricane approaching the Thompson’s calm marital waters has yet to be seen.
-Watching those two bar women run circles around Nucky all night, before beating him over the head and robbing him: We’ve always known Nucky has an affinity for down-on-their-luck ladies, but it’s always smacked of condescension and hypocrisy. (We don’t see him extend that same hail fellow attitude to that plucky young thief he killed last season, did we?) Nucky can be charming–he needs to be charming–and if that means reciting “Song of Hiawatha” while pretending to be Francis X Bushman, then that’s what he’ll do. I loved the old guy at the bar calling Nucky out on his “poor me” tirade. “No one wants to hear your shit!”
-Van Alden’s final moment: truly, Van Alden’s, and not Mueller’s. (Sigrid will be happy to know her husband died a man and not a doormat, though maybe she’s beyond caring at this point.) This was the old Van Alden, of Boardwalk’s original seasons, full of righteous, godly fury as he strangled Al Capone: “I am Nelson Casper Van Alden! I am a sworn agent of the United States Treasury! And I swear by Jesus our lord that justice will rain down upon you if it is my last…” He and Sally Wheet are in good company for Boardwalk characters that went down mid-monologue, and Michael Shannon goes out in a blaze of glory. RIP, Van Alden. I can’t imagine this show without you.