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'Boardwalk Empire' finale: What did you think?

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Boardwalk Steve Buscemi
Patrick Harbron/HBO

Raise your hand if you didn’t see that coming! In the wake of last week’s mind-blowing, how-did-they-fit-all-that-in-one-hour?! episode, I suspect many us went into tonight’s season finale wondering what was left to say and do. Because, really, once you go Oedipal, really what else is there? Well, plenty apparently. To name a few key (and often overlapping) developments: The amassing of a stack of bodies that reached the ceiling, a scuttled trial, a wedding, and several acts of betrayal. Series creator and showrunner Terence Winter (who wrote the episode — and who discussed the shocking finale with our own James Hibberd) lit a fuse at the beginning of this episode — at the beginning of the season, really — that was quietly sizzling in the background, lulling us into a sense of calm (especially after last week, which, did I mention was insane?!) and then… BAM! 

As they say, every man’s loss is another’s gain. This was never truer than in Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City. It’s hard to know where to start. Tonight was such a simmering episode that it makes sense to begin at the boiling point: R.I.P. James Edison Darmody (1897-1921). Generally speaking, the bulk of the season 2 finale centered around the various power negotiations concerning Nucky’s impending trial. That said, Jimmy was as much the show’s lynchpin as his ambivalent father figure Nucky. And, if you really think about it, that’s been the case since the show’s beginning. Jimmy was not the smartest member of Nucky’s crew, and he was a truly terrible leader for Atlantic City, but he was an integral part of how the city operated. Nucky himself would never be where he found himself at tonight’s finish without Jimmy.

Perhaps the smartest move Jimmy ever made as the boardwalk’s self-appointed power broker was to realize he wasn’t up to the task. Knowing that, he set about putting all his affairs in order and emptying his gangster bucket list. In a nice throwback to the series pilot, this involved a backwoods hold-up. Only this time, it was broad daylight, and Jimmy did not bungle the mission at all as he delivered a trio of murderous Klansmen to Chalky White and paid off his debts to Chalky.

That was only set up, though. Most of the episode found Jimmy attempting to reconcile with Nucky for his multitude of recent betrayals. During a scene that, were it a song would be called “Jimmy Is a Mess in C-Minor,” young James invited Nucky to his house and weakly tried to blame Eli for the murder attempt he himself orchestrated against Nucky. He had to know this blatant blame-placing would never stick. Everything he did during tonight’s episode had a pall of inevitability hanging over it, especially in tearing up his father’s will to ensure the estate would go to Tommy (“when I die”) and refusing to allow Richard Harrow to join him in meeting Nucky at the end. Could it be the great irony of Jimmy’s life (and of this season in particular) that his only truly masterful move — the only time he advanced through something besides brute force — was arranging his own death?

As repentance for his misdeeds, Jimmy also saw to it that Nucky’s trial would not move forward. He instructed his minions to recant their testimony. When bombastic new county treasurer Neary resisted, Jimmy and Harrow barged into Neary’s office, forced him at gunpoint to write an affidavit vindicating Nucky , then shot the poor sap and affixed the sign affidavit to him like a suicide note. All these developments (plus Margaret’s decision to marry Nucky and exclude herself from testifying) effectively sunk the federal case against Nucky. Interesting that it was Jimmy’s act of getting his own ducks in a row that blew Esther Randolph’s out of the water. If nothing else, that showed how integral he had become to the goings-on of Atlantic City. How will it fare without him?

And how will Nucky fare without Jimmy, the boy-turned-man he viewed as a protégé and a son. So much of this season was about the various betrayals against Nucky, but did he betray us, the viewers, by gunning down Jimmy? So much of the season was torqued to expose his humanity to us, to instill sympathy for him. In the end, his declaration, “I’m not looking for forgiveness,” was cold-blooded and… unlikable? It was an upending development that, in a season which saw Jimmy acting like incompetent jerk, his final moments completed flipped the script and reversed our feelings about him and Nucky.

NEXT: Everyone else…