The decision to bump off two major characters in last week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire made for an excellent hour of television, but the unfortunate trade-off is that the show’s penultimate episode, “Friendless Child,” is almost painfully anticlimactic. Even next week’s series finale runs the risk of being bereft of heart-pounding drama, because there’s no one left to care about should there actually be more deaths in the offing. (Raise your hand if you batted an eye over the murders of Salvatore Maranzano, Mickey Doyle—finally!—or Nucky’s strong and silent Cuban bodyguard, Arquimedes. Nope. Didn’t think so.) Nucky is at the end of his rope—by the end of this week’s episode, he’s been forced to give over all of his holdings to Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Whether or not he closes out the series above or below ground, he’s a ruined man. Plus, we already know Luciano and Lansky come out the winners in this mob war because it’s not like either gangster is going to defy history and get killed next week for the sake of giving Nucky a happy ending.
Fed up with “19 men dead” and “at least $1 million in lost revenue,” Nucky announces he can be “impetuous myself,” and unintentionally turns his latest battle into, in the words of Luciano, “a family matter.” His kidnapping of Benny Siegel as an intimidation ploy backfires horrendously, with Luciano and Lansky retaliating in the worst way possible—grabbing Willie Thompson off the Manhattan streets. As luck would have it, Willie had just concluded a strained reunion with his father, Eli, now back from Chicago and out of Al Capone’s clutches, sporting the latest in Depression-era hobo chic. Eli races down to Atlantic City and forges an awkward alliance with Nucky (remember how Eli tried to have Nucky killed last season? As well as in season 2? Ah, hermanos…) to get Willie back.
An ominous showdown takes place that night on a deserted Atlantic City road, with car headlights providing the only illumination. Again, we’ve seen this all before, season after season, but this time, something really seems different. With Joe Kennedy’s smug remarks ringing in his ears about “safety in numbers,” Nucky is scared, because he knows he’s got nobody in his corner and nothing to fall back on anymore. He realizes family is all that matters, and that’s why he willingly gives up everything he has to Luciano and Lansky, why he allows himself to be humiliated (he submits to Lansky’s demands to drop to his knees, payback for the two times he did the same to Lansky, once in season 1, then again in season 4: “Now you know how it feels,” Lansky sneers with glee) and why he ultimately agrees to kill Maranzano in the next 24 hours. If he doesn’t, Willie’s gonna be prosecuting Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White in that great big courtroom in the sky.
The almost-historically accurate Maranzano murder takes place as promised (did we jump that far ahead to September 1931, or is Boardwalk taking artistic license here?), with Eli delivering the fatal gunshot to the head, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Willie is unceremoniously dumped in front of his office.
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