By Lanford Beard
Updated December 20, 2019 at 05:10 AM EST
Credit: Patrick Harbron/HBO
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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…

And where will Gillian be without Jimmy? This could go many directions because that Gillian is a wily one, a survivor to her very core. With Nucky officially back in power, it will be amazing to see her having to rely on the man who killed the love of her life. Will she sublimate her feelings for Jimmy, and will the the cycle repeat itself with poor little Tommy? If nothing else, we’ve seen that Gillian is a chillingly strategic thinker. We can be sure that, unlike her son, she will not go softly into that dark night.

Is there any hope for Margaret at all? Margaret is a strong, smart woman. We’ve learned this season that she is as calculating as any of her three-piece-suited male counterparts, but her priorities have shifted dramatically under the weight of life-and-death matters. Her choice to save Nucky by marrying him, then deed the land for his hard-won highway to the church was surprising, vengeful, and (now we’ve seen how Nucky is capable of eating his own) terrifying. Not to mention uncharacteristically stupid. By his own admission, their relationship was the only place he felt safe to express his vulnerability. In that context, her final act was nothing short of a betrayal, and Nucky does not react well to betrayal. (Note to Winter: Please don’t take away Kelly Macdonald, too!)

Other loose ends: What of poor Harrow, who just lost his only friend in the world? (Oh, ragged Dick, please do not sleep with Gillian!) What will Rothstein’s move into the heroin trade mean for the Atlantic City contingent? Speaking of Rothstein, he essentially okay-ed the murder of Manny Horvitz. Does Manny have a chance of sticking around? Can I put in a formal request for more Dunn Purnsley? And could Van Alden — now on the lam with his baby and nurse in Cicero, Ill. — be any more creepy? (Well, that’s not really a loose end because the answer is yes. Always yes.)

Not to over-eulogize, but this episode was very likely Michael Pitt’s finest hour. From his haggard hollowness during the meet-up with Nucky to the simple, sorrowful moment when Jimmy took little Tommy for a horse ride and, finally, his unflinching statement, “I died back in the trenches,” Pitt was brilliant tonight. He has really found his way into Jimmy’s skin this season, and, during a night that in which sweltering, oppressive heat was mentioned many times, Pitt’s performance as Jimmy effectively self-immolated was most striking of all.

What did you think about tonight’s finale, PopWatchers? What about Jimmy’s death shocked you the most: That Nucky could carry it out? That Jimmy seemed so at peace with it? Or that it happened at all? Did Jimmy deserve to die? He seemed to think so. Where will Boardwalk be without Pitt? Are you already rubbing your hands together in anticipation for season 3? Or are you about to rewatch all of season 2 over again because it was just that good?

Read more:

Michael Pitt talks ‘Boardwalk Empire’ season 2 finale — EXCLUSIVE

Episode Recaps

Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi stars in HBO’s sprawling Prohibition drama set in Atlantic City.
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