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Two major characters meet their fate in this pivotal episode of the final season, while Nucky gears up for yet another gang war.

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October 13, 2014 at 02:00 AM EDT

Last week’s episode, “King of Norway,” may have been the best of the season, but tonight’s “Devil You Know” was the most pivotal. At the expense of two of Boardwalk Empire‘s most complex characters (and talented actors), the show now heads into its final two episodes with Nucky Thompson front and center. Thing is, it’s hard to get all riled up for Nucky’s upcoming war with Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky—because we’ve seen it before, at the end of almost every season. In season 2 it was between Nucky and his former protégé Jimmy Darmody. Season 3 was Nucky vs. Gyp Rosetti, and season 4 pitted Nucky against his own brother, Eli. And also because history has proved both Luciano and Lansky emerge from Prohibition alive, the likelihood that Nucky Thompson will suffer the same fate as fellow cable-TV antihero Walter White is pretty high at this point.

It appears that Executive Producer Howard Korder, who wrote “Devil You Know,” is well aware of the audience’s gangster-war fatigue, though. Which is why as added insurance, he craftily connected the 19th-century flashbacks to Nucky’s anticipated downward spiral this week. We may not care that Nucky is going to battle for his empire yet again, but now that we see how one bad decision ruined the trajectory of his once-happy life, Nucky may very well close out the series with a sympathetic following.

But before we pledge our undying loyalty to Nucky Thompson and his Atlantic City kingdom, respect must be paid to Nelson Van Alden and Albert “Chalky” White, two stalwart Boardwalk characters since season 1, whose story lines came to a close in this episode. Given the already-high mortality rate of Boardwalk’s five-episode run, it’s easy to initially be disappointed by both characters’ deaths. At first glance, it can feel like a cop-out on Korder’s part—what better way to get the ancillary subplots out of the way so we can concentrate full-steam ahead on Nucky?—but upon further reflection, we see that in both cases, Van Alden and Chalky had painted themselves into such tight corners that death was indeed the only organic conclusion.

Nelson Van Alden’s 10-year law-dodging saga ended in Al Capone’s hotel suite, where his decade-long pent-up rage, repression, and self-loathing tumbled out at the worst possible moment, resulting in a bullet to the head. Forced to comply with the feds after being discovered for their crimes back in Atlantic City, Van Alden and Eli Thompson engage in a comedy of errors to lift Capone’s ledger books—”This has not been thought through,” deadpans Michael Shannon. Yeah, no kidding—their plan to help put one of the most dangerous criminals in the country can best be described as “winging it.”

When they’re inevitably caught by Al’s brother Ralph, not even Mike D’Angelo (a.k.a the fed/Capone-gang confidant who tasked Van Alden and Eli with stealing the ledgers) can save them, because he’s not going to blow his cover for “the expendable ones”—as Van Alden referred to himself and Eli last week. Too bad Van Alden didn’t remember that fact when, thinking D’Angelo was going to come to his aid while he had Al Capone splayed on his desk and was giving an oratory worthy of his season 1 self (“I am Nelson Casper Van Alden! And I am a sworn agent of the United States Treasury! And I swear by our Lord Jesus Christ, justice will reign down upon you, if it’s the last—”), a gunshot blasted through his skull courtesy of double agent D’Angelo.

It’s a shocking death, but, really, what kind of future did this guy have? He was a horrible father and husband, and he had a deluded sense of reality, thinking he could automatically switch back to being a self-righteous federal agent after years of being a gangster.

NEXT: “Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you…”

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