Nucky suffers astronomical losses from his war with Charlie "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky, but will he redeem himself by next week's series finale?
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.
NEXT: Career opportunities
But there’s no time for Willie to grab a nap and a cup of coffee, or even wash the blood from his shirt collar—his secretary pal informs him that “Salvatore Maranzano was killed,” and they’ve got to get to work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on “the right side of the street” or enmeshed in the gangster underworld: Family is family and life is life. How is Willie now supposed to send the criminals (read: his family) who killed Maranzano to jail, when it was that very act that saved his life? Tune in next week to watch Willie tackle the real-life version of his job-interview ethics test.
There is, however, one last important piece of business Nucky needs to conduct before Boardwalk shuts down for the season permanently, and it’s got nothing to do with saving his assets or his hide. Can he redeem himself after destroying Gillian Darmody’s life when she was just 13 years old? “Friendless Child” continued last week’s trajectory of tying the flashbacks more closely to the 1931 narrative, and our sense of dread is building as the series finale is poised to portray the critical Boardwalk moment when Nucky presents the adolescent Gillian as a prize to the lecherous Commodore.
In 1897, shortly after discovering Gillian’s thriving theft business under the boardwalk, Nucky brought the Trenton ruffian home to Mabel. Mrs. Thompson’s kind, maternal demeanor quickly elicited the truth out of her new houseguest (Gillian lived in an abusive orphanage), and soon enough Mabel is asking Nucky to take the Nellie Bly-idolizing runaway in permanently. Nucky, who at the time is still consumed with doing that one favor for the Commodore that will secure his future in Atlantic City, ignores his wife’s requests and plans to return Gillian to the orphanage as soon as possible. Before he can do so, Nucky is summoned to the Commodore’s mansion by Sheriff Lindsey, who proceeds to turn over his sheriff’s badge to his deputy and instructs him to seize this opportunity to get ahead. The opportunity? Discreetly return an “unsuitable,” traumatized prepubescent girl to her family and inform them that “no further compensation will be forthcoming.” Nucky was just as creeped out as the audience, but it’s pretty safe to say he carried out the deed. At this point, it doesn’t matter—Nucky returns home to learn Gillian has run off. Her fate has been sealed since season 1.
In the last moments of the episode, we’re back in 1931, and Nucky finally reads the mysterious letter from “Nellie Bly,” a.k.a. a committed Gillian. Addressing “Sheriff Enoch,” Gillian pleads with her old friend to spring her from the loony bin. Gretchen Mol’s anxious, petrified voice resonates over a montage of Gillian witnessing patient after patient suffering at the asylum: “I feel as if I am in hell, which is a pain worse than death… Show me the same kindness you once showed an orphan girl… I turn to you on my knees. I beg you.”
NEXT: Desperately seeking Nucky
Gillian has committed plenty of despicable acts over the years, from incest to murder, but between the flashbacks and this last-ditch effort letter, at least now we have a better understanding of how that one decision made by Nucky in 1897 changed everything. By choosing to boost his career rather than help a lonely little girl, Nucky—and Nucky alone—was the catalyst for Gillian’s self-destruction. That harrowing final shot of her 13-year-old self on the boardwalk, in her ruffled pink and white dress, asking, “Please help me” is all we need to forget her years of manipulation, greed, and fantasy worlds. She’s got our sympathy now, but it might be too late. The letter concludes with a terrifying shadow approaching Gillian at the asylum: Will Nucky come to her rescue before Dr. Cotton begins removing her organs, “piece by piece”?
–Anyone else interested in a Benny “Bugsy” Siegel spin-off? Michael Zegen demonstrated the results of his Vincent Piazza-level patience this week, stealing every single scene he was in. He single-handedly renewed interest in the old 1931 double entendre tune “My Girl’s Pussy” (you know it has to be the spin-off’s theme song), and showed that you can be an adulterous, murderous gangster while still observing traditional Jewish customs like kissing the mezuzah on the doorpost (both before and after shtupping his friend Morris’ wife) and promising to be home in time to celebrate Lag b’Omer.
–Piazza’s Luciano reclining in a barber’s chair early on in the episode was a nice little throwback to another Prohibition-era gangster classic, The Untouchables.
–For the first time in the history of the series, Boardwalk utilized vintage black and white photographs to drive home the deadly nature of the era it’s been dramatizing for the past five seasons. The episode’s opening montage of U.S. Attorney Robert Hodge (Willie’s boss) delivering a sobering radio address about the criminal gang wars terrorizing the country is augmented by these real-life 83-year-old documents, which, interestingly enough, are much more chilling than much of the full-color makeup and CGI magic 2014-era HBO can provide.