Boardwalk Empire is in a unique position. Because many of its central characters have arcs dictated by history, it has little creative room for the likes of Al Capone, Johnny Torio and Arnold Rothstein. Where the true dance of life and death and playing with audience expectations comes from is the show’s fictional universe. Its Chalky Whites, Dr. Narcisses, and the Thompson clan. Here, there are no rules and to set expectations is to be unprepared for the brutal fiction that is Boardwalk Empire.
Each season of this show thus far has dangled a carrot (or carrots) in front of its audience from the onset. Led by these carrots on a stick, we have come to expect that everything will culminate in a bloody and brutal explosion of mobster masculinity in the final episode(s). Blood will be shed, characters will die (some loved and others loathed), and we, the audience, get to have our cathartic release and a sense of finality. Sure, seeds are planted for the season to come, but more often than not, we come away with a sense of conclusion. This was Boardwalk’s formula. Introduce the antagonist for the season, let said antagonism grow over the course of 9 or 10 episodes (sometimes at a painfully slow pace), and then BOOM! Big finish! Blood on the walls, bad guy dispatched with, everyone leaves with a smile on their face.
Well this season changed that formula so unexpectedly I am left with absolutely NO idea where this show will go in the future. If previous seasons have been Scorsese, this season’s finale was Ingmar Bergman. A long slow pan over a wasteland of suffering. No happy endings. Death is real, it is tragic, and no one is safe from it.
Prior to the finale, this season operated on a similar structure as seasons past. The carrot was before us ever-foreshadowing the show-down between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky White. The unknown variable? Which horse would Nucky bet on. The season had moments of gangster fair: The Capone’s fight over Cicero culminating in the historically foretold death of Al’s brother Frank being a great example of the show’s use of real events for narrative purposes. But the true grit of the season was meant to come in an epic showdown over control of the North Side of Atlantic City. It is a testament to the craft of the show’s writers then that this did not happen. Instead, we only have tragedy.
Throwing in his lot with Chalky, Nucky has Richard Harrow set his rifle sights on the good Doctor, payment for a favour Thompson performed for Harrow earlier on in the episode. Richard Harrow, easily the most loveable character, but also the embodiment of tragedy itself, had spent the season sowing the seeds of a peaceful departure from the violence of Atlantic City. One task remained: the assassination of Dr. Narcisse. It is amazing how a few seconds can shake the foundation you’ve come to depend on. In a game of double cross with Chalky White, Narcisse pulls back the curtain to reveal White’s young daughter Maybelle, a pawn in Narcisse’s game of chess, and pulls her to his side a split second prior to Harrow’s trigger pull. This was not how it was supposed to happen. The look on Harrow’s face at the realization of what he had done said it all. This was a man who by all accounts represented goodness and honour. The tragedy of having pulled one too many triggers in one’s lifetime. Let it also be said that Michael Kenneth Williams gives a heart-wrenching performance as he watches the life slowly exit Maybelle’s eyes. A hail of bullet’s fire blindly at Harrow’s location; he is hit but not out.
As most season finales do, this season ends with a rather heart-breaking montage of figures displaced by the season’s events: Nucky’s brother Eli throwing in his lot with Capone in Chicago; Chalky sitting heart-broken on the porch of another man’s house; and Harrow making it to the train station as well as his slow approach to the farm house where his loving family sit in wait. It is a touching scene and the audience smiles knowing that all will be okay. Such innocent and naive reasoning. As we see Harrow’s face, it is flush with colour and missing its trademark war injury. The writers had not only given Harrow what he wanted, but the audience as well, only to rip it away from us with a single steady shot of Harrow, lifeless under the boardwalk. In the stillness of that final frame as he smiles under the boardwalk with the waves crashing in the distance, a victim of an all too-cruel world lost in his final thoughts of love and tranquility, we, the audience cannot help but feel that he deserved better. It is a chilling reminder to us, the audience, that such endings do not come to those who walk this boardwalk, no matter how beloved. The danse macabre will unite them all.