Boardwalk Empire thoughts: Season Two finale

SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! IT’S A SPOILER WARNING

* Aw, y’know, I really don’t have a lot to say about this episode that isn’t self-evident. It was a gutsy, “My god, they’re really gonna do it” hour of television, and between this episode and the last it’s really taken on a horrific new life of its own. It seems to me that Nucky’s final act against Jimmy was as much the show embracing its identity as Nucky doing so. I imagine it has to be really, really freeing to be a show willing to do what it did last night. What have they got to be afraid of now, creatively speaking? This is going to be a magnificently dark and wild new thing if they keep at it.

* I’m also struck by creator Terence Winter’s willingness to admit (“admit”) in the various interviews you’ll find online that Jimmy’s murder by Nucky wasn’t planned from the beginning — not even from the beginning of this season. Hell, not even from the middle of this season! It’s nice to see that nerd culture’s insistence that the execution of a blueprint is the highest form of fiction can still go unheeded in some quarters. Try to imagine, say, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse saying they winged something of this magnitude at any point after Lost Season Two, or the writer of a major superhero-comics event eschewing “we’ve been planting the seeds for this for four or five years now” in favor of “three issues ago we just figured ‘what the hell.’”

* Matt Zoller Seitz is on to something when he says that this episode was Boardwalk Empire embracing its own lack of depth, but only in a sort of backwards way. The other day I wrote the following about the artsy genre-based comics available at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival:

…the genre work and genre pastiche on hand felt neither safe nor slick, hiding behind the safety net of retro or “coolness.” It felt raw, a little ugly, a little exhibitionistic, even a little unpleasant. The closest comparison I can think of is the early short stories of Clive Barker: impressionistic, sexualized stuff that re-awoke the horror in horror. To dismiss it all as shock tactics is to make a pretty big mistake, I think.

And this is sort of what Boardwalk Empire reminds me of now, too. I think that when genre material gets sufficiently dark or weird, when its tropes become a form of sinister spectacle rather than just hitting the marks required by convention, that’s a depth all its own — a way to communicate the emotional and philosophical themes more commonly articulated by plot and dialogue, if at all. Boardwalk Empire the balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism is saying at least as much as some theoretical Boardwalk Empire the meticulously drawn character study, or Boardwalk Empire the rigorously developed allegory for contemporary political issues.

* I’m going to echo everyone in wishing that this could have happened without eliminating Michael Pitt from the show. That guy was magic in this role; I’m not sure I can be any more articulate about it than that. Just look at the way he commanded the camera, and our emotions, simply by standing there being silent — looking out the window and smoking a cigarette, watching with tears in his eyes as his son rides a pony while his mother waits nearby, standing unarmed in the pouring rain in front of an unfinished war memorial while men of the generation that sent him to kill and die in the trenches gather around to execute him. His limp is already one of my favorite things on any TV show.

* But! Think of all the oxygen this move frees up for the show’s other characters. It’s clear the filmmakers realize they struck gold with Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow — now there’s nothing stopping them from making him as big a role as Jimmy was, if they want. The major organized crime figures — Chalky White or Arnold Rothstein or Al Capone or Luciano & Lansky — will have more room to breathe. The attractively repellent sidekicks Dunn Pearnsley and Owen Sleater can get their days in the sun too. Eliminating Jimmy, Angela, the Commodore, Lucy, and a couple of the aldermen this season ought to enable the show to reshuffle things according to its more recently developed strengths. (I was briefly convinced/concerned that Van Alden had ridden off into the sunset as well, until I read interview after interview in which Winter said it was no coincidence that he’d “retired” to the Illinois town that is soon to be come Al Capone’s stomping grounds.)

* My one complaint about the finale is that in screwing Nucky over by giving away his highway land, Margaret gave it to the one organization less sympathetic than that of organized crime, the Roman Catholic Church. I get the sense that that act is meant to be a period for that whole plot thread and not an ellipsis, and thank god for that because in addition to being less sympathetic than the mob, the Church is about forty seven thousand times more boring. What I’m really curious about is whether this augurs a new Lockhorns model for the Nucky/Margaret marriage, or if this was one last fuck-you she had to get out of her system after his transparent bullshit about the deaths of Neary and Jimmy, and now she’ll be less adversarial but more canny.

* Nucky, Lucky, Jimmy, Mickey, Manny, Waxy, Chalky, Tommy, Lucy.

* There was something truly awful about that final flashback to the trenches. For one thing it implies that even in death Jimmy could not escape the war. But worse is that we never actually see the horror Jimmy experienced. The vision ends when Jimmy climbs over the lip of the trench. What he endured can never be shared with anyone, not even the audience watching omnisciently as he dies. As someone once said, “In the end, you die in your own arms.”

* Finally:

Don’t stop believing. (Via Bohemea.)

7 Responses to Boardwalk Empire thoughts: Season Two finale

  1. James says:

    It’s nice to see that nerd culture’s insistence that the execution of a blueprint is the highest form of fiction can still go unheeded in some quarters.

    I think with television it still goes unheeded more often than not, the nerd culture just doesn’t want to admit it. Certainly Sopranos, Battlestar, and Breaking Bad are three Great shows off the top of my head that didn’t or don’t always adhere to strict meticulously-followed plans throughout (let alone less-than-great shows like Damages, 24, Prison Break, et al), and their showrunners are always happy to say so. With Battlestar in particular I always remember that a certain late season 3 bombshell about a group of characters was created from nothing shortly before that season was over, like what happened here.

    Glad this show managed to find itself this season, here’s hoping they keep it up next year!

  2. Battlestar paid for that transgression among the fandom, though! (Although to be fair, they kind of set themselves up for it: It may not be a good idea to begin every episode by saying “they have a plan” if you’re going to do unplanned things. You’re putting ideas in people’s heads!)

  3. Zack Soto says:

    I’m surprised how much I’m going to miss Pitt’s presence on this show. I’ve never been a huge fan, but he really brought a lot to the table on BE, especially this season. Your list of things that his departure makes possible/uncertain actually gives me hope though. Usually the killing of characters has me lamenting “what could have been”, but now maybe I can see it as “what might come.”

    Good call on the opening credits/Sopranos tip.

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