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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “Farewell Daddy Blues”

Boardwalk Empire Farewell Daddy Blues
HBO

Tonight brings the season 4 finale of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ and as the title indicates, “Farewell Daddy Blues” has us saying goodbye to characters in various ways. The writers saved a few surprises for this elegant and gripping final hour, in which tables are turned and the inevitability of tragedy once again comes into focus. Tonight, the conflicts between Narcisse and Chalky, Gillian and Richard, and Agent Knox and the Brothers Thompson all come to a conclusion — and not without taking a heavy toll. 

Why else do we do anything in life if not to feel validated, if not to feel complete; if not to feel whole? When Nucky assures Eli that he rescued Willie from jail “for the family,” Eli spits back that his brother just keeps trying to fill up this giant hole in his life — from the death of his wife and the loss of his mother, both of whom he’s replaced with different women over the years, each representing different facets of what he feels he needs. And now here’s Nucky with a conscience, Nucky the family man, trying to pretend that he’s doing the right thing by keeping Willie out of jail and putting him to work in the family business. On the flip side of the coin is Eli, whose motivations were also about his family, and so when Nucky rubs that gun into his brow and Eli says, “I’ve got nothin’ to lose,” you know he means it. We understand in that moment that Eli is a real family man because he knows something Nucky doesn’t: you can’t put value on your own family. When Nucky cracked Willie out of jail, it came with a price tag, and Willie knew it. He didn’t call his father because there’s no currency for telling your dad you accidentally killed the kid who was bullying you at school and you need bailing out.

And in the middle somewhere is Willie, who’s trailed his dad to Uncle Nucky’s hotel only to discover that he’s basically the reason why his dad has betrayed his uncle (again). Later, Willie asks Nucky if he really would have killed Eli, and his answer is verbal ouroboros — “He’s your father, my brother, and I’m not the man you think I am.” It’s an answer, but it just seems to ask another question; it really depends on the kind of man Will believes Nucky is.

Here’s the kind of man Nucky is: he’s the kind of man who sends his brother to Chicago after Eli bludgeons Agent Knox to death in his family’s living room. In one fell swoop, the show destroys any remaining notions Eli had about his ability protect his family and manages to unite the Atlantic City and Chicago stories in a way that was sorely needed. (It also brings together Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon, who starred together in Jeff Nichols’ ‘Take Shelter,’ so I’m incredibly excited about this pairing.)

Here’s the kind of man Nucky is: he’s the kind of guy who will phone in an anonymous tip, leading the cops to the remains of one Jimmy Darmody, thereby proving that the man who died in Gillian Darmody’s bath tub was not her son. It’s the kind of helpful tip that puts Gillian in prison for a long time and makes sure that Tommy has a normal upbringing. It’s also the kind of helpful tip that comes with a price. And we know the minute that Richard says he’ll do anything for that favor, he’s a dead man.

Here’s the kind of man Nucky is: he tells Chalky he wants Narcisse dead. He tells Narcisse he wants Chalky dead. He puts Richard in the Onyx Club to assassinate Narcisse. But poor, sweet Richard gets nervous, and when Narcisse unexpectedly brings Maybelle out to taunt Chalky just as Richard pulls the trigger, all hell breaks loose. Maybelle is dead; Richard is shot; Chalky flees; Narcisse is under arrest. (And Hoover takes the opportunity to use Narcisse to help frame Marcus Garvey for the murder of Agent Knox, which tidies up those loose ends rather nicely.)

Somewhere, in an anonymous club in some place we don’t know, in a dull red dress where no one knows her name and her face seems not so different from all the others, Daughter Maitland sings “Farewell Daddy Blues,” and we say goodbye.

Earlier I asked why we try to accomplish anything in life if for no other reason than to feel whole, to fill some sort of void within us. On a beach under the boardwalk, Richard Harrow imagines walking up to a porch and seeing Julia, Tommy, his sister and her baby, and for the first time in years he feels whole. His face is normal again and everything is perfect, as it should be — and he is dead. Richard spent the entire season trying to find his place in this society. The Nuckys and Elis and Arnold Rothsteins of the world choose organized crime because they wish to fill their void with money and claim status as validation for existence. Guys like Chalky choose organized crime to broker equality in a post-slavery economy, to claim a piece from the men who built it on their backs. But guys like Richard go to war to protect the rights of these men, are trained to kill, spend months murdering people, and come back home with no other skills and see no place for themselves. How do you fill that void? Where do you go from there? And how do you justify your existence? Richard has tried his best to make peace with who he is and what he’s capable of doing, and I think he found the best life he could in Julia and Tommy.

In organized crime, there’s only one way out. Johnny Torrio knows this (and I am genuinely surprised, given his apathetic attitude in the last two episodes, that he had nothing to do with last week’s shooting), so he passes the torch to Capone — let him take the bullets, it’s a young man’s game. Nucky knows this, which is why he’s not going to Cuba with Sally Wheet. Chalky knows it from Boneau’s porch, cradling his shotgun. And Richard knew it, too, which is why he said goodbye.

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