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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season Finale Review: “Margate Sands”

Boardwalk Empire Season Finale Margate Sands Preview
HBO

The world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper — though it often starts with a bang, or in this case, a lot of them. And so goes the saga of Gyp Rosetti on the season finale of ‘Boardwalk Empire.’

A couple of episodes back, Arnold Rothstein was explaining his favorite snooker move to Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky: even when you are unable to make a successful shot, you set up the balls so your opponent won’t be able to, either. The moral of the story was that Rothstein prefers to hang back and let everything play out, waiting for the opportune time to strike. But he’s not the only one familiar with this strategy, and when you’re a man who considers all the angles (like Rothstein, or Nucky, or Masseria), maybe you should consider that your opponent may be considering the same angles as well.

Inspired by a conversation with Eli (whom Nucky is still short-changing), Nucky makes a play — using Mickey Doyle and the Overhold distillery as bait, Nuck agrees to let Arnold Rothstein take 99% ownership of the distillery in exchange for getting Masseria to withdraw his support from Rosetti. To do this, Rothstein will strike a deal with Masseria involving the burgeoning heroin trade — oh, and by the way, Lucky Luciano’s run-in with the cops? A set-up courtesy of Rothstein to ensure he got Luciano’s stash of heroin to make a deal with Masseria. You could compare this elaborate set-up to chess, but I might liken it to dominoes — Nucky knocks over that first piece and the rest fall in line. And while Rothstein thinks he’s taken control of Overhold, Nucky’s friends Gaston Means and Andrew Mellon are calling Esther Randolph to report Rothstein’s illicit takeover.

The way these pieces click into place isn’t subtle in the least, and I’d argue that ‘Boardwalk Empire’ can be better at building up a finale than paying it off. A ‘Boardwalk Empire’ penultimate episode is an event you look forward to, like last week’s “Two Imposters,” one of the best episodes of the series, rivaled only by last year’s “Under God’s Power She Flourishes.” Once again, our finale episode brings closure to Nucky’s central conflict by disposing of the person standing in his way — last year it was Jimmy, this year it’s Gyp.

We spend some time in the Artemis Club with Gyp this week, where the guys at his disposal are all growing weary of waiting around for action they don’t particularly want to take part in, so they drink and philander to kill the time. Meanwhile, Gillian frets over Tommy, who refuses her offers of lunch (and Oreos!) and backs away from her when she tries to sit with him in his room. Gillian has sent away Tommy’s only real friend and caregiver and locked him up in his room away from all the bad men on the other side, much like she created a world for her own son in which all he had or needed was her. But Tommy’s not buying it, even at his young age, and Gillian’s desperate to save her house and her grandson from Rosetti and his men.

Which leads us to the most compelling sequence of events in “Margate Sands”: Rosetti is the kind of guy who feels entitled and wants what he thinks he deserves, but deep down, he knows he’s just a hot-headed, lowly gangster who doesn’t really deserve what he’s after. He doesn’t have the business acumen of someone like Masseria or Nucky, and he takes everything he wants, whether it’s owed to him or not (often not), through brute force. Rosetti reconciles this idea through masochism, by having women “punish” him in a sexual manner, which allows him to compartmentalize who he is — behind closed doors, he is an ape who deserves to be humiliated and hurt, which allows him to continue being the brute who takes what he doesn’t deserve out in the open. Unfortunately for Gillian, her attempt to drug Rosetti with heroin backfires, and she’s left mumbling in the hallway, presumably about the time Nucky sent her to please the Commodore when she was a girl.

And while Nucky sends Chalky and Capone out to gun down Masseria’s men as they exit the town, Richard heads back to the Artemis Club with that arsenal of guns we saw last week and kills everyone to rescue Tommy. It’s a real fist-pumping moment for Richard, but it also gives way to another tragic moment for his character, as he shows up on Julia’s doorstep, face covered in blood that isn’t his own, and drops Tommy off. He’s not concerned with sticking around and explaining himself — all he wants is Tommy’s safety. Richard is not a man concerned with what he is owed or what he might deserve; he isn’t a gangster. And it’s because of this that Richard becomes the most dangerous man on ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ It’s completely heartbreaking to watch him leave Tommy with Julia and her father and just walk away — and though it seems like he’s losing the only people who love him (again), he’s really not. This is the only way to make sure he never truly has to lose them.

Back to Chalky and Capone — I thoroughly enjoyed their squabbles in the lumberyard this week as they idly waited for the word to move in for an attack on the opposition. In the Artemis Club we see the way Rosetti and Masseria’s men deal with restlessness (booze and women), but over in the lumberyard, Chalky and Capone and their men are picking fights with each other and growing anxious. In the end, Chalky and Capone find release in killing Masseria’s men and the pair smile and nod at each other, united in the mission they’ve commonly accomplished.

As for Margaret, she’s taken a trip to a doctor in New York — at first I found the dialogue in this scene confusingly written, but upon second watch it becomes clear that Margaret may not know that she wants an abortion, but the doctor and his wife know exactly why she’s there. It’s a bit of a truncated ending for her character this season, though it’s thematically perfect. We’ve watched Margaret’s feminist crusade and the way she’s tried to help other women avoid unwanted pregnancies so that they won’t end up seeking illegal and possibly harmful abortions, and here she is with an unwanted pregnancy of her own (tragically only unwanted because her lover is now dead), seeking an anonymous abortion.

At the end of “Margate Sands,” it’s not Nucky that sticks the knife in Rosetti, which may seem disappointing to some — finding one of Rosetti’s men hiding in a closet, Nucky sends him to stab Rosetti and take his body to Masseria as a message: this can be the beginning of a war or the end of one, it’s his call. Nucky toyed with the idea of being the kind of man to get his hands dirty when he killed that kid in front of Owen earlier this season, but he’s just not that man. Having one of Rosetti’s men do the dirty work seems more fitting, and indicates the anonymous future of Nucky Thompson — the same future we glimpse in the final scene as he walks the boardwalk alone, ditching his trademark red carnation on the ground when he’s noticed by a tourist couple and blending into the crowd as the camera pans up over the boardwalk. Like Nucky says, no one can know his name or get close to him anymore. The game has changed.

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