With an intense, all-out war being waged between Nucky and Charlie Luciano, 'Boardwalk Empire' plunges onward toward its conclusion. The past bleeds into the present, as chance encounters blossom into opportunities given to those desperate for them, and how that desperation inevitably lends itself to gruesome circumstance. Most startling and perhaps poetic of all in "Friendless Child" is the way that two fates are intertwined, and how redemption can come at the 11th hour for Nucky Thompson in the most unexpected way.

It seems so unlikely that Gillian Darmody would deliver the heart of this show in the series' penultimate episode, but here we are. A little orphan girl lost under the boardwalk, desperate for a chance at life, while at the same time, a young Enoch Thompson reluctantly picks up the sheriff's badge to begin delivering young girls to the lecherous Commodore's service. As Gillian notes in her desperate letter to Nucky at the end of "Friendless Child," they were both innocents once, both just trying to get ahead, both doing what they felt was in their best interest. Perhaps it's only Gillian's absolution that can redeem Nucky at the 11th hour, and perhaps it's only through Gillian that Nucky has any hope of redemption, as the last tangible tie to Mabel.

But let's back up a little. The penultimate hour of the last season of 'Boardwalk Empire' is suitably dizzying and intense, with Nucky and Maranzano embroiled in a messy war with Luciano -- a war that technically cannot be won. As long as there is something to be taken, there will always be a shoulder to look over. It all begins with a desperate hope and a dream, and all anyone needs is the right opportunity. For Nucky that opportunity came the moment Sheriff Lindsay handed him the badge and resigned. For Gillian that opportunity came the day Nucky first helped her. For others, like Luciano, opportunity must be taken by force.

But it's what you do with that seed of opportunity and the series of choices you make after. Over the season we've come to know a younger, no less ambitious, but more innocent Nucky, and we have -- along with Nucky -- reflected upon the choices he's made throughout the series that have gotten him in the mess he's in now. This isn't the Luciano show, but by the end of the episode, it certainly feels that way. Luciano's kidnapping of Will is a terrifying moment, particularly on the heels of such a heartbreaking reunion with Eli, who suggests that everything he's done and all that he's lost was worth it for Will's success.

In the midst of their bargaining with Luciano, Eli asks what his brother is doing, and Nucky replies, "I don't know." At the end of the day, can Nucky say that all of the bloodshed, the loss, and the death was worth it? He doesn't have a successful heir to look upon and say, "It was all worth it because you made something of yourself, son." For everything he's cost himself and others, if he wins, what does he have but himself and the chance to live another day looking over his shoulder? So he resigns himself and the boardwalk to Luciano for the life of William, and in a poetically grisly moment, has Maranzano murdered Caesar-style, reflecting their earlier dialogue.

And then he finds a letter in his office, a plea from a woman who was once a young orphan girl, from a time when they were both just innocent people looking for the right opportunity under the boardwalk. For young Joe, who holds a mirror up to reflect Nucky's past choices back at him in the midst of all this chaos, Nucky gives him the opportunity he never had: to get out while he still can. Without Atlantic City and without Cuba, just who will Enoch Thompson choose to be?

Additional Thoughts:

  • The way that they've chosen to intertwine Gillian and Nucky's stories and fates in this final season is such a startling and beautiful choice. If you had told me back in season 1 that Gillian would become the crux of Nucky's development in the final season, I would have thought, "That sounds amazing, but you're nuts."
  • Benny Siegel should become a regular act at the club with singing talent like that.
  • RIP Mickey Doyle. I'm surprised he lasted this long with that mouth. All he wanted was peace and friendship!
  • It took me this long to realize that Maya Kazan, who plays Mabel, also plays Eleanor Gallinger on 'The Knick.' Gillian's and Eleanor's stories have some compelling ties, and if you haven't checked out 'The Knick' yet, the first season just ended, so you should definitely binge-watch ASAP.