Boardwalk Empire needed to pull out all of the stops in order to salvage a perfectly meh first season. It almost succeeded—even those of us who have been largely unimpressed thus far must concede that the finale was one fine (and gorgeously lit) hour of television.
The most cinematic episode since the Scorsese-directed premiere, “A Return to Normalcy” shifts between hushed, intimate exchanges meant to tie up loose ends (rather too tightly), and grandiose, “the gang’s all here” showcases—a grateful nod to the genre that made funding for this program possible. The D’Alessio Brothers murder montage is lifted straight from the Scorsese Greatest Hits playbook: Terence Winter substitutes a tribal drumbeat for Derek and the Dominoes; and frenetic, dusk-lit serial executions for a consecution of corpses. The barber shop throat slice—fresh red blood on snow white shaving cream—is a turn all Boardwalk Empire’s own, and for that it deserves its own page.
We open on All Hallow’s Eve, when many a survival hinges on the upcoming elections. The newspaper headlines promising a Democratic win for mayor are making everyone nervous; and Margaret’s temporary living situation is threatened by the near-certainty that Warren Harding will be elected President. Her new roommate—Harding’s mistress Nan Britton—is clinging to the delusion that Harding will call for her and their bastard son to join him in Washington; but Margaret is well aware that Nan’s setup will expire for other reasons. Mrs. Schroeder’s dramatic departure—all the way down the block—is about as convincing as the runaway child who sets up camp in his own backyard. For the moment, she’s keeping busy baking Barmbrack for the holiday—a traditional Irish fortune-telling cake: “If you get the money you’ll be rich; if you get the ring of course you’ll be married; if you get the rag—well, you’ll be destitute.”
My kind of attempted murderess is the kind who’s sorry only that she didn’t succeed. When the Commodore’s long suffering maid is asked why she tried to poison her boss to death, she confesses: “Because if I used a shotgun, I’d a had to clean the mess up myself.” Nucky grants her a hasty pardon and a fistful of cash to get her the hell out of town; a demonstration of the peculiar amnesty afforded to nobodies in a micro-society whose maintenance is dependent on uninterrupted corruption. Very little is lost on the invisible. While Nucky is wise to the damage the accused could do if brought to justice; he is perplexed by her warning to watch his back.
And he’s just as bemused by Torrio’s brokering of a “talk” between Nucky and his arch death rival, World Series-fixer Arnold Rothstein. But for the love of the game, the enemy camps meet for a pleasantly cooperative discussion. Rothstein knows his back is up against a wall, and offers Nucky a blank check and a true blue truce in exchange for making his legal troubles disappear. The price is a million dollars (which, corrected for inflation, is about a gazillion trillion) and the location of the surviving D’Alessio brothers. It’s a deal. (The real Arnold Rothstein was called to testify before a Grand Jury about the “Black Sox Scandal” but he was never indicted. He died of a gunshot wound in 1928).
All season long, we’ve all been dying to know the story behind Nucky’s dead son. All Margaret had to do was ask: After discovering the grave of his son and wife during a Halloween cemetery stroll, she marches over to Nucky’s place where he tells her the whole horribly tragic story, adding that now Margaret knows “more about me than any other person on earth.” Does this mean that we can only know Nucky through her? David Chase allowed Tony Soprano to win the hearts of a loyal audience by showing us all his parts: The late riser in the ill-fitting bathrobe; the overeating couch potato; the post-traumatic stress patient. Jennifer Melfi as moral compass and reliable confidant allowed us to get inside Tony’s head while never forgetting that his version of events should not be trusted. Margaret Schroeder has too much invested in Nucky to trust her point of view of him; but Boardwalk Empire has alternated between her and Jimmy Darmody as the dominant POV characters. Next season, Jimmy will be vying for his power and Margaret—having chosen him as “the sin she can live with”—vying for his love. So far, the veil around Nucky has lent him a flat dimensionality rather than the intended air of mystery. In order for us to care anymore about who he really is, one of them is going to have to get underneath it.
The long awaited revelation, of course, helps Margaret and Nucky (and us) feel as though they’ve overcome an important obstacle on the way to true intimacy. Margaret can use this advancement to justify running back into his spindly arms—which she doesn’t do until the end of the episode, when she finds the rag (foretelling poverty) in her cake, and Nucky is back on top of the world. It’s easy to love a criminal when he’s winning.