In Boardwalk Empire’s penultimate season one episode, we learn—minus any fanfare—that the Commodore is Jimmy’s father. That Jillian was 13 when the affair took place (and that Nucky was essentially her pimp) flavored this disclosure with a tasty bit of scandal, but at this point, it’s difficult to care. The discovery that someone has been poisoning the Commodore is pretty juicy, but the setup—a victim we barely know; suspects (like Jillian) we have only just learned had access to the Commodore—reads more like the opening scene of murder-mystery dinner theatre than the climax of a long dramatic season. (For the record, I think (hope?) the maid did it—she tried to take away that bowl of biscuits that Jimmy blames for making him sick). Believing along with everyone else that he is inches from death, the Commodore tells his son that “the wrong man is running Atlantic City.” Now that he is resurrected, how will the Commodore act on his belief?
Nucky’s associate Harry Price announces that he has been wiped out by the original Ponzi scheme (perpetrated by Charles Ponzi, and similar in scale to the Madoff scandal), and his mistress Annabel wastes no time in severing their relationship, but not before Price reclaims the nearly $4,000 in cash she has been lifting from his wallet and hiding under the floorboards. Annabel turns to Nucky in desperation, begging in vain for him to prosecute Price and then offering her services in exchange for a handout. Margaret walks in during this exchange, evidently having been let in to Nucky’s office without protest by Eddie Kessler, who always knows what’s going on behind those doors. Margaret announces to Nucky through gritted teeth that The League of Women Voters has endorsed Bader’s mayoral nomination. When Nucky responds positively to the news, Margaret says “Then I’m glad to have been of service to you,” and leaves in a huff.
Agent Van Alden is dubious of Agent Sebso’s version of his “self-defense” killing of their key witness against Jimmy Darmody and Nucky, and makes no effort to hide his suspicion. Sebso is rattled enough to ask for help from Nucky, who advises him to “be a hero” and raid a distillery. But Sebso and Van Alden find instead a Baptist ritual taking place at Mays Landing, with no distillery in sight. In a confusing and barely rational sequence of events, Agent Sebso later announces that he will be transferring to Chicago, and blames Van Alden’s obvious distrust of him as the reason behind it. Somehow they return together to Mays Landing, where Van Alden performs a bizarre baptism-cum-exorcism on the Jewish Junior Agent, ultimately drowning him (and unwittingly doing Nucky a favor).
Nucky and Margaret finally air their dirty laundry back at Margaret’s townhouse. Nucky breaks the icy tension by offering that what Margaret thought she saw earlier “couldn’t have been more innocent.” She is far from placated, and complains that their arrangement makes her sick. Nucky lashes back at her with the bottle of Lysol she’s been using to prevent conception, and a rather childish argument ensues (Margaret says ‘fuck’!). Nucky doesn’t deny Margaret’s accusation that he was behind her husband’s death, and admits just as much to Eli as he later recounts their argument. Richard Harrow makes one of two disappointingly brief appearances to report to Nucky that Margaret and her children have gone, and Nucky doesn’t appear in the least surprised.
Angela makes the conflicted choice to leave for Paris with Mary, despite Tommy’s reluctance and requests for his father to join them. But when they arrive to the photography studio, Robert and Mary have disappeared. Angela and Tommy were gone long enough for Jimmy to find the letter Angela left for him. He doesn’t seem terribly surprised that their trip was aborted, hinting at the possibility that Jimmy was somehow behind the couple’s abrupt departure.
The episode ends with a (momentarily) quiet revelation that every character on the show is deeply, horrifically unhappy. But we’re not permitted to experience this realization on our own—the closing credits force a lyrical subtitle (“Wild Romantic Blues”) atop a pathos that would have been better received without it.
Boardwalk Empire came to us at a time when all but the most stubborn film buffs were willing and ready to believe that the small screen could compete with the big as a cultural commodity. The handful of series that boosted the artistic authority of television were those that showcased enough episodes that could stand alone as films (The Sopranos, Mad Men) or epic serials with that demanded the investment of a loyal, enraptured audience (The Wire, Deadwood). Boardwalk Empire is neither: It’s an assorted grab bag of proven aesthetic techniques, and delivers its dramatic weight in a succession of one-two punches rather than the slow burn of the shows it aims to emulate. A series that demonstrates so readily a lack of confidence in its ability to convince its viewers insults its audience and injures itself. Right now, Boardwalk Empire feels like the ghost of The Sopranos limping along on a hollow, prosthetic leg.