Boardwalk Empire, Season One Finale: A Return To Normalcy

At one point in last night's fantastic season finale of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky tells Margaret that "we all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with." He's talking about his own method of rationalizing the often terrible things he does, but the statement broadly applies to everyone else in the emotionally schizophrenic world he inhabits. The season closer was all about characters making the best decisions possible for their own gain, often if it meant compromising the very values or ideals they'd spent months defending. Their decisions to move forward through the fog contrasted nicely with the use of Warren Harding's urging of a "return to normalcy": Even as he posits that Americans can only find happiness by attempting to rebuild the lives they had before the Great War, the men and women of Boardwalk Empire are doomed to realize they can never go back, and must instead try to fight their way forward. A strong end to a very strong season, and one that cemented the show's reputation as one of the best new dramas of the year, if not the best.

Written by creator Terence Winter and directed by Tim Van Patten, "A Return to Normalcy" examined the cost of trying to regain the life that's slipped away or is in the process of disappearing. This hit the hardest in Margaret's decision to return to Nucky, one that played out over several perfectly done scenes. The visit where he revealed the truth behind the death of his infant son and his wife's subsequent suicide was heartbreaking, and Steve Buscemi acted the hell out of it. He's so consistently good on this show that it's tempting to take him for granted, but moments like this one help you remember why you started watching and why you can't stop. When she comes back to him at the end on election night, the script wisely refuses to make their reunion a truly happy one. This is a union of necessity as much as emotion, and the look on their faces at the end, where they realized the impact of what they were doing, was spot-on.

I also loved Jimmy's pissy coming-of-age in which he realizes that he and Angela can only ever try to love each other, with no guarantees, and his subsequent willingness to talk with the Commodore about how to possibly make a run at the throne that Nucky's held for years. Eli's joining forces with them was right in line with the episode's broader themes of self-centered acquisition at the expense of something vital (in this case, Eli's relationship with his brother), and the scene also got some extra juice from the sheer pleasure of seeing such different characters come together for a common cause.

Nucky wasn't short on the moral compromising, either. The montage in which he made a speech to spin the organized murders of the D'Alessio family into a GOP political win was fantastic, even if the sequence felt lifted from The Godfather. The war between Nucky and Rothstein came to an abrupt end, too, one that ran gloriously counter to what viewers have come to expect from mob movies. No shootouts, epic battles, or vendettas carried out; merely a roadside negotiation in which Nucky agreed to quash Rothstein's indictment for $1 million in cash (basically $10 million today). They're businessmen, and this is how things get done. Sentiment never enters into it.

Boardwalk Empire started with one of the best pilots of the season, and after a pair of slower episodes, it began to build momentum that hasn't let up since. I found myself wishing for just a few more minutes at the end of the episode, just a little more time in the world this series has created. It's a sharp political drama, a riveting gangster epic, and a finely drawn historical drama packed with complicated characters. It's pretty much the reason to watch TV, and I can't wait for its return.

Scattered thoughts:

• Last night, Dec. 5, was the 77th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment and ended Prohibition. Nice timing.

• Oh, the horrid irony of Nelson Van Alden refusing to help his wife get pregnant and then knocking up Lucy. If we wanted a sign from God to stay in Atlantic City, he's certainly got it. Wonder how his religious mania will handle an illegitimate child.

• I'm shocked that the Commodore's maid was the one poisoning him. Yes, she'd taken decades of emotional abuse, but it just seemed like something Gillian would do to speed up the old man's dying and get her hands on a part of his fortune. At least the maid was honest about hating him, though. Nucky's line to her was priceless: "I certainly understand why you'd want to, but you can't go around poisoning people."

• Loved the juxtaposition of the prizes in Margaret's cake with the actual fates of their finders: Harding's mistress found the ring and assumed it meant she'd be marrying the president, which is nothing but a painful fantasy, while Margaret found the rag signifying destitution only to run back to Nucky and ensure some stability.

• Again, wonderful performances from all involved, and a great way to end the season.

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