Boardwalk Empire Finale Recap: War Memorial

Photo: Patrick Harbron/HBO

I don’t know that you’d be able to find a lot of viewers who would say this is not an uneven show — but at least Boardwalk Empire is willing to follow a piece of internal logic through to its logical conclusion (when it chances upon that piece of logic).

Jimmy Darmody, for as long as we’ve known him, has not been all that big on his own life. This resulted in some stillbirth narrative threads over the course of these two seasons, since, often as not, he’d spend part of some triumphant arc staring from a window and envying the life of some fat-ass retiree splayed out on the sand. On the one hand, sure, who wouldn’t like some peace? On the other — boychick, you’re in a drama; you’re supposed to want stuff.

Darmody wasn’t happy with Nucky whispering in his ear, nor his mother (slash-lover) Gillian, nor the Commodore, nor Leander — and while you could make a very sane case for not being bowled over by any one of these personalities, the problem always ran deeper than his needing to find a mentor. Jimmy needed to care about something, as a character, and he never quite did. According to what the writers showed us, he thought more about Angela after she died than at any point during the narrative before her murder.

But Jimmy thinking about a character’s fortunes and actually feeling for that character ain’t the same thing, either. In this episode, Jimmy makes sure his son will receive all the Commodore’s riches, shortly before tutoring the boy (briefly) on how to horseback ride and giving away his own dog tags. But even when going through the stations of the narrative cross related to the “good-bye cruel world” trope, he’s not passionate, this Darmody. There’s no good-bye at all (emotional or otherwise) to his son, right before Jimmy responds to Nucky’s late-night call by leaving his home unarmed and telling Harrow he doesn’t need any backup. (In fact, it seems pretty harsh that Jimmy’s last image of his son is one in which he’s playing with Gillian, the known child predator. Jimmy’s gonna leave him with her, really? That’s some hard-ass nihilism, there.)

The closest Jimmy can come to expressing any emotion is with Harrow, who dutifully promises Darmody that he’ll try to “come home,” at long last, from the war — even as Jimmy prepares to give up any similar attempt.

“You never knew me,” Nucky moans over Darmody’s half-shot face in the rain-padded muck of the town’s war memorial. But the reverse is probably even truer. No one in town ever knew much about Darmody — “so stupid, you had everything going” Nucky whines, uncomprehendingly, with his gun aimed — nor did Boardwalk Empire’s viewership, before last week’s reveal-a-thon. Sure, people (and viewers) might have had various suspicions, but it was impossible to really know the character. Even some of his dying words to Nucky are misleading: He didn’t die in a trench over there so much as he did during one night in his dorm room at Princeton, which in turn made him run off to war.

It’s somewhat frustrating to have Jimmy removed from the show so soon after he became intelligible as a character — though it’s also the case that he didn’t have many paths left to pursue. If this were a first-person novel, it’d make a certain amount of sense to have all the storytelling revelation be withheld until directly before a violent bit of self-sacrifice. After all, such decisive action usually only comes after a moment of clarity. But this wasn’t a first-person novel, and so there was no particular dramatic reason to withhold everything central to Darmody’s sense of himself offstage for so long. (This, instead, feels a lot more like writers toying with their audience, or with one other.)

In any case, he’s gone now — and, along with the resolution (for now) of Nucky’s legal jeopardy, and the exit of big players like the Commodore and minor troubles like alderman Neary, the show goes into a third season minus a certain amount of narrative conflict. Esther Randolph, for her part, is mighty pissed to see her case against Nucky unravel — but, as the judge notes, it’ll take some time for her to get her “ducks in a row.”

Elsewhere, Van Alden — along with infant and nurse — decamps to Illinois under an assumed name, and the ability to pay two-months’ rent up front for what looks like a lovely new pad. How long can it be before he runs into Capone and/or Torrio? (And even if that’s to happen — is there any chance he can be returned to the show’s action without it seeming unwieldy?)

More locally, Chalky White will require some new ambitions/story lines, too, now that he’s dispensed a form of rough justice to the Klan. One reason I thought the show’s recent sketching of the strike narrative unconvincing was that social movements, once begun, have a way of encompassing more and more issues. (Whereas the show seemed content to tell us airily, “not much new is happening there.”) What started out as a narrow desire for payback quickly came to represent an entire underclass’s economic aspirations — a development that Chalky seemed to take seriously at a moral level. An extra five thousand bucks for the families of the murdered is nice and all, but what Chalky owes the rest of his public is something I’d like to see answered, dramatically.

As Margaret knows, the simple transfer of money can’t salve those questions. Despite her new surname, though, she continues to confuse signing items of worth over to the church — including her mental toughness — with a form of some gangster shit. In addition to being largely nonsensical, this tic is getting pretty boring. Sure, Nucky’s going to be pissed when he finds out about the transfer of his soon-to-be invaluable land deed, in addition to realizing that his new wife isn’t so good at letting confessed bygones be bygones. (I suspect he’ll get that land back; it doesn’t seem like the priest is too difficult a character to bring under thumb.) And he still hasn’t found out about Owen and Margaret, either. For her sake, let’s hope she’s one of the characters the writers can liberate from a rut without immediately throwing overboard.

Boardwalk Empire Finale Recap: War Memorial