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Boardwalk Empire Season Four Finale Recap: Put It Away Before Someone Gets Hurt

HBO's Boardwalk Empire season 4  2013Characters:Gretchen Mol-  Gillian DarmodyJack Huston-  Richard HarrowWrenn Schmidt-  Julia SagorskyMark Borkowski-  Paul SagorskyDominic Chianese-  Leander WhitlockDavid Melwee-  GregTerry Greiff-  JudgeTim Ransom-  Victor DrakeJay Russell-  Prosecutor

Boardwalk decided to go long this year. After killing off James Darmody in season two and depending on the self-contained arc of antagonist Gyp Rosetti to power season three, it seems the show wanted to set up some plotlines that could pay off over multiple years. Makes sense! At several points along the way, this season, I had the feeling that the most interesting outcome for the show would be if Chalky and Dr. Narcisse didn’t have it out to the mortal limit. (In any case, this reality would mirror the uneasy coexistence between Nucky, Rothstein, Masseria, and other players on the other side of the racial divide.)

That’s basically what happened. And, even if this sucks a bit of “oh wow,” resolution-style drama from the fourth season’s finale, I think the choice is a good one for this show — which has often, in a headlong rush to slam-bang climaxes, pushed beloved characters onto obvious dead-end paths. (See: Gillian, Harrow, Van Alden/Mueller.)

And so, yes, let’s now talk about Richard Harrow. (And let’s stop reading now, if we haven’t watched the episode.) The plot mechanics of how he was conscripted, by Nucky, to murder Dr. Narcisse (on the Onyx club floor, from the second-floor hideway) are both labyrinthine and just slightly credulity-stretching. But the big ticket narrative item — Richard’s Death — made total sense. And the filmmaking that brought his narrative to a resting place was some of Boardwalk’s best ever. (It was pretty clear, to borrow a line from Oscar, that Harrow’s character had “run out of road.” The only question was how — or whether — the writers could make up a conclusion that would allow the show’s diehard Richard fans to feel that the end wasn’t just some random throwing-up-of-hands. (The show succeeded in avoiding this critique, I think.)

To run through the architecture of narrative support beams real quick-like: At Gillian’s trial, she yells out something to the effect that there’s no James Darmody body left to prove or disprove anyone’s claim that it was his look-alike who died in her bathtub. So Harrow (who is unfairly batted around on the stand over his disability) gets the idea to ask Nucky where James’s body is actually buried. That will seal Gillian’s fate in prison. But by the time Harrow locates Nucky to ask for the favor of resolving the James Darmody body question, Nucky is in need of a sharpshooter. In anticipation of winning, finally, the custody battle over little Tommy, Harrow sends both the kid and the Sagorskys on a train ride, to meet up with the Midwest Harrow clan (including the brother-in-law, whom Harrow hilariously promises will be “90 minutes early” to the station to meet Julia & Co.).

Meanwhile, our Nuck has convinced Narcisse to sit down with Chalky and hammer out their temporary peace, which Chalky thinks he’ll use to attend Maybelle’s wedding (hanging out in Maryland causes one to miss some plot points). So in short order, we then see Harrow with his rifle, up in the Onyx’s second-floor shadows. We see Narcisse in the rifle’s scope. The season’s surprising, and dramatically satisfying, close all of a sudden comes into focus. But we’ll get back to that.

For a while, during all this setup, the show leaves open the question of whether Nucky is lying to Chalky or to Narcisse. The elder Thompson definitely had to play somebody. At the beginning of this episode, we check Nucky continuing to make Cuban getaway plans with Sally, on the phone, when Chalky and his men show up asking questions with guns. (On the same night that all of the prior episode’s drama went down? I guess Chalky & Co. took the Acela from Maryland?) Anyway, Chalky gets Nucky to aver that he doesn’t dig taking orders from Narcisse and that he wants the dude gone, too. But this claim is made under gunpoint, so it’s not totally bankable. And then Nucky says more or less the same to Narcisse, about Chalky, in the offices of the hilariously unnecessary Mayor Bader.

So after Harrow pledges to Nucky that he’ll do anything for the clarity provided by James’s corpse, and once we see that it’s Narcisse in his rifle sights, we know for real where Nucky has come down. Nucky’s brutal, racist realpolitik was just what Narcisse needed to hear, in order to trust Nucky’s intentions. Likewise, at their Onyx sitdown, Chalky creates a one-dimensional version of himself — a “noble savage” who only dug Daughter for the sex and didn’t care about her now that her face was damaged — in order to allow Narcisse (and his superiority complex) to think that he’d finally arrived at the shallow measure of the man across the table.

All of this is a smart series of emotional play-acting, courtesy of the Nucky-Chalky troupe. But they forgot just one detail, which was to ask Richard Harrow: Hey, man, when was the last time you shot a gun under pressure? In a great reversal from the remorseless, Über-efficient killing machine at the end of season three, Richard Harrow is, in this finale, no more able to pull the trigger on Narcisse than he was able to finish off his suffering childhood dog (way back in the season). He really was “done” with shooting. Well: almost done. After much agonizing delay, Richard pulls the trigger. But the delay is tragic, since it allows Narcisse to call over Chalky’s daughter, Maybelle, to the table (so that she can fill in her father on the no-marriage plotline). Crossing the table in front of Narcisse, she takes Harrow’s bullet. Chakly, understandably, is paralyzed with grief. Richard, horrified with the fated use of his last bullet, fails to shoot again, leaving Narcisse time to scramble to the floor. Somewhat mysteriously, Chalky is not a target of the ensuing shootout between Narcisse forces and the second-floor shadows. But Richard, before scooting outside the club’s doors, touches his own body and finds blood. Still, he manages to exit the premises, helped in part by the cover of a simultaneous federal raid.

That raid scoops up Narcisse, who then comes face to face with FBI “DIE-rec-tor” (his preferred pronunciation) Hoover. And so now we have another bridge to season five: J. Edgar turns Narcisse against the government’s hated, “seditious” Marcus Garvey. Hoover, though he’s a cardboard characterization, has at least one thing correct: Narcisse is not a man of his stated principles and can be turned fairly easily. That’s a promising thread for next year.

But not all law enforcement officials have a smooth go of this episode. Agent Knox/Tolliver starts the episode about a hair’s breadth away from manic bad decision-making (he has a brief, pointless pissing contest with Hoover about their law-school-era egos) and simply doubles down at every step. Nucky, having figured that Eli’s proposals in the last episode were a setup, denies Knox/Tolliver the smoking gun meeting that he wanted. So Knox/Tolliver, with all his co-workers pitying or laughing at him, does the only thing he can do to feel powerful, which is to go push Eli around in front of his family. But since Eli’s already had a gun pointed at him that night (by Nucky, in a situation that could only be defused by Willie), the junior Thompson brother is in no mood to be intimidated.

Picking a moment when Knox/Tolliver is going on endlessly, Eli punches the Fed, starting one of those epic Boardwalk fights that uses all of the available set dressings (glass vase, wooden furniture, and a musical saw that we previously saw a wee Thompson practicing on, with spooky-tremulous tone, earlier in the hour). It ends with about thirteen unnecessary head-shots from Eli. And this is a way for Boardwalk to telegraph its theory of getting things done in gangster world: hand-to-hand combat, for all its messiness, is what brings results. Hiding in the shadows, à la Harrow, invites disaster. Recall how shooting at Capone from across the street, in the last episode, didn’t get that job done either.

Oh, right, there’s some Illinois action in the finale, too: Capone finally takes over from Torrio, by — it would appear — sending someone to fire a bunch of bullets at close range. It doesn’t kill Torrio, at least not immediately, but it does prove decisive in that fairly low-stakes part of the season. The more consequential part of the Chicago reality comes when we see George Mueller picking up an otherwise destitute Eli, who is being sought for Knox/Tolliver’s muder. Plus time away from Nucky, after betrayal No. 2.

That little reveal comes as part of a montage — covered with Daughter Maitland singing low-down blues in some unknown club — that sets up season five: Gillian’s in prison (presumably getting news of James’s body being “discovered”); Arnold Rothstein is grandly introducing Margaret and her Brood into posh Manhattan digs; Sally, in Florida, tends bar during a lightning storm while waiting to see if Nucky can make good on starting a new life in Cuba. And poor Chalky: separated even more decisively now from his family, has retreated to Maryland and taken over his mentor Oscar’s rocking chair. He’s “wearing another man’s clothes,” as he put it to Nucky in their surprise meeting at the beginning of the episode. (After almost an entire season off his game, here’s hoping he makes a comeback, strategically speaking, next year.)

But before we can look forward, with too much energy, to plot developments yet to come, we must consider the Final Ballad of Richard Harrow. It’s a great sequence to behold — and, as if to separate it from the barrage of plot updates that are presented during Daughter’s song, Boardwalk allows his beat to play out unaccompanied. We see Richard dreaming on a train. We see, via a jittery, handheld camera, his departure from the Midwestern train station. And, in a mirror of the cold, snowy reveal of Harrow’s sister’s house, early in the season, we next see Harrow approaching the manse in the full growth of spring. His sister is there on the porch, her own baby safely delivered. His brother-in-law is present, too, along with the Sagorsky clan. Julia runs to meet Richard on the large lawn, during his approach — and the second reverse shot on Richard’s face shows the man as he would like to be seen: whole. Uninjured by a life of violence. And then the brutal cut back to the Atlantic City reality: Under the boardwalk, Richard’s face mask is torn off. In right profile, we see Harrow’s expired face smiling as the sun rises over the beach.

Mickey Doyle still lives.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO