Compared with the first season of Boardwalk Empire, season two certainly wrapped things up neatly. And while there’s a few loose ends dangling, there’s no imminent threat to Nucky’s position. Had the show ended with two seasons here there certainly wouldn’t be anything like the clamor for more Deadwood, since essentially these two seasons were one story arc. It was the story of Nucky’s surrogate son Jimmy returning from war, becoming gradually more estranged from his mentor and finally trying to succeed him; meanwhile Nucky found a new family to replace the relationship he once had with Jimmy. The rest of the show has always been backseat to this essential conflict.
What I like so much about “To the Lost” is that for a show that loves slowly moving characters into places where they’re forced into their actions, this episode is all about choice. Somehow, Nucky has survived the entire ordeal of his trial and Jimmy’s reign, in fact thrived, and is free to make the future how he wants it to be. This means that it’s up to him who lives and who dies from the conspiracy against him, as well as what his future with the Schroeder family looks like. Everyone else’s positions are clear, he’s the pivot turning that’s making things happen, and Boardwalk Empire is always best when it’s giving Nucky an active role. Jimmy, for all his pathos and angst, was never nearly as interesting or enjoyable to watch as Nucky.
This begins with a choice about Manny Horvitz, who gets an interesting (although difficult to hear) monologue about the position of criminals in the show, effectively telling us how he believes that only people on the top like Waxy, Nucky and Rothstein ever get a real cut of the action. He’s hiding in the basement of a synagogue and Nucky is given a choice to either kill him, or ally with him. Then there’s Eli, who tried to reconcile with his brother a few episodes back. He tries again here, without optimism about the result, but they finally reach an understanding. Most importantly there’s Jimmy, who asks Nucky what he could do to make things up to the man who raised him. Well, as the show has told us before, there are some debts that cannot be repaid with money.
Through all of this, we can guess where Nucky stands with respect to these individuals, but until the last moment he could go any way. His phone call to Rothstein, one of the few men Nucky truly respects, is a wonderful touch. Rothstein tells him to flip a coin about Manny’s future, and when the coin is in the air Nucky will know how he feels about things. What I love about this is that this is so against the way Nucky normally deals with problems. He’s not emotional, he’s rational. His empire has always been built on making advantageous business deals, not putting his rage into matters. Here, though, he’s forced to confront his feelings about Jimmy and the way they are so strong that he can’t simply turn the man into an asset. He has to be eliminated.
Jimmy’s final scene is just one of three rather amazing setpieces in the episode. The beginning, in which Jimmy and Richard Harrow coldbloodedly come down against the KKK is the type of stunning scene we’d expect had Martin Scorsese returned to direct. Then we have the montage of preparation for the trial against Nucky, which feels electric and exciting and unlike some of the show’s other montages warranted by the material. Then there’s the showdown itself, which was dark and noiry and all the things it should be.
Not that the episode was perfect, but it was hard to find much to quibble with. I wish Chalky’s role hadn’t been so small, but that goes for the show in general. He’s the most wasted character on Boardwalk Empire, to the point that when I heard that Michael K. Williams had turned down a role in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained because of the show my main thought was how could his three minutes an episode possibly be that important?
As far as setup for the next season, we’re also left with very little. Last year we had the advent of the Nucky-Haters club, this year we had… Margaret selling land to the church? This wasn’t a particularly riveting revelation, and while Nucky had a choice as to what to do with Margaret in the same way as everyone else, in general her scenes struck a wrong chord with me. It seems like she’s attempting to do penance for all of the wrongs that Nucky commits, giving the church land when he kills Jimmy, offering money for the time Nucky killed her husband, etc. But that’s not either a realistic role or something that seems motivated by what we know about Margaret. Her arc this season was to go from Nucky’s accomplice to a woman held in a strange thrall by her guilt and the Catholic Church, and it’s sucked all of the life out of the character.
Season two began disappointingly for me because it moved the focus away from Nucky. Sometimes this worked well, sometimes this didn’t, but by the end of the season it felt like the show’s creators had regained their control of the storytelling and had a focus. When I’m not enjoying the show it’s usually because I feel like neither I, nor the people behind Boardwalk Empire know what it’s all really about. The end of the season wasn’t subtle, but it knew what it was doing and makes the third look like it may be in good hands, if simply because removing Jimmy means a lot of the show that was focused entirely on him will be gone. He and his wife are no longer the center of things, and while “Meemaw” is still around, she’s powerless without him or the Colonel (what Richard Harrow chooses next will be interesting to see, but it seems unlikely to overpower the show). While Jimmy was busy angsting away, the show’s supporting cast, such as Manny, Owen, Chalky, and Esther, have been increasingly interesting.
So I look forward to next season, partially because it will be so different from the first two. While the first season put things into place so that it season two would head towards this inescapable conclusion, season two’s finale feels like it opened things up and has removed a lot of the show’s more irritating parts along the way.
•I appreciate the way Jimmy and Richard have absolutely no compunction whatsoever about mowing down members of the KKK.
•If you wanted to speak with Ms. Randolph alone, Margaret, then why did you bring a priest along with you?
•Also, I think Margaret meant literally how do you “become” a lawyer. If you’re already a public defender, Esther, then you’re a lawyer.
•If Enoch has been “plenty cruel to others” then why are you fond of him, as you put it, Ms. Randolph? This scene wasn’t exactly the episode’s best-written one.
•Margaret/Nucky’s discussion feels off simply because after the first couple episodes we’ve rarely seen them have any intimacy whatsoever this season.
•Some really bad post-dubbing there for an HBO show during their discussion, too.
•The “Cowboy or soldier” hats for pony rides are awesome. I feel like this scene, plus last episode’s focus on Jimmy, tips the show’s hand too much that Jimmy will be the one to go, but that may just be me. Anyone else assume that he wouldn’t make it through the season after last week’s episode?