The dissolution of families caused by violence and crime has been one of the primary themes of Boardwalk Empire since its first episode, but last night’s finale took this point and reframed the whole season around it. That’s not a huge surprise for an episode titled “Farewell Daddy Blues,” but that didn’t detract from the emotional power of what ensued during the episode itself. The cold, mechanical world of Boardwalk Empire stepped aside for a few scenes of real emotional power, and they were devastating here, even when the show had done its best to signal their inevitability in the past. Boardwalk Empire always features plenty of violence, but most of the time it’s rendered as the sort of abstract, action-movie violence in which no one of consequence is injured. Here, though, no one came out unscathed. Unlike in previous seasons, the violence offered no catharsis, and for all its other flaws, that’s what made “Farewell Daddy Blues” an excellent season finale.
“Blues” was filled with fathers, and the question constantly being asked of them was what were they willing to do for their children? A counterpart to this was there, too, though to a lesser degree, with children having their eyes opened to the evil of their fathers. Eli and Nucky were effectively dueling for Will’s soul, and with this Will learned that neither of the men he respected most were remotely pure. Both had compromised themselves, nominally for the sake of “family,” but that didn’t erase their sins. Will knew full well that had he not walked in at that moment his Nucky would have killed his father—itself more than a bit of a cliche, though still emotionally satisfying here—but he still felt the need to hear his uncle’s justification. What answer could Nucky have given that would’ve been sufficient explanation for a gun against Eli’s head?
Then there was the altercation at the Onyx Club that went horribly awry. The setup, though, is an exchange of daughters, Chalky’s for Ms. Maitland. Yet because both women are being treated as chattel, merely something for businessmen/crime bosses to barter with, both are soon lost (Maitland less so, but I think she’s gone from Atlantic City and the world of Boardwalk Empire for good—at least I hope so for her sake). This is a devastating moment, but taking a step back from the viscerality of these events, it’s also important to consider the roles these women really played in the show. For being all-important to these two men, they played very small parts, and in essence their relationships seemed more like status signifiers than those between mutually caring people. That isn’t to say that Chalky and Narcisse aren’t attached to them, but as with all familial relationships on the show, business has always come first for both men. Were that not the case, they wouldn’t be dealing with their daughters’ lives like that in the first place.
But the real devastation came from the shooter, the man in the balcony whose grip on his gun finally faltered. That was the moment when it was clear Richard Harrow wouldn’t make it through the episode, as it’s impossible to imagine a future for him even if he hadn’t been shot. He was always a righteous soldier, and shooting a civilian like that was beyond his moral code. That was also what made him an anachronism, a part of Boardwalk Empire that no longer had a place left in Atlantic City, and it’s no surprise that he didn’t make it through the season while the next most honorable man in the city (Chalky) is now persona non grata. Nucky, Chalky and everyone else respected his skill, but it was his moral code, not his disfigurement, that made him always seem foreign to the rest of the cast. Richard’s vision of heaven, hallucinated in his last moments on the shores of Atlantic City, is the happy family life he was never able to have because unlike everyone else on the show he prioritized that over business. But it’s not just his happy family life that’s being represented, it’s Nucky’s and Van Alden’s and everyone else on the show’s; it’s something that within this world of cyclical violence is forever a mere hallucination. It’s a very powerful moment because of how simple and pure his dreams really were. Yet no matter how honorably he acted, it could never come to pass.
With that we have the end of season four, but before then there were also the seeds of next season, which already promises to be more interesting. Knox was an interesting villain, but he was never particularly threatening. Prior to now, Hoover was difficult to treat seriously, too, but in his one scene with Narcisse he proved a far more frightening presence. His control and utter deviousness in getting what he wanted was powerful, and its sudden appearance acted as the season’s cliffhanger. The brilliance of this scene was just as much Jeffrey Wright’s, though, as Dr. Narcisse had to finally make a choice and admit who it is he really is, “a peddler and a pimp,” and shows himself completely willing to compromise his ideals and betray his hero, the great Marcus Garvey, in order to obtain his freedom. For us, there was never any doubt that this was the decision Narcisse would make, but Wright made this act a revelation to the character, and that dark self-realization was uncomfortable to behold. As despicable as Narcisse may be, it was impossible not to empathize with him while he’s being blackmailed by Hoover’s racist agenda.
The fourth season of Boardwalk Empire has been ruthless in its removal of women and children from its world, and aside from the weird misogyny implicit with this it’s finally treaded into deeper material. One of the problems the show has long had was what, ultimately, was it all about? Here, though, it offered us a thesis about fathers and children and families, and after seeing all of the sickening betrayals and murders of the previous hour there’s something both comedic and harrowing about seeing Margaret and her children moving in with Arnold Rothstein while the music montages the season away. As we see her taking up with another criminal, is there any doubt that things will end terribly for her again, as they did previously? The show, with its repetitions and mirrorings, tells us that despite this hospitable atmosphere, there’s no happy ending for any family here. Margaret willingly enters into this once again because, well, it’s the only way she knows to move up in this world, just as Will keeps working for Nucky despite seeing him hold a gun to his father’s head just a day earlier. Their eyes are open, but they’re still playing the game. As always, the gears of Boardwalk Empire’s plots keep spinning around, chewing up every character’s life and the lives of those important to them in the process, but the cause of all of this destruction is always too big for any individual to see.