Monday, December 6, 2010

Boardwalk Empire season finale recap: "Return to Normalcy"

Spoilers for the first-season finale of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

The series concluded its freshman season Sunday night with a fittingly melancholy episode, titled "Return to Normalcy." Indeed, in many ways, a sort of tentative peace has been restored for many of our characters, particularly Nucky Thompson (Buscemi). The election is over, and Nucky's candidate for mayor, Edward Bader, has won. Nucky has also, at least temporarily, resolved his feud with Rothstein and, with information collected from Rothstein's associate Luck Luciano, had the remaining D'Alessio brothers killed.
Nucky was even reunited with his girlfriend Margaret. Of course, that reunion probably has less to do with love than with Margaret's fear that she'll become destitute (spurred on by some fun -- but potentially depressing -- Irish tradition involving trinkets in a cake).
Margaret's suspect motives aren't the only cloud on Nucky's horizon. Three of his most trusted associates -- surrogate son Jimmy, surrogate dad the Commodore and actual brother Eli -- seem poised to betray Nucky. In fact, his whole empire seems like a house of cards, ready to tumble at any minute.
He's not the only one whose peace seems in danger of being trampled. Jimmy (Michael Pitt) has vowed to his girlfriend Angela that he'll try to be less violent and angry as long as she stops getting mired in tedious bisexual subplots that HBO has jammed into the series to boost ratings. But a postcard from Angela's girlfriend has her questioning things again.
Meanwhile, Van Alden (the supremely creepy Michael Shannon, whose bug eyes haunt my nightmares) is planning to turn in his badge, stung by his seemingly unintentional (but still terrifying) murder of Agent Sepso. He wants to become a partner in his uncle's feed business. However, his wife has reservation about the career move. Oh, and there is the small matter of the fact that he's apparently knocked up poor Lucy, Nucky's former girlfriend.
All in all, it was a satisfying episode with many highlights (which I'll get to in a bit). I know that some people have soured on "Boardwalk Empire" over the course of these 12 episodes, finding it slow, disappointing and even dull. I understand that. Here is a series combining some of the major talents of the day -- Martin Scorcese, Terence Winter and star Steve Buscemi, among others. Expectations were bound to be high and people were bound to feel let down by the series.
I had some issues with it myself. Sometimes I felt the show's pace was a little too leisurely, and we were frequently getting lost in subplots I didn't give a damn about (did ANYONE care about Angela Darmody's extracurricular sextivities?). But, overall, I found it deeply entertaining with some of the best acting on TV. It's hard to think of a show that's assembled such an impressive array of character actors as stars, and given most of them wonderfully meaty roles (note that I said MOST of them. I'm hoping the great Michael Kenneth Williams has a little more to do in future seasons).
There have been some unforgettable set pieces (many of them is this very episode),  and the show is maybe one of the best looking series on TV, with its gorgeous period clothes and cars and shots of characters mournfully staring out onto the ocean. Nice stuff.
Anyway, here are some more of my thoughts on "Return to Normalcy."
* OK, how great were Kelly McDonald and Steve Buscemi in that scene when Margaret confronts Nucky about the truth regarding his beloved late wife Mabel? Buscemi's even, strenuously unemotionally telling of this unbelievably tragic story (punctuated by his repeated ironic use of the phrase "I was very busy") is absolutely devastating. McDonald's silent tears as she listened to this man she kind of admires, kind of fears, were also perfect. Just a perfectly acted scene.
* And now, in the "bizarre twist" category, we learned that it wasn't Jimmy's mom Gillian spiking the Commodore's food with arsenic. Rather, it was his long-suffering housekeeper -- whom Nucky gives a total pass for the attempted murder (I liked him gently chiding her about her murder attempt the way a parent might scold a child for not sharing his toys). This totally ticks off the Commodore, paving the way for his alliance Eli and Jimmy, who is the Commodore's son.
* Yes, I know the "slaughtering of enemies as major event happens" sequence has been done before, but the killing of the D'Alessio brothers (juxtaposed with Nucky's press conference assigning the brothers much of the blame for the killings perpetrated by Al and Jimmy in the series' pilot), was quite awesome. And I'll never quibble with anything that brings Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) into the story.
What did everyone else think?


Bill Scurry said...

Loved this whole series -- when the worst thing you have to talk about is Aleksa Palladino's lesbian subplot, that means you're doing something right. I say Buscemi gets an Emmy/GG based on that performance last night.

Can't wait for the next go around.

Ms Andisue said...

I love this series and the scene you described so well with Nucky telling Margaret the story of his wife and child was one of the best things I've ever seen on television. (Even going back to the 'Marty' golden age.) If Buscemi doesn't get every award in the book for this scene alone something is very wrong.