At the start of “Friendless Child,” the penultimate episode of Boardwalk Empire, the war between Nucky (Steve Buschemi) and Luciano (Vincent Piazza) has escalated. Nineteen men are dead, trucks are being fire bombed, and Nucky is ready to hit back harder. Despite Maranzano’s counsel of patience, Nucky, feeling “impetuous,” moves on his own, kidnapping Bugsy Seigel (Michael Zegan). When Luciano responds by grabbing Will Thompson (Ben Rosenfield) off the street, the stage is set for the showdown we’ve been expecting all season.
Given the strong fatalistic streak running through Nucky this season, I was prepared for the worst once the two gangs squared off on a deserted highway in the middle of the night in order to exchange hostages. So was Luciano. After a botched handoff gives Luciano the upper hand, not even Nucky’s full concession of Atlantic City and Bacardi can persuade Luciano not to kill him. It’s only after Nucky throws in the sweetener of killing Maranzano that Lansky, realizing the value of Nucky’s offering, steps in to spare his life.
And just like that, Nucky’s reign in Atlantic City ends in a whimper, the only casualties being the cartoonish Mickey and the murderous Archimedes. Nucky, to his own surprise, was outsmarted by Luciano. For most other characters in Boardwalk, being outsmarted means being dead. For Nucky, it forces him to do what Johnny Torrio (and viewers, yelling at their television sets) had been advising him all season, leave the business before it’s too late. Nucky, in his attempts to go legitimate, has known on some level that this was the right decision. But his eagerness to take on Luciano and Lansky implied that logic was not the driving factor in Nucky’s decision-making lately. It’s been his guilt, as shown through the flashbacks, that has overwhelmed his thought process. By snatching Will, Luciano unwittingly saved Nucky’s life by triggering an impulse in Nucky stronger than self-hatred.
So even though Nucky’s empire is lost, he appears to be on the brink of finding himself. What do you mean, finding himself? Where has he been? Sheriff Lindsay stole him, don’t you remember? Don’t believe me, then believe Mabel. When the Sheriff comes knocking one night, Mabel asks him, “Have you come to steal my husband?” She poses this question lightheartedly, but after noting Sheriff Lindsay’s demeanor, the camera pulls away to reveal a frightened, disturbed Mabel. When the Sheriff sends Nucky into the Commodore’s spooky, newly constructed mansion, we understand how portentous Mabel’s question actually was. The job Sheriff Lindsay hands off to Nucky at the Commodore’s front steps is one that changes Nucky in fundamental ways. So while he does return to Mabel later that night, he is not the same one who left her earlier. Mabel was right, the Sheriff had come to steal her husband.
There is a strong possibility that had Mabel not died in childbirth, Nucky would have come to his senses, much like Sheriff Lindsay does, before his corruption was complete. When alive, Mabel was his moral compass, scoffing at his constant refrain that “you can’t help everyone.” Nucky is frustrated by her standards, repeatedly pleading to her, “What do you want me to be?” It’s not hard to see how losing Mabel and their child—his purpose, as Joe Kennedy would say—would leave him spiritually lost and more willing to do the Commodore’s bidding.
The greatest insight of the flashbacks has been to shine a light on the magnitude of the Commodore’s and Nucky’s sins. We always knew Nucky was involved in the Commodore’s depravities, but dramatizing his complicity has had a much more powerful, and damning, effect than merely being made aware of it. It’s because of this renewed focus on Nucky’s past that I’d been assuming he would pay the ultimate cost. He still might. This is still Boardwalk Empire, where redemption is no guarantee. But now that Nucky’s life has been spared, allowing him to read Gillian’s plea for help, there is hope that Nucky might find some peace, and himself, after all.
Thoughts, predictions, erratum:
I didn’t feel too bad for Mickey. After all, at the beginning of the series, the over/under on his death would have been about 1924, and I’d have lost a lot of money betting on the under . . . We probably get one last look at Capone next week but given that we all know how it ends, it’s probably not necessary . . . After what Eli has been through this season, I was happy to see him regain some dignity in “Friendless Child.” First, with the touching scene on the street with Will: “I told myself if he’s doing okay it was worth it. Now here you are. Right side of the street.” Then, by being the one who gets to save his son’s life by finishing off Maranzano . . . Speaking of Will, now that he’s an A.D.A., maybe he can look into the case of a former Temple student wrongly convicted of murder . . . I’m curious to see exactly how Nucky forces Mayflower’s stock to go down (asking for a friend) . . . That was a great shot of Torrio standing outside Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel as they celebrated the new era of the Mafia. Not sure why I felt bad for him, but I did.
Benny Siegel took over the comedy title from Van Alden this episode. Loved his delivery all episode, but especially on the phone with Luciano, “Hey Charlie. What’s Cooking?” Also, that’s one hell of a song he stuck in my head. Everyone sing along with me, “There’s one pet I like to pet . . . ”
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