‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season Finale Delivers Pain – And Plenty of Surprises

"Boardwalk Empire" season finale review

HBO's mob drama matches third season's highs with a different kind of intensity

After what felt like a slow start, “Boardwalk Empire” delivered one hell of a finishing kick — juggling a half-dozen plots, while paying off only a few of them. Yet if some of those unresolved storylines will nag at fans who craved greater closure — and it is, after all, a long wait between seasons — in its way this chapter proved as satisfying as the last, more due to individual moments of power, drama or gut-wrenching violence than an advancement of the bigger picture.

Although the season lacked the operatic qualities that surrounded season three’s all-out showdown between Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Gyp Rosetti, series creator Terence Winter and his team managed to weave together an assortment of arcs that built in momentum and tension, while continuing to boldly sacrifice top-line characters.

In that regard (and WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead), nothing felt more surprising than the fate of the disfigured war veteran Richard (Jack Huston), killed in what almost felt like an afterthought, at the very moment when it seemed possible that he might be able to claim an enduring measure of happiness.

Lacking one huge plot, the producers pieced together a quilt consisting of several near-equal threads, from the rise of Al Capone (Stephen Graham) to the threat posed to Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) by Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) to the federal plot against Nucky, using his brother Eli (Shea Whigham, never better) as leverage against him. Eli’s desperate, hand-to-hand fight with the G-man dogging him actually proved just as unsettling as Chalky’s gruesome encounter with the man Narcisse dispatched to kill him in a previous episode, which frankly didn’t seem possible.

In addition, the tragic death of Chalky’s daughter provided a devastating element of collateral damage, as well as a jolt given the way the season had built toward a Chalky-Narcisse faceoff.

At times Buscemi has seemed to recede into the ensemble this season, but the finale featured Nucky in a trio of memorable scenes — with Chalky, Eli and Richard. Even Michael Shannon, mostly misused in seasons past, finally had material worthy of him, as he embraced the mob and became a functionary in Capone’s operation. (Consciously or not the show often evokes memories of “The Godfather,” which felt particularly true of the sequence where Capone’s mentor Johnny Torio, played by Greg Antonacci, gets gunned down.)

Like any program that weaves together history and fiction, “Boardwalk” operates at something of a handicap. After all, it’s not like J. Edgar Hoover or Al Capone can catch a bullet, even if the producers have greater latitude with the less-well-known fact-based figures, as well as the fictionalized ones.

Nevertheless, the producers appear determined to keep the show wonderfully unpredictable. And while the HBO series might have been bumped from the list of best-drama Emmy contenders this year, that doesn’t reflect on its sustained quality or the density of its serialized storytelling. Indeed, the various loose ends create an almost dizzying roster of possibilities for season five — and beyond.

Prohibition lasted until 1933, which certainly points toward a logical end point — or at least epilogue. Whatever happens between now and then, if “Boardwalk Empire” can sustain the intensity of the finale, when Nucky and company do finally go out of business, it’s going to warrant one hell of a champagne sendoff.

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  1. Josh says:

    I’m really confused, maybe your guys can bring some light on this:
    I remember the first scene of the season where Richard kills Mueller and another guy
    when they leave the bar. In the same episode Mueller appears alive, I said, “Ok, it was a spoiler, we will get there later”.
    But then the season ended, Hallow dies and there was no explanation for that scene.
    Did I miss something?

    • Stacy says:

      That was a Mueller lookalike, but it was not Mueller, a lot of us got confused by that at first

      • Stacy says:

        Harrow got shot in the gut, when he attempted to flee, he went to die under the boardwalk, it was a bit shady whether he was dead or not, but it became clear when they showed his full face without the scars (RIP Richard, still can’t believe he’s no longer on the show)

  2. Chris Bracke says:

    Another great season, although every season is too short. Just when things get real good, you have to wait 9 months to see again. Only real disappointment was Richard, a great character that I am surprised was taken out. Already talked to several of my friends that love the show too, and they aren’t sure they will watch without him next year! Hope there is a way to get him back in, and that final scene wasn’t really his end.

  3. Bones says:

    I thought season 4 was good however I’m still wondering why Eli is still alive. Nucky should have killed him the first go round.

  4. “Chalky’s gruesome encounter with the man Narcisse dispatched to kill him in a previous episode”

    – It was Pernsley, way to do your homework.

  5. Tracey says:

    I’m pretty sure Richard is dead. I watched the after commentary from the producers and they pretty much said he died. He finally had everything he wanted and his story was done. I’m very saddened by this as he was my most favorite character.

  6. Maria says:

    Yes the season finale did pack some surprises. As for Richard’s passing it wasn’t a concrete declaration. He could just be unconscious and will return next year! My biggest complaint (which had me ready to throw in the towel this year) is how very dark the scenes were shot. I understand the subject is dark, the characters are dark but you could not even decipher what was going on in many episodes, especially this last one. You don’t need to lighten the story line just the cinematography please. Not enjoyable to watch an almost black screen for an entire season and it also is waste of some great talent!

  7. Jenny Seemayer says:

    I second Bill McDonald’s sentiment. While I am truly disappointed that Richard has passed, the finale as a whole was exceptional and the last shot of Richard lifelessly gazing into the sunrise was a beautiful shot in cinema history. I found myself watching it a second time, it was that superb. I haven’t been this sucker-punched since the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones. On another note, I was also glad that Eli beat the hell out of Knox and I know I’m not the only one!

  8. Jenny Seemayer says:

    I second Bill McDonald’s sentiment. While I am truly disappointed that Richard has passed, the finale as a whole was exceptional and the last shot of Richard lifelessly gazing into the sunrise was a beautiful shot in cinema history. I found myself watching it a second time, it was that superb. I was also glad that Eli beat the hell out of Knox and I know I’m not the only one!

  9. Bill McDonald says:

    That ending with Richard the Sniper was one of the best sequences in the whole series. We see him with his entire face intact and then the mask in the sand under the boardwalk. I thought it was genius. Part of me wants the first scene of the next season to be him still in that spot when a wave comes in and he sputters back to life. It would be a stretch but maybe he’s not dead – just passed out. Either way, the scene was brilliant. Ironic that when he loses his ability to get off an accurate shot, he is done. Tremendous writing. Tremendous.

    • Kevin says:

      Richard was a huge fan favorite but all signs point to him being dead. The fact that he tied up all the loose ends especially making sure Jillian gets put away guaranteeing that Tommy is safe with Julia and his sister. Richard has done too much bad in his life to go on and he has accepted his fate knowing that the people he loves are safe and out of harm’s way. I think it was written perfectly.

  10. Bill says:

    It’s very funny seeing the typical American-Fan for bad guys commentary in this article; reflective of many viewers cheerleading of killers and psychos in US TV crime dramas; re- Tony Soprano- ruthless sociopath multiple killer….. Sons of Anarchy – gang of killers….. Dexter psychotic serial killer……. and this article wanted to see Richard/ex WW1 sniper, finally get ‘happiness’; in spite of his long list of killings and assassinations/hits that went unpunished. I think the writers must be surprised at how they inevitably create very forgiving fans for these killer-characters even despite the shows weekly plots clearly depicting them as thugs, murderers, thieves, unfaithful, immoral, demented, and wickedly calculating. Don’t feel sorry for these thugs. True justice is seeing them die off,….. but the show is accurately reflecting how in real life, many top dog baddies never face justice- they just leave a trail of misery and deaths of innocents. That is what the writers are trying to hit you with..

  11. Bill says:

    It’s very funny seeing the typical American-Fan for bad guys commentary in this article; reflective of many viewers cheerleading of killers and psychos in US TV crime dramas; re- Tony Soprano- ruthless sociopath multiple killer….. Sons of Anarchy – gang of killers….. Dexter psychotic serial killer……. and this article wanted to see Richard/ex WW1 sniper, finally get ‘happiness’; in spite of his long list of killings and assassinations/hits that went unpunished. I think the writers must be surprised that although they create fans for these killer-characters even despite the shows weekly plots clearly depicting them as thugs, murderers, thieves, unfaithful, immoral, demented, and wickedly calculating. Don’t feel sorry for these thugs. True justice is seeing them die off,….. but the show is accurately reflecting how in real life, many top dog baddies never face justice- they just leave a trail of misery and deaths of innocents. That is what the writers are trying to hit you with..

  12. Terry Fisher says:

    Great season. Great show. I understand fans dismay with the loss of Richard but is outcome was inevitable and timely. A lost soul. The killing of Dion O’Banion
    was incredible. I do not know another show capable of putting you in a place and time…

  13. Chris Hearn says:

    Bucemi the actor learned suppressed facial gangster family betrayal anger from watching Pacino’s Michael. The writers must be careful with the “everything I do is for family” explanation that gets nowhere fast. Though I doubt Nucky will visit Rome seeking redemption, don’t layer on too many narratives that distract what a sociopath he will always remain.

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