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

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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