At first I wasn’t sure I liked it. There were parts of the episode that worked, but overall I wasn’t sure if it all coalesced as it should have. However, a few minutes after the credits rolled I began to feel like the episode went down perfectly. I’m reminded of The Sopranos in that we were given a lot of shocks but we didn’t get the satisfying moments we were hoping for (intentionally so). Narcisse is in a shitload of trouble with the FBI, but as much as we dislike Narcisse, Hoover is even worse, which takes away any satisfaction we might get from seeing Narcisse’s comeuppance. Hoover forcing him to call him “sir” was devastating and the look on Jeffrey Wright’s face was pitch perfect for the scene, making me sympathize with him over Hoover. The death of Agent Knox is so incredibly brutal that there’s no fist pump moment, only grimaces and gasps as Eli viciously beats him. Nucky returns to his life of crime, but it’s done off screen. We don’t get a dramatic NUCKY’S BACK moment; we’re just shown that he goes about his business while Sally Wheet sits alone in Florida.
And then there’s Richard Harrow.
I’ve said a number of times this season that Richard’s redemption story is one I wouldn’t want the show to backtrack on, with him all of a sudden just another goon for Nucky. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that because the show granted my wish, but not in the way I expected. I started to surmise Richard might not make it out once he had a moving goodbye with Tommy (“Make sure to count all the cows you see. I expect a full report.”) and Julia, but I still really didn’t want it to happen and tried to wave the thought away. Once he botched the hit on Narcisse because he kept putting off having to kill once more and ended up killing Chalky’s daughter, Maybelle, I knew his story would not end happily. As shots rang out in the Onyx Club and Richard ran from it, hand at his side, I knew he wouldn’t be long for the world.
But the show teased us. Richard didn’t appear again for a while, leaving us to think he was nursing his wounds just as Chalky did a couple of episodes ago. He wasn’t seen over the montage and we suddenly saw him on a train. And then walking the tracks. And then approaching his sister’s house (in a callback to the final scene of the season premiere).
And then with a full face.
I sensed something was off when he was on the train and once he arrived at the house it became completely clear due to the movements (or lack of) of his family and the virtual silence outside of a woodpecker. It was a vision right out of The Sopranos and it worked beautifully. I have a hard time imagining anyone simply shrugging these closing moments off, especially once we flash to reality and see Richard dead, under the boardwalk. No one in Atlantic City will bother to look for him, but Julia and her family will know when he doesn’t arrive in Wisconsin.
As tragic as Richard’s death is for us, I also suspect he didn’t want to live anymore. He only agreed to kill Narcisse so Nucky would make sure Gillian went to prison, thus keeping her away from Tommy. Once the hit went bad and Maybelle died, there’d be no way the newly reformed Richard could live with himself. He can die knowing Tommy is safe with Julia and permanently away from Gillian.
Similar to Jimmy, a good part of Richard died in World War One, and America wasn’t ready to heal him. He’s another casualty of the war and yet another ghost that haunts Boardwalk Empire. Nucky’s empire is being built on the backs of dead men and women and the show often calls back to this. We have Jimmy, Richard, Eddie, Angela Darmody, and the Commodore, all of whom were main characters but who are now dead thanks to the world of crime that is Atlantic City. Eli even takes the time to point this out when he tells Nucky, “Sooner or later you wind up taking it all.” Nucky has avoided dealing with this for a while, but this season it began to hit him more and more, leading him to want to call it quits. Now that he’s been pulled back in Godfather style, I’m interested in whether he’ll be worse or try to redeem himself. He tells Willie that he’s not the horrible man Willie thinks he is, but Willie doesn’t look convinced and it doesn’t take a psychic to tell us that there’s a solid possibility of Willie taking on Nucky in the same fashion Jimmy did; Nucky might not be as lucky next time.
There’s a lot up in the air by the time this hour ends. Eli is now in Chicago with the Capones and Van Alden, Narcisse is working for Hoover, Chalky has absconded back to the house where Oscar lived, Margaret is living in Rothstein’s hotel, Nucky knows the Feds have been heavily looking into him, Gillian is in prison, and Al Capone has been given the reigns to Chicago.
This season has been an intriguing one, often quieter than in the past, and often going down very different paths than we’re used to. Instead of repeating past formulas, the show brought us something new and didn’t leave us feeling like we were watching the same overall story of Nucky taking out yet another threat. While this season doesn’t quite hit the heights of season two, I’d put it on par with last year. Last year had more full marks episodes, but this season was more consistent and experimental, which evens it out in my book. There’s a lot of promise for next season, but I’m still haunted by the passing of Richard and even Jimmy. This show can’t go forward without the past biting at its heels. I don’t think it’s going to be long before those bites become quite harsher.
Thanks for reading this season, folks. I really enjoyed it and I love getting to talk about this underappreciated drama.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.