HBO renewed “Boardwalk Empire” for its second season almost immediately after the first episode premiere, but “Normalcy” almost feels like a series finale, given that it includes so many resolutions and neatly-tied loose ends, with two notable exceptions. Many season finales will end up with cliff-hangers and game-changers — regulars get killed or revealed to be robots — but “Normalcy” takes its cue from its final scene: the party’s over and it’s time to go home. Let’s sum up the show and the season through its main characters.
Nucky Thompson: At first, Nucky’s sweaty and snappish over the prospects of the Republicans losing the election, and he’s probably pretty cranky that Margaret Schroeder has left him. Margaret pays him a visit when he’s donning a Lone Ranger-style for a Halloween party, and she remarks that he looks like “A dapper villain in a Sunday serial.” But she also wants to find out the truth about his dead wife and son.
Nucky recounts a grim tale from seven years earlier, when he was both a new Dad and a newly-elected city treasurer, and how, thanks to his workaholic habits, he didn’t realize that his prematurely-born son, also named Enoch, had been dead for days: his wife was in a delusional state and treating the child’s body as if it were still alive. If that weren’t bad enough, she committed suicide weeks later using Nucky’s own razor. (Nucky and/or Eli must’ve paid off half the city to hush up such a tragic, lurid story.) Margaret asks him why he behaves the way he does, and he replies, in the episode’s thesis statement, “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.”
As much as I enjoy Buscemi as an unconventional, historically convincing corrupt politician, at season’s end I find Nucky to be possibly too much of a cold fish to be an anchor of a TV series. If one considers the antiheroes of other big crime series — Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Walter White — they’re generally men with huge passions and appetites for life. Tony Soprano may be a criminal and a murderer, but he’s also a surprisingly relate-able family man. It’s hard to invest much emotional stake in Nucky’s fortunes.
Rothstein essentially waves the white flag in the gang war, hoping Nucky can prevent an indictment in the White Sox scandal. Nucky agrees in exchange for a million dollars in cash (cue Dr. Evil voice: “One million dollars!) and the address of the D’Alessio brothers. Nucky not only orders the D’Alessio’s execution (with Harrow looking especially terrifying), but uses the news for political benefit. The show ends with Nucky as the victor in the election, in organized crime and in affairs of the heart as Margaret returns to him. Perhaps playing house with Margaret and facing new threats in Season 2 will make Nucky warm up.
Margaret Schroeder. Having walked out on Nucky, Margaret and her kids crash with Harding’s mistress, Nan Britton, who labors under the delusion that her baby-daddy will make her First Lady if he wins the election. We see Halloween/All Hallow’s traditions primarily through Margaret, who dresses her kids in adorable costumes, attends a church service in a cemetery (where she sees the headstone for Nucky’s son). She also bakes a Barnbrack Cake, which contains a coin for future riches, a ring for marriage and a piece of rag for destitution. (Could they come up with a more depressing tradition? How about a bullet for wartime death, or a rat skull for starvation?) Margaret gets the rag, decides to choose moral ambiguity over poverty and reunites with Nucky over champagne.
Margaret’s emancipation has been one of the show’s most interesting sub-plots, but she serves to make the other female roles seem underwritten by comparison. Like “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” explores a more sexist period of history, but “Mad Men” still delivers more complex female characters like Betty Draper and Joan Holloway. Angela and Gillian aren’t nearly as complex by comparison.
Jimmy Darmody. Jimmy, that ol’ shell-shocked lug, makes a bid to start anew with Angela, blaming both of their indiscretions on the war (papering over the infidelities and near-abandonments that happened after Jimmy returned stateside). Angela says that both she and his son are terrified of him because of his violent behavior in his sleep, but we have no idea if this is true — she could be lying to put him on the defensive. Rather than kill herself or skip town, with or without their son Tommy, Angela sticks around, but cuts off her hair just to remind Jimmy how miserable she is.
Jimmy’s especially peeved that Nucky essentially pimped 13 year-old Gillian to the Commodore two decades ago, bringing to the surface his resentments of Jimmy as a surrogate dad. Jimmy’s real dad, the Commodore, is ticked at Nucky too, both for a jail term he served thanks to Woodrow Wilson and the fact that Nucky paid off the Commodore’s housekeeper rather than arrest her for attempted murder. I assume that the housekeeper takes the fall for Gillian’s attempt to poison him, but honestly, I’m not sure who was responsible at this point.
The gist is that the episode ends with a meeting of the newly formed Nucky Thompson H8Rs Club, with charter members the Commodore, Jimmy and Nucky’s disgruntled brother Eli, mollified by neither a huge payoff nor the restoration of his title as sheriff. When the Commodore talks up the prospect of Jimmy overthrowing Nucky, “Boardwalk Empire” nearly takes on a Shakespearean dimension.
Agent Nelson Van Alden. “Boardwalk Empire’s” most surprising character (and standout performance) begins the episode planning to quit Atlantic City, which he compares to a modern Carthage, where St. Augustine (like Van Alden himself, he’s clearly thinking) succumbed to sin. He’s partly distraught because “My partner, Eric Sebsoe, died of a heart attack in the line of duty,” which sounds euphemistic, like “he killed himself trying to escape."
He considers leaving crime-busting in favor of his Uncle Byron’s feed business in Schenectady (really). When his wife points to the good work he does, he sarcastically replies, “If God wants me to stay in Atlantic City, let him give me a sign.” Alrighty then, says God. Later, Van Alden packs up his stuff in his office and in walks Lucy Danzinger, swaddled in furs, who informs him, “Well, you made me pregnant.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about “A Return to Normalcy” is that Agent Van Alden, after having a massive breakdown, doesn’t get killed off. Probably most viewers expected him to die trying to kill Nucky or Margaret and going out in a blaze of glory. Instead, a not-so-Immaculate Conception conspires to keep him in Carthage. It’s impossible to imagine Van Alden admitting the child is his (for all we know, it’s Nucky’s), but he’d be highly susceptible to blackmail.
What will Van Alden do? Will he get his job back? Will he pay off Lucy? Will he be accused of Sebsoe’s murder, which took place before dozens of witnesses? Given Chalky White’s leadership role in the African-American community, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chalky knows Van Alden did it.
“A Return to Normalcy” winds up with a musical montage, set to “Life’s a Very Funny Proposition” — perhaps because “Life is a Cabaret” would have been too on-the-nose. “Boardwalk Empire’s” season finale concludes by confirming the show’s primary criticism for being derivative, from the rendezvous of the three criminal “families” to the mob hit in a barber chair to lines like “Looks like there’s a new sheriff in town.” For a show so fascinated by cheaters like Nucky and Rothstein, it’s first season spent a little too much time playing by the house rules.
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