After Two Full Seasons, Boardwalk Empire Is Finally Getting Good

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 12 2011 12:59 PM

Did Boardwalk Empire Just Pull Off The Smartest TV Cliffhanger Ever?

Boardwalk Empire Season 2 Finale.
Steve Buscemi in a still from 'Boardwalk Empire'.

HBO

Warning: There are spoilers ahead! If you haven’t yet watched Season 2, Episode 12 of Boardwalk Empire, “To the Lost,” come back when you have.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

I’ve had my issues with Boardwalk Empire—six weeks ago I called the show “thoroughly inessential”—but, as so often happens on premium cable, the final two episodes of the season were spectacular. And the final twist was absolutely brilliant—one of the best y’all come back nows I’ve ever seen.

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Finales have two purposes: to tie up all the threads that have come loose over the course of the season and to suggest directions the characters might travel next time around—preferably in a way that sends viewers to Twitter to write “OMFG! #boardwalkempire.” The former is a low-degree-of-difficulty challenge (unless you’re The Killing). But the BLAMMO “you know you’ll tune in next year to see how we’re going to handle that” moment? Far harder to pull off.

On Sunday, Boardwalk Empire managed both.

The penultimate episode, “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” was a stunner, in which we learned that Jimmy Darmody would probably agree with Philip Larkin’s observation: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” In the case of Jimmy and his mom, however, the word up in that line is superfluous. After two seasons of Nucky Thompson needling Jimmy about giving up Princeton to go serve in World War I, we finally learned that Jimmy had sabotaged his academic career to defend his mother’s honor. Jimmy’s mom, Gillian—a needy, ambitious, frustrated woman—was behind all his missteps and overreaching.

At the end of “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” Jimmy seemed like a dead man walking—and he was. He stayed alive long enough to pass on his dog tags to his son, and to hand the boy off to Gillian. In last night’s finale, “To the Lost,” Jimmy presented himself for execution at Nucky’s hand. Since Jimmy had finished off his own father, the Commodore, the week before, Nucky no longer has any rivals in Atlantic City. (Of course, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky—now trafficking in heroin—are still around.)

Nucky had also shut down his worrisome murder prosecution with his own version of “screw, marry, kill.” By eliminating or deceiving potential witnesses and by marrying Margaret Schroeder (which meant she couldn’t testify against him), he got the case against him dismissed. When Congress approved $10 million to build roads in New Jersey, everything seemed to be going his way: Nucky and his Atlantic City associates had bought hundreds of thousands of acres of property, knowing it would be worth a fortune once the highway arrived. Nucky had signed his property over to Margaret when it seemed he was headed to jail, but, once he was out of danger, he asked her to sign it back to him.

Margaret, we know, is a religious woman—when her daughter Emily was struck with polio, she donated large sums of Nucky’s ill-gotten gains to the church in the hopes of getting right with God. So while Nucky and his pals popped champagne out on the site of the future highway, she took out the deeds, uncapped her pen, and, in the show’s final seconds, she signed her new married name and consigned the deed to … St. Francis Church.

It’s a brilliant twist: It sets up a surprising and unpredictable series of events in Season 3, but it also fits Margaret’s personality—and everything she’s gone through in the last few weeks—perfectly. Viewers know that next season won’t be a rerun of the Nucky-Jimmy drama that had already run its course. The lawsuit is off the table. The Commodore is gone. But how on earth will Nucky recover from his life’s plan being sabotaged? Can Margaret survive? There’s only one way to answer all these questions—and that’s to tune in next year.

I can’t think of a smarter season-finale cliffhanger. Have any nominations? Please tell me in the comments below!