'Boardwalk Empire' season finale: Same boardwalk, different Nucky

Boardwalk-Empire-Season-Finale-Cannavale-HBO.jpgThe big question leading into tonight's "Boardwalk Empire" season finale was how Nucky Thompson ( Steve Buscemi) would manage to recover from the streak of bad luck and betrayal which has steadily encroached upon him all season. But after a finale filled with strategic maneuvers and an enormous body count, the lingering issue remaining for Season 4 is whether or not Nucky will stick to the "full gangster" mantra.

Season 3 was more consistent than the last -- the writing was stronger, and it played out with fewer contemplative and slow episodes. And unlike last year, the finale wasn't packed with jaw-dropping revelations or unexpected deaths. Instead, "Margate Sands" played out as a tribute to Nucky Thompson's shrewd negotiating skills, and his ability to take back his city after losing nearly everything.

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead*

A Nucky-less Atlantic City is chaotic, and gang violence has the press and the public talking. Even as Thompson plots his comeback, he fears that his days of prosperity are no more: "It's over here," he comments. "However this plays out. No one's going to come within 100 yards of me. Not in Atlantic City, not in New York, not anywhere." But hitting rock bottom has one silver lining: It's the antidote to the Thompson brother drama, and Eli and Nucky are able to mend their relationship at last.

The same can't be said for Thompson's nemesis, Gyp Rosetti ( Bobby Cannavale), who continues to burn bridges. Joe Masseria is frustrated with Rosetti -- he's created a monster in the "petulant child" (as Nucky once described him). Masseria will eventually be murdered by Luciano, but for now he is more inclined to return to New York and enter the heroin business with Rothstein, rather than stay in support of Rosetti's hostile Atlantic City takeover.

"Everyone dies," says Masseria in Italian. "But not everyone keeps their promises." Oh, how true.

The stage is being set for Luciano ( Vincent Piazza) to play a bigger role in Season 4. His ambition has continually amplified, and he isn't afraid to speak his mind to Rothstein or Masseria. Plus, historically we know that he will become one of the most famous gangsters in of all time. "Pricks like you, they come and go. Nobody remembers them," a dirty detective says to Luciano. Joke's on you, buddy!

Race will likely be a larger issue in Season 4 as well. "Boardwalk Empire" has never sugarcoated the harsh truth of its era, and ethnic and racial slurs have been tossed around frequently. Chalky White ( Michael K. Williams) and his crew have been used to illustrate the realities of African American life in the early 20th century. But now that Nucky is indebted to Chalky, who will presumably be taking over Babette's club, expect to see more in-depth exploration of race and power in episodes to come.

Just as BE uses Chalky to tell the story of race, Margaret has become the poster child for women's rights. After her absence in last week's episode, we see her again at last -- in New York getting an abortion. Nucky locates her afterwards, and although the surprising confrontation frightens her, he tells his wife that he forgives her -- "and it's time to come home."

Margaret's feminist indoctrination is put to the test in that moment of darkness and shock, when Nucky offers her money and a return to the cushy lifestyle she knows in AC. But she refuses, proving that her liminal phase might be over -- and she might be practicing what she preaches at last.

Speaking of preaching, Van Alden ( Michael Shannon) was noticeably missing from the season finale, but that doesn't mean the craziest puritanical ex-Prohibition agent in Chicago won't be back for more jaw-clenching and mental breakdowns next season.

At the Artemis Club, Gillian ( Gretchen Mol) and Tommy Darmody are miserable, and cooped up while Rosetti's crew has the run of the household. Matters are made worse by Gyp and Gillian's (Gypllian?) twisted attraction. They share a mutual inner-turmoil and desire for control, which nearly culminates in one of the scariest sex scenes in "Boardwalk" history ("I want to break you in half...").

But in a hasty sequence of events, Gillian's handy heroin trick gets turned on her -- and it's Richard Harrow ( Jack Huston) who comes to Tommy's rescue, with impeccable timing. As audiences have known all along, Harrow might have only half a face, but he's more "full gangster" than most of his BE counterparts -- and he launches a smooth and gratifying massacre in the Artemis Club. It's an electrifying scene, but the outcome of his heroism is unclear: Gillian is still alive, and it seems that he might have to forsake his relationship with Julia Sagorsky once she sees him covered in blood.

Of course, the other big moment of the night is Rosetti's murder on the beach -- stabbed in the back by one of his own men. Ding, dong the Gyp is dead! Nucky Thompson is rid of his biggest menace, and just as Owen Sleater's body was used to "send a message" to Nucky, in turn Rosetti's henchman bring his body to Masseria.

"Let [Masseria] know this could be the end of the problems between us.. or the beginning," Nucky says. "I'll oblige him either way."

The character of Rosetti only had a reasonable shelf life of one season, but Cannavale plays him wonderfully to the end -- fury, tears, and over-the-top machismo. And in his final "Boardwalk Empire" scene, Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti as Nucky Thompson puts on yet another a brilliant display of Gyp's madness ("I'm an important person. I have important garters holding up my very important socks!"). Boardwalk-Empire-Season-Finale-Buscemi-HBO.jpg

We just hope that Regina, the little dog he stole in the first episode, finally finds a good home.

Nucky Thompson's new distillery in Pennsylvania is poised to make him "the biggest bootlegger in the country," according to Mickey Doyle. But in an intricate series of power plays, Overholt goes from Thompson to Rothstein (in exchange for Rosetti's abandonment in AC) -- and then Andrew Mellon alerts the feds to Rothstein's involvement, guaranteeing big problems for the powerful New York City boss. Indeed, Nucky understands that "big bait catches big rat" -- and what he lacks in muscle in the season finale, he compensates for with his wits.

In his own way, Nucky avoided being "half a gangster" this season, but it came at an enormous cost -- one that was spelled out louder than in BE's first two years. Sure, in previous seasons there were attempts on his life, indiscretions, and people he loved died. But Thompson's glory days are over, and a bleak sort of maturity has set in after Billie's death, his wife's affair, Owen's murder, and multiple betrayals by his business partners.

"Boardwalk's" central character has become increasingly reminiscent of Tony Soprano -- with the unraveling of his marriage, the death of his mistress, the ghost of his dead protege, and threats from both the law and his rivals. This season, the series entered more depressing and psychological territory, and it's likely that Thompson will continue to develop into a more introspective and guarded character, rather than the showy and complacent honcho he once was.

In the end, we see a different Nucky on the same old boardwalk. He has "won," eliminated a volatile enemy and check-mated his most powerful rival. He's back in control of Atlantic City, but he yearns for a certain anonymity. He ditches his signature boutonniere, and declines the doormen at the Ritz.

As he puts it, "I don't want anyone knowing who I am. I don't want anyone looking into my business. I don't want anyone coming near us who we don't already trust."

"We didn't stop while the going was good," he comments during a low point. "Always trying to pinch for a little bit more." But will he adopt a new strategy of moderation in order to preserve his place in Atlantic City? Probably not. He's learned lessons in Season 3, and he's certainly evolving -- but what would Thompson's world be without a certified empire to go along with his boardwalk?
Photo/Video credit: HBO
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