'Boardwalk Empire' Season Finale Recap: Pyrrhic Victory

The battle for Atlantic City is over, but Nucky lost more than he won

nucky thompson boardwalk empire
Macall B. Polay
Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in 'Boardwalk Empire'
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It's tough to beat plot developments that feature incest and killing off one of your top-tier characters. So it's for that reason alone the dramatic jolt of Boardwalk Empire's third-season finale, "Margate Sands," fell short. The only major death – Gyp Rosetti – was predictable, and the futures of the other plot lines were left a little too ambiguous for my liking. Of course, this is owing to the fact that there will be a fourth season, but since many of the story lines remained so murky my anticipation for next year's continuation has been dulled somewhat. Van Alden, for instance, hasn't been seen or heard from since episode 10, when Capone detained him for selling aquavit on his turf. Eddie was MIA in the finale as well, with no news on whether or not he survived his gunshot wound. Richard may have brought Tommy into a safe haven at the Sagorskys', but it's unlikely next season will find Richard, Tommy and Julia living as one big happy family if Gillian has anything to say about it once she comes down from her heroin high. And while I applaud Margaret for throwing Nucky's money back in his face, symbolizing her first step toward the independence she so coveted at the start of the season, there's no way their relationship is entirely over yet.

One thing is for certain: Even though Nucky succeeded in taking back his town from Gyp and Joe Masseria, and suckered Rothstein into acquiring the Overholt distillery just so Esther Randolph could arrest the professional gambler, he's no longer the King of Atlantic City. He's lost his family, his allies (save for Eli and Chalky), and he can no longer trust anyone who crosses his path. The closing-credits song that played as Nucky disappeared into the crowd on the boardwalk could not have been more fitting: a gorgeous, elegiac rendition of "I Ain't Got Nobody" by none other than Patti Smith.

Let's Make a Deal

For all the buildup toward a gangster bloodbath courtesy of Capone and his thugs (which we got in spades), Nucky wound up winning his war against Gyp by going back to basics – using his smarts. Plus Richard's one-man attack on the Artemis Club didn't hurt. After receiving a call from Mickey, who had been sent to Pennsylvania to get the Overholt distillery running, Nucky learns that he is sitting on a business that would make him "the biggest bootlegger in the country." Mickey is then dispatched to dangle Overholt in front of Rothstein, who summarily phones Nucky with an offer: he will persuade Masseria to withdraw his support from Gyp – rendering him powerless – in exchange for 99 percent control of the distillery. Nucky, satisfied that his plan worked impeccably, agrees and smugly remarks to Eli after he hangs up, "Big bait catches big rat." But Nucky isn't going to let Rothstein's betrayal go unpunished: a short scene at the end of the episode sees Randolph receive a call from Overholt's silent partner, Andrew Mellon, who, having gleaned from Nucky that the distillery has been overtaken by a criminal organization, orders her to "shutter the premises" and arrest all personnel associated with its liquor production. Slick.

Photos: 'Boardwalk Empire'

Gyp, meanwhile, is oblivious to this recent turn of events, because Gillian – in fear for both her life and Tommy's – has arranged an evening of sadomasochistic seduction as a ploy to gain the upper hand on the Sicilian mobster. Once she gets the erotic asphyxiation going around Gyp's neck, she pulls out a syringe from under a pillow. But Gyp overpowers her and plunges the needle into Gillian's arm instead, just in time for him to notice the majority of his thugs driving away from the Artemis Club. Gyp bolts downstairs to ask WTF? of the few remaining men, and just as he learns of Masseria's abandonment, a shot rings out. Richard enters with an entire arsenal of weapons (a rifle! a shotgun! a pistol!), and, master marksman that he is, leaves a trail of bodies in his wake (except for Gyp, who escapes) before reaching his objective: Tommy Darmody.

When Richard arrives in Tommy's room, the boy is being held hostage by one of Gyp's goons, a gun pointed at his head. Richard is ordered to stand down, and as he puts his rifle on the floor, he warns Tommy to close his eyes. He fires the gun, a straight shot, upward, hitting the thug in the eye. Through the blood-spattered window, we see the man fall, and Tommy running into Richard's welcoming arms. A beautiful moment shot through a lens of pure violence. In a later scene, a blood-soaked Richard carries a sleeping Tommy to the Sagorskys' house, and while Julia is initially hesitant, her father, Paul, encourages her to take Tommy in – and to put the boy in her brother's old room. This turn of events signifies Paul's acceptance of his new reality: His son is dead, and Richard is now part of the family. As such, Paul instructs his daughter's beau to leave his fighting at the doorstep: "You don't come home like this . . . It's not what a soldier does. You need to clean yourself up." But it's what Richard says and does next that has me worried his relationship with Julia – and Tommy – may be over. Before walking away into the darkness, he stops Paul from offering to talk to Julia on his behalf: "[Tommy's] safe, that's all that matters."

Nucky and Eli eventually make their way to the Artemis Club, where they find a loopy Gillian, alive, but having regressed to a childlike state. When Nucky asks who did this to her, she starts talking like she's 13 and was just raped by the Commodore: "I was good. I went upstairs like you said to, and the man, the man . . . Nucky, he did something very bad to me." But before Nucky can address the past, he and Eli hear a noise coming from a closet, where Gyp's lieutenant, Tonino Sandrelli, is hiding. The next morning, Tonino arrives at the beach where Gyp and two other men are waiting. Gyp, a broken man, launches into a (weak) Nucky impression, which is the only way he can mask his despair, because he knows he's lost everything – his power has been neutralized, his army withdrawn, and he's no longer welcome in New York. He talks about heading out west to start over, but even he knows it's a pipe dream. As he unleashes a long, slow stream of urine onto the sand, Gyp begins singing a popular novelty tune of the day, "Barney Google With the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes." But he never finishes – the song or the piss. A downward shot captures Bobby Cannavale's frozen face as we slowly pan away to reveal that Tonino has, quite literally, stabbed him in the back. One more knife to the chest and the war between Nucky Thompson and Gyp Rosetti is officially over.

Tonino walks up the beach road toward a familiar-looking blue Rolls-Royce, where Nucky and Eli are waiting. Nucky orders Tonino to take Gyp's body back to Masseria and to "let him know this could be the end of the problems between us. Or the beginning. I'll oblige him either way." The reason for Tonino's change of loyalty? It was either his life or Gyp's. Regardless, he's barred from ever entering Atlantic City again. It's at that point we find out how different things are going to be for Nucky going forward. No longer will he be a public figure: "I don't want anyone knowing who I am," he tells Eli. "I don't want anyone looking into my business. I don't want anyone coming near us who we don't already trust." And Eli, with two words, removes the final bandage in their healing process: "OK, brother."

But Nucky has one more piece of business to tend to. In an earlier scene, Margaret, who has been in Brooklyn all this time, visited a physician to "bring [her] monthly on." The doctor and his wife were welcoming, and nothing about the waiting area or examination room screamed "back-alley," but it's not until the second-to-last scene that we find out if Margaret went through with the abortion. The answer is there will be no Owen Sleater Jr., as Margaret, now living in an apartment with only one bed for her and the children, wakes up in the middle of the night to find she's spotting. As she exits the building's shared bathroom, Nucky, back in his uniform of a smart, dark suit and red carnation, is waiting. He may have been humbled by his ordeal with Gyp, but he still believes in keeping up appearances. With absolutely no warmth in his tone, he implores Margaret to come home. Not because he loves her, but simply because "I'm your husband. I'm the only father Teddy and Emily have got," and because he's "willing to forgive" her. He continues to intimidate his wife by chiding her for living in a tenement: "You're spoiled for anything else."

Margaret remains silent throughout his speech, as Nucky reminds her of the rough road she's going to face if she decides to leave him for good: "You need to ask yourself how much you're willing to sacrifice just to prove some point that doesn't matter to anyone." After he's made his case, it's evident Margaret has made her decision, so Nucky does what he does best – he pulls out a wad of cash. Like he did with Billie, Nucky encourages Margaret to take the handout and decide about her future later. But when he says, "It's only money, it doesn't mean anything," Margaret reaches the pinnacle of her utter disgust with her husband. Now emboldened to speak her only dialogue in the scene, she turns three little words into daggers: "Yes, it does." She knows she will always be bound to Nucky as long as she takes his money, so she walks past him into her apartment and shuts the door. It's taken her three years, but Margaret has liberated herself from the shackles of Nucky's dirty wealth. How long she'll be able to last without it remains to be seen.

In the final scene, Nucky takes a nighttime stroll. He looks out onto the water and gives a forlorn look to a couple who recognize him – forlorn, because he knows he can't be the unofficial mayor of this town anymore. He removes the carnation from his lapel and drops it on the boardwalk, symbolizing the end of his reign as an Atlantic City big shot.

Wrap-Up With few friends or business options, Nucky is all but washed up following this deadly battle with Gyp and Masseria. But as he's proven before, he always finds a way to bounce back, stronger than ever. As Eli advised his brother, whom he complimented as "the man with all the angles," Nucky "just [has] to offer [people] something they want." There's still a good decade left of Prohibition, so see y'all in 1924!

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