'Boardwalk Empire' Recap: All That You Can't Leave Behind

Themes of love and legacy tie together a seemingly disconnected episode of HBO's gangster epic

Steve Buscemi in 'Boardwalk Empire.' Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

"I want to leave something behind." So says Nucky Thompson to Joe Kennedy when the latter – a better class of Irish-American crook, his weapon the stock market rather than the shotgun – demands to know what drives the boss of Atlantic City to expand his empire. Nucky swam through "oceans of blood" to get where he is, but unlike the powerful patriarch from Boston, he has no family to protect, no dynasty to preserve. Establishing a legitimate business is the only life raft he has left if he wants the journey to have mattered at all.

Ironically, the underworld is the one place where our antihero's real-life inspiration — Nucky Johnson — made a legacy that lasted. As the host of the 1929 Atlantic City Conference, a multiethnic gathering of crime bosses from across the country whose ranks included such Boardwalk Empire characters as Meyer Lansky, Charlie Luciano, John Torrio, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Waxey Gordon, Jake Guzik, and Owney Madden, Johnson was a pivotal player in the organization of the criminal network known as the National Crime Syndicate. This in turn was a crucial step on the road to the establishment of New York's "Five Families" and the nationwide governing body called the Commission by Luciano and Torrio several years later, following the bloody resolution of the war between Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano.

But the Atlantic City Conference – like Arnold Rothstein's murder in 1928, like the stock market crash and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 – falls in Boardwalk's seven-year gap between its fourth and fifth seasons. Generally, Boardwalk's storytelling instincts are sound, particularly in building to big climaxes, so that's a decision worth trusting. Lining up the end of the show with (presumably) the final consolidation of power by Luciano and Lansky makes sense — and hey, nothing's stopping us from deciding that Nelson Van Alden and Eli Thompson were Capone's St. Valentine's Day triggermen on our own. But given the fictional Nucky's envy of Joe Kennedy's legacy, cutting the real Nucky's single greatest contribution to American history is a curious choice. However, Nucky's conversation with Lansky in Havana, in which it's revealed they haven't seen each other since 1928, means the Conference never even took place in the Boardwalk universe — so it's possible that the show's simply playing with the timeline.

Either way, Nucky's empire as it currently stands has narrow boundaries, and establishing them cost him everything. His sister and parents, including his abusive father, are dead. His brother Eli is in hiding. His surrogate father and son — the Commodore and Jimmy Darmody, respectively — both turned on him, and both died for it. His closest companion for years, Eddie, killed himself. He lost his first wife, Mabel, in childbirth and his second, Margaret, when she could no longer stand him. His relationship with his nephew Willie is cordial enough, sure, but as Kennedy notes, that's a very thin reed to hang a life on.

It's only in talking to Sally Wheat – long-distance love interest, business partner, and the closest thing he's had to a friend in the entire series – that Nucky feels truly at home. In moment so sweet it's shocking for a show like this, the two of them listen to "Happy Days Are Here Again" together over the phone. Suddenly a relationship between two Prohibition Era bootleggers becomes recognizable to anyone who's ever enjoyed a favorite song with a loved one over videochat.

In that light, it's no coincidence that both of Nucky's wives reenter his story during an episode focused on "leaving something behind." When Margaret comes back after Carolyn Rothstein threatens to sue her to get at Nucky's money, the smile the two estranged spouses share is unexpectedly warm and genuine – especially since Nucky had just mistaken her for, impossibly, his late wife Mabel. We learn through flashbacks that Mabel entered his life as a rich young tourist, intelligent enough to be arrogant about it yet empathetic enough to reach out to the "boy" whose job was waiting on her family hand and foot.

We also learn this happened at the same time Nucky got a first-hand look at how brutal men could be to those they purported to care about. "What would you do for love?" asks the hotel lothario whose flowers Nucky delivers daily. "Would you hazard everything you held dear – family, friends, respect, judgement in the eyes of an all-seeing God – and call it a price worth paying?" But it's the woman, not the man, who pays the ultimate price for this relationship, when he butchers her in her bed. Her awful fate is mirrored in the massacre of prostitutes at Narcisse's brothel by Luciano's enforcer Siegel — collateral damage in a battle between men whose high estimation of themselves knows no bounds.

Fainter echoes of the crime can be heard elsewhere. For all his brilliance and wealth, Rothstein left his wife nothing but shame and debt. The same is true of the missing father of Fern, the girl held hostage along with her mother by Chalky White and his fellow escaped convict Buck. Yes, storyline feels like a narrative dead-end, for the most part; it's the kind of close-quarters morality play Boardwalk has done better before (remember Roland?), and without the ugly, unnecessary air of racialized sexual menace. For another, the writing is repetitive (all those transparent lies the women tell about the location of the father and his safe!) and the character work is frustrating (Chalky should have seen Buck's obvious mental instability for what it was long before their partnerhsip comes to a bloody end).

But there's a direct line drawn from that M.I.A. patriarch's failure to provide for his family to Rothstein's failure to do the same for his wife, the hotel guest's murder of his paramour, and even how Chalky's own criminality cost his daughter Maybelle her life. That last connection is something Fern figures out on her own, even if she doesn't know the details: "Does she know what you are?" she barks when she finally gets the drop on her captor. Earlier, she'd told Chalky "There's forgiveness for everyone. That's what Jesus said." "Baby girl," he replies, "Jesus was wrong." Chalky can't forgive himself for destroying his family. Can Nucky forgive himself for not having one to destroy?

Previously: You Can Call Me Al