Spoiler alert: This recap contains major plot details about Boardwalk Empire‘s season finale, “Farewell Daddy Blues.”
It was worth the slow burn.
That was, in my estimation, the best season finale in Boardwalk Empire‘s four seasons. It was also possibly the best episode in the series’ run. Writers Terence Winter and Howard Korder, as well as director Tim Van Patten, did an exquisite job whetting the audience’s appetite for Season Five with a succinct concluding montage featuring a brief update on all key players, and offering hope of, but necessarily committing to, the return of characters like Daughter Maitland and Sally Wheet. But what these three men should be commended for with this episode is their beautiful send-off to a much-beloved character who will be sorely missed, even as we weep tears of joy that Richard Harrow is, at long last, at peace.
Fans can also rejoice in the knowledge that Chalky made it out alive, although he paid a heavy price for his life – and that Dr. Narcisse did not go the same route as Gyp Rosetti. Looks like the Doctor will be sticking around the Boardwalk, which I think is excellent news, even though his capacity for causing mischief has been heavily truncated, at least if J. Edgar Hoover has anything to say about it. Gillian is in jail, with Julia and Tommy squirreled away in the safety of Wisconsin. Nucky‘s future, however, seems the most ambiguous as we close out the fourth season: His plan to retire with Sally was aborted soon after he got word that Eli was informing on him, so now he’s just a frustrated gangster stuck in Atlantic City. Well, at least he can trust Willie, who is officially the new Jimmy Darmody of his uncle’s operation.
Nucky’s mediocre Spanish should have been the first clear-cut sign that running off to Cuba just wasn’t in the cards. His late-night phone flirting en español is quickly interrupted by a raggedy-looking Chalky, back from Havre de Grace, Maryland, and pointing a gun at his so-called “friend.” Nucky’s tired pleas of “It’s not what you think” and “I tried to stop it,” regarding Chalky’s near-murder at the hands of Mayor Bader‘s corrupt police – fall on deaf ears. Michael Kenneth Williams proves he’s earned an Emmy nomination with this scene alone, conveying the right balance of sadness and anger over Chalky’s predicament. He’s lost everything – his power, his money, his family, his mistress, and even the ability to attend his daughter’s wedding. (He hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s been canceled.) He’s at his lowest, so naturally he wants to kill Narcisse. It is hard to know at this point whose side Nucky is really on, because he is that shrewd, but as the episode progresses and certain opportunities present themselves, it becomes evident that the bond these two men share hasn’t been broken.
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After his testimony at Gillian’s murder hearing winds up helping the defense rather than the prosecution, Richard visits Nucky for a favor. Richard knows that if Gillian goes free, he and Julia could risk losing Tommy all over again. Despite Nucky’s insistence that Jimmy was cremated, Richard, who is one of the few people aware of the true nature of Jimmy’s death, calls Nucky’s bluff and asks for the location of his friend’s body. Nucky, who is also in need of a large favor, presents a deal to the WWI sharpshooter: “If somehow an anonymous source were to disclose to the authorities the whereabouts of Jimmy’s body, what would you do for that anonymous source?” “I would do whatever you asked,” replies Richard. We cut to an overhead shot in a field, where dozens of police, medics and reporters are hovering around a single spot, confirming in that moment that Jimmy’s body has been found, and that Gillian’s going to prison for murder. We don’t see her again until the episode-ending montage, sitting in her cell, despondently listening to her lawyer. We also don’t know what Richard has to do in return for Nucky’s “anonymous” phone call, but already the shadow of death is hanging over him before he fulfills his end of the bargain. He sends Julia, Tommy and Paul ahead to his sister’s house in Wisconsin, and the way he kisses his wife hard on the mouth and tells Tommy he loves him pretty much screams, “This is the last time you’ll ever see me, but you’ll be safe with people you’ve never met!”
Nucky takes a meeting with Narcisse, presenting the rift with Chalky as something the two rivals need to work out themselves: “I don’t care which of you coloreds runs [the Onyx Club and the Northside], as long as they’re run. . . . I don’t ever want that spook (a.k.a. Chalky) coming at me in the dark again.” Nucky’s racist description of Chalky as a nameless, faceless leader of the African-American community in his town rather than a friend (“I don’t have friends, I have partners”) helps Narcisse become amenable to a showdown. That and passing along the message that Chalky knows where Daughter is (which, of course, he doesn’t).
Our anticipation of whether or not Nucky is actually trying to help Chalky is heightened over the next several scenes as we switch gears to Eli and Agent Knox‘s plan to bring down the Atlantic City gangster. Knox’s entire career is riding on Eli: Already he received a dressing down from Hoover, who demanded that his former law-school classmate dispense with the “Edgar” informalities and refer to him as “Director Hoover.” The “meeting” the two brothers discussed in last week’s episode with Nucky’s Eastern seaboard associates is scheduled to happen in a hotel room, with Knox and his men intending to catch them in the mobster-dealing act via a primitive form of bugging. Except Nucky, who’s always one step ahead of his brother, has already deduced that something is up, and has Eli pick him up before heading over together.
Eli arrives at the dark and deserted Albatross where Nucky, in a fury he’s never exhibited before in Boardwalk‘s four seasons, reveals that he knows Eli was informing on him and he’s going to Cuba with Sally – but not before putting a bullet in his brother’s head. The scene almost mirrors Jimmy’s death scene from two years ago, the way Eli is calm and resigned to his fate: “I don’t have anything. Sooner or later, you wind up taking it all.” Considering that Eli has already lost his son to Nucky’s glamorous clutches, he takes his hat off and prepares for the inevitable. The only reason his life is saved is because Willie walks in at the exact moment Uncle Nucky is about to blow his father’s brains out. With Eli’s back against the wall, the long-simmering family problems are hashed out at once. Eli admits he ratted out his brother in order to keep Willie out of jail, which only angers everyone in the room further. Eli is hurt that Willie went to Nucky instead of his own father for help, Willie is horrified that Eli would inform on Uncle Nucky and Nucky is just pissed he didn’t get a shot off. “This is your mess, Eli,” Nucky snarls. “Drown in it.”
Oh, and does he drown. Eli returns home to find a very unwelcome visitor – Knox – waiting for him. With the meeting never taking place, the Bureau of Investigation agent was thoroughly embarrassed in front of his colleagues, and now Willie is going to pay the price. Knox taunts Eli by mentioning how the last kid he sent to prison “was very popular with the other inmates,” and for the second time in one evening, Eli finds himself at the receiving end of a gun. Except there is no way he’s going to let an unhinged little prick like Knox destroy him or his son, and the two men engage in a particularly vicious brawl in the Thompson family living room. To everyone’s relief, Eli succeeds in snuffing the life out of Jim Tolliver (Knox’s real name) by issuing a double whammy of a chokehold and then beating him over the head with a huge vase multiple times. Eddie Kessler has no longer died in vain, but this murder Eli committed has effectively destroyed any hope that the family will ever gather around the ukulele to sing “Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight,” again. Throughout the bloody fight, Eli’s children could be heard screaming in terror upstairs, and June, having witnessed the melee, was so traumatized that she and the kids went off to her sister’s in Brigantine, New Jersey, by the end of the episode.
With Tollinox no longer a nuisance, we shift our focus back to Chalky and Narcisse, who have a tense meeting at the Onyx Club that night. Chalky, still trying to acquire “safe passage” to Maybelle‘s wedding, offers Daughter’s location in exchange. It’s an empty deal from the start, because no one knows where Daughter is, and Narcisse, through a smirk, informs Chalky that there is no wedding – presenting a terrified Maybelle as proof. “A nod from me, and she’s gone,” Narcisse intones. For a brief moment, it seems Chalky made a mistake coming back to town. And then for another brief moment, as he looks to the ceiling, there’s a glimmer of hope as we see the other half of Nucky and Richard’s deal. The former sniper is about to take out Narcisse (proving that Nucky did have Chalky’s back after all). Except in a twist worthy of the character and that put this season finale into the “best ever” category, Richard discovers that he’s no longer the killer he once was. Between his hand injury (from narrowly escaping Carl Billings) and his decision to give up what he does best in exchange for a settled married life, he’s literally lost his touch. He tenses up, loses focus, and instead of Narcisse, it’s Maybelle who takes the hit after she unexpectedly walks into Richard’s field of vision. The gravity of the scene is heightened by the directorial decision to have everything go quiet – and it’s not until a female patron notices blood on her neck and Narcisse feels the blood on his forehead that we realize what’s happened. An overhead shot shows Maybelle’s lifeless body, Chalky crumbling in response, and only then does the aforementioned female patron scream and the inevitable chaos ensue, with federal agents entering looking for Eli. Chalky’s and Narcisse’s men fire gunshots toward the ceiling, hitting Richard in the torso – his bloody fingers suggesting he’s not long for this world. He manages to escape unnoticed, while a devastated Chalky is unwittingly pulled away from his daughter’s corpse – and Narcisse is taken away by the feds. Richard limps his way to the beach, clutching his abdomen and settles in a poetic spot under the boardwalk, the place where he and Julia first made love.
While in jail, Narcisse is visited by Hoover, the only man who succeeds, where so many others have failed this season, at cutting the arrogant Narcisse down to size. We learn that Narcisse has lived in the U.S. for 26 years, yet has never become a citizen. “The exiled does not choose his Babylon,” responds Narcisse. But Hoover has no patience for the Doctor’s syrupy biblical bromides. In an incredible scene in which Narcisse and Hoover spar magnificently, the Bureau of Investigation director forces the Trinidadian to become an informant – on the man Narcisse considers a “hero,” Marcus Garvey. If Narcisse doesn’t comply, Hoover “will make sure [he] never [sees] daylight in America again.” Having become the thing he most despises, Narcisse reluctantly grumbles in agreement, only to be reminded by Hoover that he is not his equal: A slow zoom in on Jeffrey Wright’s face and a look of bitter agony conveys Narcisse’s defeat as he slowly utters, “Yes, sir.”
Following a brief scene that establishes the cancellation of Nucky’s plan to exit stage right and instead stick around Atlantic City, Margot Bingham’s luscious voice fills the air as she sings “Farewell Daddy Blues” over the season-ending montage, filling us in on where our favorite characters stand: Eli has gone to Chicago for his safety, where he’s picked up under an elevated train by a familiar face – Nelson Van Alden. An instant look of recognition between the two men hints that we may not be calling Van Alden “George Mueller” for much longer. Margaret, carrying Emily, with Teddy by her side, walks through a gorgeous courtyard in an upscale neighborhood, where she is welcomed into her new home by Arnold Rothstein, who remained true to his word. Sally, alone and depressed, pours herself a drink, leaving her relationship with Nucky rather open-ended. Chalky has made his way back to Oscar Boneau‘s house, sitting on the porch and throwing back whiskey, his next move a big question mark. But in the next shot, of a sad-looking Daughter performing in a juke joint – she obviously did not return to Narcisse – we’re reminded that there is still hope yet for these two lovers.
As the song finishes, things go eerily quiet, and we see Richard walking toward his family’s farmhouse, now surrounded by sunlight and bright green grass instead of a harsh Wisconsin winter. Waiting for him out front are his sister, Emma, her newborn baby and her husband, Hubert, Julia, Paul and Tommy. Julia walks toward Richard, smiling – it’s as if he’s finally reached heaven. What’s so heartbreaking is that’s exactly where he was. We cut to Richard, and his face is whole again. And then we cut back to the boardwalk, where Richard’s bloody hand and mask rest on the sand, his dead body the last thing we see as the credits roll over the sound of crashing waves.
Sad as it is to see Richard go, it was the only way out. If he had survived, Chalky would’ve come after him for killing his daughter – if Richard hadn’t beaten him to the punch by committing suicide. There is no way he could have lived with himself after botching his task. He died in peace, knowing he had the love of a family he so desired, and most importantly, whether we see them again or not, that Tommy and Julia are out of danger. Mission accomplished, and RIP, Richard.
Previously: Susquehanna Blues