"You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?"—Bobby Bacala, The Sopranos
"You tell yourself it's quick, but you don't know. You can't know, until it's you, and then you can't tell anyone."—Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire
In an echo of the New Jersey gangster masterpiece that spawned it, Boardwalk Empire's penultimate episode ever — "Friendless Child" — walked Nucky Thompson right up to the edge of the great unknown. He's lost everything now, or close enough not to make much of a difference. His unlikely right-hand man Mickey Doyle and ruthless, loyal bodyguard Archie were tossed on the pile of bodies that's been mounting around him for years — a levee of corpses designed to protect his kingdom by the sea. But that empire, too, has fallen, traded away for the life of a nephew who wants nothing to do with him to a trio of crime lords who couldn't possibly intend to honor the agreement. When they break it, they'll break it with a bullet.
But now that Nucky is alone – now that there are no more plans to hatch, deals to make, wars to fight – what does he see in his isolation? A letter from Gillian Darmody, and the sight of her face staring back, begging for help. Her plea and her gaze are an indictment of the terrible crime Nucky committed by bringing her to the Commodore in order to begin his long road to power. (A decision, we learn tonight, he made knowing full well the fate that awaited her.) By having her direct them not just at Nucky but at everyone watching the show, Boardwalk makes this act's importance clear in no uncertain terms. That final shot puts young Gillian at the center not only of the frame, but by extension the episode. It suggests that the suffering of the series' greatest female character is no less important than the moves and machinations of the men fighting for control of the empire she eked out an existence within. It shows that that empire would not exist without the suffering of Gillian and countless other people like her. It's the series' gutsiest, and most moral, move to date.
Because let's face it: Boardwalk Empire could easily have gotten away with showing us the gang war to end all gang wars and calling it a day. Not that Nucky Thompson and co. vs. Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Johnny Torrio was a battle in which the outcome was not inevitable, mind you, especially given that the Atlantic City faction's sole outside ally was Salvatore Maranzano — the mob boss best known for getting killed by Lucky, Lansky et al. But given how fast and loose the show was playing with the history aside from that basic framework, the specifics of the conflict's resolution could have been pretty much whatever creator Terrence Winter wanted them to be.
The show certainly gave it a hell of a build-up, with an old-school mob-movie montage of newspaper headlines, crime-scene photos, and radio voiceovers, set to a soundtrack of pounding drums. Winter staged one of Boardwalk's trademark sexy-funny-gory shootout set pieces: Bugsy Siegel shtups another man's wife, exchange smarmy small talk with the oblivious cuckold, use him as a whiny human shield when Nucky's men burst in, blow his opponent's brains out on camera, and gets led away with a knife to his throat while cracking jokes in Yiddish. Later, the gangster sing obscene songs while being held hostage. As if that weren't enough, the series finally gave us a view of Luciano and Lansky that, for perhaps the first time, made them both look and feel like the larger-than-life monsters they were.
And only then do we get that magnificent stand-off, perhaps the last in the grand Boardwalk Empire tradition of large groups of men with shotguns silhouetted by the headlights of old-fashioned cars. Despite the foregone conclusion of it all, the deaths still came as a surprise – Mickey Doyle seemed like the cockroach most likely to survive whatever nuclear explosion befell Nucky's empire, while Archie seemed due for at least one more act of impeccably choreographed violence. Nucky's handling of it all was equally surprising: He all but threw himself bodily in the way of any potential gunfire, so desperate was he to avoid bloodshed that could cost the life not just of his nephew Willie and his long-lost brother Eli, but, it seemed, pretty much everyone else. He'd had it, and he knew he'd had it the moment Siegel got the jump on Willie to bugger the hostage exchange. Keeping his nephew away from the family business was the one good thing Nucky had been able to accomplish. An empire that would cost him his life was no empire worth having, even if it took getting down on his knees to make the trade.
After he's allowed back up, and after Eli delivers the killshot in the famous "IRS raid" ruse that took down Maranzano (the fake-out cross-cutting between the hit and Mike D'Angelo's successful attempt to secure a warrant to bring in Al Capone for tax fraud was yet another mob-movie throwback), he finally opens that letter from "Miss Nellie Bly." Gillian is desperate, pleading in voiceovers that overlap and repeat with chaotic urgency for Nucky to come to her aid like he did long ago. Back then she was a runaway given impeccable manners and irreparable emotional scars by an orphanage for illegitimate children. (Teen actor Madeleine Rose Yen's simulation of Grechen Mol's speech patterns is as flawless as Marc Pickering's Steve Buscemi impression as young Deputy Thompson.)
"I could help you," he told her before what happened happened. "Why would you do that?" "You look like you need help." Later, he tells his wife Mabel that "you can only help someone so much." It's a sentiment echoed by the Commodore's odious, muttonchopped lawyer and lieutenant Leander Whitlock when he orders Nucky to take away his boss's latest victim. Which Nucky will respond to that final request, issued not just to him, but to everyone watching? That's the answer we'll get next week. That's when we'll see what the soul of this series really is.
Previously: This Mortal Coil