Episode 12 - To the Lost
6 March 2012
What I wrote back in episode one remains largely true now. I still think Boardwalk Empire's major problem is that we don't have strong reasons to care about the characters.
As happened with Mad Men though familiarity does help. I enjoyed watching the show more this season because these were people I had already gotten to know. I was interested to see how things turned out and I was entertained. I still don't really care though.
Nucky ended the season declaring himself now a full gangster. He took his first life directly and made it clear to those around him that he wasn't going to be eased out of office again. He also told one slick lie after another to get Margaret to cooperate. He even put in quality 'Dad' time with the children just to make sure she would make the right decision. Nucky clearly has less redeeming qualities than Don Draper and so it's correspondingly harder to see him as the hero of the piece.
That's not the major problem though. The problem is that we don't know why it's all so important to Nucky. I can get emotionally invested in a bad person who has clear motives but Nucky's desires aren't clear. I know that power, wealth and status can be their own reward. I know that they can be addictive and so on. But I need to hear that from Nucky. I need to hear him express in emotional terms why he was willing to kill his surrogate son (and so many others) to stay Atlantic County Treasurer.
Throughout the season he stayed largely calm in the face of all his problems and only occasionally let the mask slip (e.g. in his fight with Eli). As a result I didn't feel anything when he killed Jimmy. I assume he was sad and conflicted at killing a man he cared about. I assume he also felt that it was all worth it. But I didn't see or feel either of those emotions and that's a failure of the writing.
Jimmy on the other hand actually had a better story and almost became the sympathetic lead which the show needs. Episode 11 was certainly the best the show has ever produced as we learn (through flashbacks) that Jimmy slept with his mother and that's why he fled the country to go fight in the trenches. It was all very sad and very screwed up.
I don't really know why Jimmy turned on Manny Horovitz though. It seemed like such a foolish and pointless decision. It didn't seem like Jimmy to turn from his debts. That wasÂ not an isolated incident.
I didn't really understand Van Alden's motivations either. He began to steal money from bootlegging to pay for his illegitimate child - ok. But he seemed to have given up investigating other illegal alcohol sales altogether which was odd. His insane murder of Agent Sebso wasn't given much further explanation either. Eli beat one of his subordinates to death at one point and no one seemed to ask questions about where he had gone. I felt the efforts of Capone, Luciano and company to get into the liquor business felt half-hearted and poorly explained. Quite how Nucky managed to smuggle whisky back on a passenger ship I don't know either. I was also under the impression that Treasurer was an elected position. Or at least one that must be appointed by an elected official. It seemed odd that Jimmy could just step in and appoint who he liked without any sense that some authority would have a problem with this.
Stuff like that adds up. It makes the show seem less credible when details seem unimportant. The show is also still full of nothing but criminals. Murder on this show doesn't really seem to have consequences. Nucky goes to see the IRA and they kill their own leader in broad daylight and no one bats an eyelid. The narrative also jumps around. We spent a lot of time with Chalky White and despite some fine monologues it never felt like it was an important part of the show. Sometimes you can just enjoy spending time in a universe but not all the time.
The other major part of the show is Margaret. She has become an unlikeable character for me. I think most viewers would agree that she barely cracked a smile all season. Her story is an interesting one but I don't think it's a good one. Initially she seems happy to play a role in Nucky's business if it keeps the family safe. Then she starts to feel lonely and a bit cold toward Nucky and cheats on him with Owen. Now maybe she is right when she guesses that Nucky sleeps with call girls but it wasn't a sympathetic moment for her.
Tragically her daughter contracts polio and Margaret sees it as divine retribution for her sinful lifestyle. That's fine and that created an understandable conflict with Nucky. It's difficult to know what to think though when she lets herself be won over by his B.S. but then wakes up after the trial is thrown out and realises that Nucky will never change. I didn't feel sorry for her because the show presents Atlantic City as such a corrupt place that she seems foolish for not knowing all along that Nucky is a criminal. She knew he was involved in bootlegging even before they began seeing one another.
The final act of the season sees her stick it to him and sign over his land to the church. I shook my head at that. That seems like silliness rather than a major plot twist. Nucky can make his money elsewhere so it shouldn't hurt him in the long run.
I give this episode a 66, in part to reward Michael Pitt who for two seasons has been the star actor on the show. His performance as Jimmy was physical and emotional and he felt like a real person. He will be missed.
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