This post contains spoilers through the Season 2 finale of Boardwalk Empire.
I have mixed feelings about Jimmy Darmody’s death on Boardwalk Empire last night. To a certain extent it feels inevitable, a form of Suicide By Nucky after the traumas of Angela’s death and his murder of the Commodore that he can commit after destroying the Commodore’s will and ensuring his son’s financial future. Certainly, Jimmy’s inability to live up to either of his fathers has weighed on him heavily this season. And in this giant cast, there’s something efficient about taking out a whole web of connections and subplots in a single, emotionally resonant blow. But to a certain extent, this also feels like a way of using Jimmy to wrap up Richard’s storyline, the former telling the latter, “Time to come home, Richard…promise me you’re gonna try,” before Jimmy tells Nucky “I died in a trench years back. I thought you knew that.” And it also forecloses a promising storyline, the personalization of the rise of heroin through Jimmy’s potential addiction, and bringing us back down to conversations between Arnold Rothstein and his henchmen about color and supply.
I do appreciate seeing the darkness and the light in Nucky, though, brought out in a way that nothing else could by the need for the love of a good woman and the betrayal of a son. His acid reconciliation with Eli was a reminder of why he can keep his murderous brother alive: he is insecure and manipulatable. “Shakespeare. Julius Caesar,” Nucky tries to explain after Eli doesn’t understand his “Et tu?” “There’s a character named Eli?” Eli misunderstands him and arrives at an unknowing understanding. He doesn’t even really rate as a character. He’s muscle, temporarily risen above his station where he committed transgressions that seem to have returned him securely to it. And while Nucky’s merely annoyed by Eli’s lack of understanding, he’s wounded and raging by Jimmy’s failure to do the same. After Jimmy lectures Nucky on the cost of killing, Nucky declares, teeth gritted, that “You never knew me, James, and you never did. I am not seeking forgiveness.” What defines him is his ability to handle a range of problems and emotions at once, to kill his adoptive son and to celebrate a potential windfall over champagne.
That’s a good thing, because the show is best in the moments when its wealthy, confident white men are unsettled by the rising power of the people whose subordinate positions they take for granted. Chalky’s confrontation with Nucky was one of the most powerful moments of the season. There was something genuinely disappointing about the way that storyline petered out. No matter how traumatized white men are, I have a hard time believing they’d kill other white men on behalf of black men, that they’d turn white men over to black men knowing that those men would die. I have an even harder time believing those black men, leaders in their communities, would commit those murders, or last week, believing they’d tear up the kitchen of the restaurant they’re about to strike. Such things would invite retribution far greater than the violent dispersal of picket line. There’s a lack of respect for the weight of consequences and history there, a real obscuring of the intersection between race and class in Chalky, and the questions of community responsibility that made the first part of this season so powerful.
The women come off better. There’s a real malicious joy in watching Margaret, having vowed to obey her husband, defy him and sign the deed to the land that he believes will make him wealthy over to her church. When she asked Nucky, “So your version of God demands nothing?” his answer may have helped persuade her to marry him, but that doesn’t mean that Margaret adopted Nucky’s views of God when she marries. She knows who and what she owes. It’s a particularly sly moment given her conversation with Esther earlier. “Is it difficult to become a lawyer?” Margaret, contemplating other options, wants to know. “Not if you set your mind to it,” Esther says, “and don’t take no for an answer.” But Margaret’s not stupid enough to be persuaded by platitudes. Even if she ultimately can’t choose the liberation Esther’s offered her, Margaret will choose the condition of her own chaining. As for Esther, she’ll take the ducks, and I think (and hope) she’ll be back for a second season. She lost this round, but she is not defeated.
Then, there’s Nelson Van Alden, fled with his nanny, and renting rooms from a landlady who promises him, “It’s a quiet town for quiet people. Like most of the Midwest.” It remains to be seen if it will stay that way, given that it becomes a center of Al Capone’s activities. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Van Alden escape Esther, and Nucky, the disappointment he’s caused his wife, and the ache of his father’s religious madness and disappointment. Someone should win a gamble they made in Atlantic City.