Boardwalk Empire Review: "Return to Normalcy" (1.12)

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<em>Boardwalk Empire</em> Review: "Return to Normalcy" (1.12)

We’re finally here at the end of the season, and while the main conflicts we’ve been watching for the past couple months have dried up or mutated by the end of the episode, Boardwalk Empire’s true focus seems unlikely to have changed.

This is bullet-pointed by the moment that Terrence Winter and everyone else behind the show have been building towards for months finally occurring and, of course, it’s on that most auspicious of American events: Election Day. Following a deal with Rothstein to get rid of an indictment in exchange for $1,000,000 dollars, Nucky’s also given the locations of the men who tried to kill him and murdered one of Chalky White’s workers. A bloodbath ensues.

So “Return to Normalcy,” an auspicious name for any serial show’s season finale, gives us an election day series of murders more violent than anything else we’ve seen on the show. The symbolism is obvious, especially since it’s returning to thematic ground that Empire’s been working on from its very first episode. But while it’s been hinted at since the very beginning that the show believed American politics are hopelessly stained with blood, it’s no longer beating around the bush about it. This is an outright statement, and though the message is blunt, what we see is still powerful. “Normalcy” here means mostly political normalcy, with everyone in the posts Nucky has designed for them, regardless of what maneuvering is required in the background.

So the election the show’s been building toward for weeks clears up in as mesmerizing a way as could be hoped for, but there’s a lot else going on here, too. Jimmy finally speaks with Angela about their marriage, and through this and some mail of his from the war finally coming in she’s convinced to give him another shot. It’s hard to believe that their marriage could come to anything other than a future mess, but for now, at least, it’s quiet. Nucky also reconciles with Margaret and with this we finally learn about what happened to his ex-wife and son. Their relationship promises to be tumultuous next season as well, but perhaps less fraught with disaster than Jimmy and Angela’s. At the end of the episode both Nucky and Margaret seem to have found a sense of peace with each other.

The deal with New York and reconciliation with Margaret make it appear that Atlantic City has returned back to Nucky’s pocket the way it was before the show began, but there’s also a conspiracy developing between the Commadore, Jimmy and Eli to do something about Nucky. Keeping us out of this while they discuss is kind of irritatingly cliched television, but oh well. It’s also rather strange that Jimmy’s allying himself with the father he hates against the man who actually helped raise him, blaming Nucky for pimping out his mother rather than his father for raping her. Jimmy has other reasons for disliking what Nucky’s doing, of course, but none seem particularly clear in his mind. Of the three conspirators, my guess is that he’ll be the weak link, and not just because the episode emphasizes him as so pivotal (though that does help). I also end up wondering about what exactly they could be planning? If they want to, they can easily kill Nucky, and if they want political control there’s not a viable candidate in the bunch. And then there’s Gillian sitting in the next room, aware that they’re all plotting something while she does nothing to either help or hinder them…yet.

As usual, the most fascinatingly insane portion of the episode, Van Alden, explains to first his colleagues and then his wife how he plans on leaving the area. Apparently he can’t get over killing Sebso, so he’s sentenced himself to a life in the feed business. But then in walks Lucy, pregnant with a baby, which is presumably just the sign from God he needs to stay in Atlantic City.

That wraps it up for the season and for me, at least, it ended on a very upwards note. Threads that seemed rather peripheral to the show, such as with Capone and Rothstein, returned to the main event in Atlantic City while both of the show’s main male-female relationships have completed their plot arcs. Despite the showmakers being fully aware that Empire was picked up for a second season almost from the time it began airing, the season itself has a real shape so that it looks like the concerns for next season will be completely different from what we saw here. Of course, questions of government and crime will continue, as will hopefully the show’s religious bent and an almost Southern Gothic love for dark absurdity, but with the exception of the newly added conspiracy, every plot really does wrap up rather neatly, and that does make me excited for the next season. Returning to The Sopranos now is a bit more disappointing than watching it while on the air partially due to how same-y its episodes and seasons can feel, whereas it looks like Empire won’t be falling into that trap.

As far as the season as a whole goes, as with many of the individual episodes, it began strong but then took a little while to really get its bearings. The last month of episodes, though, has been particularly good. It still tends to fall just short of great, but many of the show’s individual moments have been extremely memorable. And you know what, it’s still a show I happily anticipate every week, despite quite a few little irritations every episode has somehow failed to avoid. With one season down, it feels like we’re only just beginning, and I truly look forward to watching these characters for years to come.

Stray Observations:
-Let’s address some final thoughts down here. Just to be clear, all Mark Wahlberg ever had to do with Boardwalk Empire was front some cash, right?
-Chalky White looked to be on the verge of getting some actual screen time here… and then that didn’t happen, yet again. But his appearance here may be foreshadowing that he’ll have a bigger role next season. At least, I hope it is.
-Rothstein was a great character who just completely petered out at the end there in a really easy fashion. I’d like to see more of him, regardless of what historically happened.
-When I mentioned Southern Gothic there, I really meant it. It’s not just that I can never hear the name Enoch without thinking of Flannery O’Connor, there’s also something about the oddly dark undertone to everything that makes me think of the genre. From Van Alden to the week-dead child, it’s the stuff of Faulkner.
-Even if Scorsese only dips in for one episode a season, that’s still one episode more than any other show. I’m already looking forward to his next episode, whenever that may be.
-”Cause if I’d used a shotgun I would’ve had to clean the mess up myself.” Hey, everyone who told me we knew that Gillian was the one trying to kill the Commadore, this is why I don’t make the presumptions until we see it on-screen.
-”I certainly understand why you’d want to, but you can’t go around poisoning people.” Best line of the season or best line of any season?
-I have no idea what tradition that is heading out into the graveyard on Halloween. Seems kinda crazy, though I would’ve been all over it as a kid.
-”We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with” Way too on the nose. This is one of those moments the show never avoid that just pulls me right out of the narrative.
-The callback to Jimmy’s signature knife is nice.
-Fundamentally, Nucky wouldn’t have replaced Eli if Eli wasn’t incompetent. It’s not as simple as Eli tries to make it out as.
-If it’s only you, your friend, and your kids, why do you bake a sign that means one of you will be destitute into the cake? What’s even the best-case scenario for that?
-Jimmy is “fretful” all the time according to his mother.
-On the one hand, they spent a lot of time on the old timey performer guy. On the other hand, he’s so goddamn wonderful it’s time so well spent. I would watch an episode that’s just him doing routines.