In HBO’s just-concluded first season of “Boardwalk Empire,” the characters and the milieu are haunting, an intermingled stew of real and fictional political and criminal personages–and innocents caught in their web–from a bygone era that still resonate today.
If you didn’t know any different, you could be excused for thinking that last week’s episode was the season finale, culminating as it did with Enoch “Nucky” Thompson heading to a fortune teller on the Atlantic City boardwalk, thus indicating the deep uncertainty of his future after all that had transpired.
Previously on “BE,” (spoiler alert) a shocking series of revelations and plot twists. The Commodore is Jimmy Darmody’s real father, who knocked up his mother Gillian when she was all of 13, brought to him from an orphanage by … drumroll … Nucky. Jimmy’s wife, Angela, is in love with Mary Dittrich, demonstrated by some hot girl-on-girl action, and ready to leave him to go to Paris with her, taking their young son along. Mrs. Schroeder finally leaves Nucky, after Agent Nelson Van Alden clues her in on his ordering her husband’s death–and as she realizes he was using her to influence women who had just gotten the vote to put his mayoral candidate in office–and keep his power intact.
Speaking of Agent Nelson, we learn he’s a total freak in the barroom and the bedroom–succumbing to the drunken charms of Lucy Danziger and even more shockingly–an unrepentant murderer of his underling, Agent Sebso, who was revealed to be on Nucky’s fat payroll.
In that astonishing murder scene, with dozens of witnesses on a riverbank in broad daylight, Nelson is now exposed as the most terrifying character on the show–a man who professes to be a God-fearing Christian righting the wrongs of society but has himself surrendered to man’s basest instincts.
The season finale, entitled "A Return to Normalcy," opens with Nelson telling an outright lie–that Sebso died of a heart attack–and then smacking an agent who dares to talk back to him.
And this is how things start to appear to go back to normal in the well-imagined Atlantic City, N.J., of Prohibition days, a resort town that was Sin City decades before Las Vegas existed, a place that was known in the 1920s as the world’s playground and featured nightclubs and entertainment that rivaled Broadway’s.
Even Al Capone is mending his immature, disrespectful ways, and Arnold Rothstein seems contrite about being indicted in the scandal over fixing the World Series–until he comes up with $1 million in cash to make it go away.
At the center of it all still swirls the dapper and dangerous Nucky, who barely misses a step after Margaret Schroeder moves out of his suite at the Ritz Carlton and therefore down many notches in the social structure–a fact that is brought to her seemingly newly aware consciousness by an old Irish superstition that says your destiny is determined by what you find in your piece of cake.
Mrs. Schroeder has become friendly, in the superficial sort of way of women with young children, with Warren Harding’s mistress, who is under the delusion that Harding will bring her and their newborn baby to the White House after he wins the presidency. Looking at her with barely disguised contempt at this notion, Margaret is making vague plans to move to Margate and become a shopgirl–again. Until she bites into that fateful piece of cake, and finds the rag.
We don’t realize that she has bought into the notion that it represents a lifetime of poverty until she shows up at a post-election soiree in a stunning golden gown she could’ve only gotten from the French shopkeeper on the boardwalk–and sets her sights straight on Nucky. He falls under her glistening spell, and they end up under the moonlight. Will it last this time? It looks like Margaret will be biting the bullet, after uncovering a secret of Nucky’s past that makes him seem more human than machine in her eyes.
And just like in any great gangster pic, bullets are flying and throats are slit all the while, revenge killings for the attempted hit on Nucky by Rothstein’s allies, the D’Alessio brothers. Meanwhile, after the climactic gruesomeness (and homage to “The Godfather”) of Darmody’s barbershop slay, a roadside gangster summit amongst Rothstein, Chicago’s Johnny Torrio and Nucky cements an uneasy truce to end the carnage.
But the greatest intrigue is yet to come, from another front. Nucky’s brother Eli, seriously gunshot-wounded while trying to collect a take at a casino and forced to give up the sheriffship and then re-crowned with it after the election, is starting to pull a Cain and Abel on Nuck.
We’ve seen his limitations, especially those on the intellectual side, but he’s brought in some big guns in the form of the Commodore, who’s recovering quite nicely from arsenic poisoning by his maid, and trying to seduce Jimmy into the plot.
But we as the audience know that Jimmy considers Nucky much more of a father than the Commodore ever was, or could be. Or do we?
Now that’s a cliffhanger, and what better way to end the brilliant first season of "Boardwalk Empire." Oh, and did we mention: Lucy’s pregnant with the devil’s child.