“I adore you, Margaret, and I adore our family,” Nucky says as he finally proposes marriage in the season finale of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Of course, he needs her to be his wife so she can’t be forced to testify against him, but still --- nothing is more important than family, especially if there’s a crime family to keep organized, alive and out of prison.
The series' second season, which just ended, was all about family – about loyalty, betrayal, about whether blood might actually be thinner than water. That theme intensified in the last few explosive weeks, along with our deepening sense that Nucky (Steve Buscemi, who gets better and better) and Margaret (Kelly Macdonald, who gets wilier), for all their mutual affection, might be playing each other. As it balanced high drama – all the murder, betrayal, and power-grabs behind the bootlegging business – with its tangle of infinitely complicated people veering from love to hate to vengeance (sometimes in the same relationship) Boardwalk Empire became the best and richest series of the year.
In recent weeks, some of its families were literally blasted apart. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) betrayed Nucky early in the season and by the end was paying in all sorts of ways. Two episode ago, Jimmy’s wife, Angela, was killed by his enemy, Manny Horvitz, along with Angela’s female lover. In last week’s ultra-Oedipal episode, we learned that on a drunken night in college, Jimmy and his mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), had actually slept together – a flashback that justified those suspicions we’d been feeling all along, and helped explain why Jimmy was so tortured and why he’d run off to war. Then Jimmy killed his aged father, the Commodore. Sleeping with Mom and killing Dad - it takes guts for a series to reach that blatantly for Greek tragedy and pull it off.
And in last night’s finale ... (don’t read on yet if you want to avoid spoilers) ...
Nucky shot and killed Jimmy, beneath the war hero's moument, in the depths of a rainy night -- a setting that seemed absolutely right rather than overwrought. Nucky, of course, was Jimmy’s surrogate father; early in in the series we actually wondered if he might be Jimmy’s biological father. And it was meaningful, in the blood-and-water debate, that Nucky’s brother, Eli, was standing there in his brother’s camp again. The once-betraying Eli has made a deal to go to prison as the price of Nucky’s forgiveness, yet they’re still brothers.
But it was Nucky - who had seemed to be softening through the season, at least in his genuine affection for Margaret and her children – who insisted on pulling the trigger himself, killing the surrogate son who had turned on him, and restating his total claim on power. “I am not seeking forgiveness,” were Nucky’s last words to Jimmy, and they send us on to the third season with the reminder that these are unforgiving people, that the most ruthless are the winners.
Other families were wrenched together instead of torn apart. Nucky and Margaret, of course. She set up season three’s complication by taking a huge area of land that Nucky had put in her name for safekeeping and deeding it, not back to her new husband, but to the Church. Yes, we know killing is bad, but the Church’s hold on Margaret is not healthy either.
And Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon), last week seen fleeing after being exposed as a killer himself - drowning his partner in a river during a baptism in full view of so many religious witnesses was not the smartest thing he ever did - has relocated to the Midwest with his infant daughter and the child’s nanny, posing as a happy little family.
The Corleones, the Sopranos, Nucky and his warped, tentacled family – they all live and die with the same familial mix of love, lust, violence and vengeance. These films and series are great because they are driven by thoroughly indivudual, conflicted people, not melodramatic villains or heros but characters with the outsized dramatic power of Shakespeare or classical tragedy, brought down to earth through the vibrant details of New York or New Jersey in the 20th century. Fathers, sons, brothers – no one is safe, and I can’t wait for the next killer season.
UPDATE: EW has published a revealing interview with Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, who wrote the season finale, and explains the decision to have Nucky kill Jimmy. The essential quote from Winter:
"In the pilot, Jimmy told Nucky: ‘You can’t be half a gangster anymore.’ We wanted with the first two seasons to follow that trajectory, where he goes full season from being the guy who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty to actually pulling the trigger himself. And what’s the strongest version of that? To pull the trigger on the very guy who told him, ‘You can’t be half a gangster anymore.’ . . . And it would be a cheat for us to say, “We want to keep our beloved character Jimmy Darmody alive.’"
You can find the whole interview, which I recommend, at Entertainment Weekly.