As we’ve repeated almost like a maxim: The creators and writers of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” like to play the long tail game. And while it can be slow going in the moment at times, that planning, patience and vision usually pays off. Such is the case in “Margate Sands,” the finale of season 3 and the conclusion to the three-episode arc where creators rewarded audiences by blowing the doors off, causing the body count to rise.
On the ropes all season long, it appeared that Atlantic City kingpin and bootlegger Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) would finally succumb to rival mobster Gyp Rosetti’s (Bobby Cannavale) attack. At the beginning of the season, Rosetti, a hot-headed gangster, was an irritation, but his hubris grew and grew and his meddling continued. When his counter-attacks backfired, his boss, New York mobster Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), essentially gave him an ultimatum (though Rosetti begged for the opportunity): wipe out his enemy Nucky Thompson or pay the price for his mistakes.
In the previous episode, “Two Imposters,” it looked like the end for Nucky, but with some quick evasive moves and the help of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), he was able to catch a brief reprieve from bullets buzzing around his head like angry bees. And it may have been a cliche deus ex machina, but Elias Thompson (Shea Thompson), bringing in the calvary via Al Capone (Stephen Graham) when Nucky’s head was on the chopping block may have been the most exclamatory and satisfying moment all season.
While action, revenge, blood and reprisals marked “Margate Sands,” the episode was also characterized by some canny schemes and double crosses over allegiances and territory -- most of them devilishly sly. Before that, however, chaos reigns, and the people of Atlantic City fear the town is now in the hands of criminals. With Capone in town (Eli struck up a deal with him in Chicago), the war between the two rival gangs escalates and the Chi-town mobster and his men paint the town red with bloody reprisals. Rossetti’s men answer back and soon the press is hounding the mayor of Atlantic City asking if he’s loss control of the city due to the rash of wanton, out-in-the-open violence.
While there’s racist infighting between Nucky’s new crew -- Chalky’s gang vs. Al Capone, they essentially get the job done. Impatient, Masseria comes for a visit to check up on Rosetti’s progress in taking over Atlantic City while Nucky’s in hiding, and he’s beginning to tire of Rosetti’s games.
With the The Artemis Club brothel taken over by Rosetti’s men, Gillian’s life is up-ended. Having fired Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in the last episode, her grandson Tommy is distraught and resentful. Gillian faces a hard lesson when she realizes the boy favors his best friend Richard over her. She asks Rossetti if she and her grandson can leave the brothel, but the gangster doesn’t like the idea, preferring to keep her essentially a prisoner in her own home. During their discussion, Rosetti tries to ease her mind by telling the madame that he’ll take care of her. Their conversations take on a sexual tension and then suddenly, when Rosetti hints at his peculiar sexual peccadilloes, Gillian gets a glint in her eye...
Meanwhile, Eli and Nucky get real. “It’s over here. No one’s going to come in 100 yards of me, not in Atlantic City, not anywhere,” Nucky says to Eli. Even if they survive the Rossetti war, Nucky assumes he’s finished in this town. But in a rare heart to heart, Eli, seemingly having paid for his past sins this season, tells his older brother they can keep on their dominance of Atlantic City. Though they may have to do it in a less visible and cavalier manner.
While bullets are flying left, right and center which makes for some exciting action and entertainment, the episode is truly made behind closed doors in some keen negotiations. The first move is pulled by Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks), seemingly double crossing Nucky Thompson. He calls Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tells him he’s at the Overholt distillery in Pennsylvania, the operation given to Nucky by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon (James Cromwell) to run for him illegally on the side. Rothstein’s well aware that this is Nucky’s most prized possession and Doyle eggs him on.
Rothstein, always one to seize an opportunity, immediately calls Nucky and offers him the proposition of the season: Give him 99% control of Overholt and he’ll get Masseria to pull his support and men away from Rosetti. Nucky takes the deal, but what Rothstein, usually ten steps ahead of everyone else doesn’t realize, is that he’s taken the bait and this is one in a series of impress moves to come
The cops posing as mobsters from Buffalo work over Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), busted in the last episode for heroin possession. They want his partner and source, but Luciano won’t sing until there’s a deal in place that profits for him. The cops, however, intimate that Luciano could just disappear, and tell him the best he can do here is not lose entirely.
In the end, Luciano gives up his entire stash and he’s allowed to walk. His partner, Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), is furious. He had warned Luciano not to do business with unvouched-for strangers and now they’re out 15 grand. When reporting to Rothstein and Masseria, they walk into what turns out to be a long-tail double cross from their own bosses. Rothstein paid the “police” to catch Luciano, he’s now got their heroin, he’s sold it to Masseria and they’ll control the heroin trade together. Having already been put through the ringer, Luciano is apoplectic and explodes with wrath. But Meyer talks him down and apologizes to both Rothstein and Masseria, knowing that with one snap of these men’s fingers they could be dead. His own boss, seeing the idea he had nurtured on his own, saw the value and stepped in to take it over.
In her first appearance in almost two episodes, Margaret Thompson (Kelly MacDonald), surfaces. She’s posing as someone else and is getting an abortion. The baby’s father is, of course, the now deceased Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), Nucky’s former lieutenant, murdered in episode #10 while trying to assassinate Masseria.
While she’s seemed worried up until now, Gillian is back in confident form when she and Rossetti make it to the boudoir. Dressed in black garters, she coos in Rosetti’s ear, clearly understanding Rosetti’s dominant and submissive kinks and quirks and getting him revved up just with her words. What becomes quickly apparent is that Gillian, a black widow type, is laying another trap, but when trying to seduce and dispose of the mobster in much the same way she did her dead son Jimmy’s lookalike in a previous episode, her plan backfires and Rosetti injects her with what looks like it could be a fatal dose of heroin.
Just as this happens. A commotion begins. Rosetti discovers that all of Masseria’s men and muscle are leaving. But before he can even complain, a wild card enters the picture: Richard Harrow coming for revenge, cleaning house like a cold blooded killer. Clearly here to retrieve Tommy, Richard lays to waste every man in his path, and Rossetti and his men escape by the skin of their teeth. But Richard has no interest there, and in an intense, harrowing moment, rescues Tommy from one of the last men alive in the house. A blood-stained Richard brings Tommy to his girlfriend Julia Sagorsky’s (Wrenn Schmidt) house in the middle of the night. She’s horrified at the sight of Richard spattered in blood with the little boy in his arms. In the only good moment he’s had this season, the usually belligerent and drunk father Paul (Mark Borkowski) tells his daughter to not ask questions and take the boy inside. Paul even tries to cover for Richard and tells him he’ll talk her down in the morning. Richard simply replies, “He’s safe. That’s all that matters,” before disappearing into the night.
The (almost) final knife in the back takes place over the phone. Andrew Mellon calls Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) for the final coup. He tells the prosecutor to take her men to Pennsylvania and take over the Overholt distillery. He also tells her to arrest the new owner Arnold Rothstein as Gaston Means (Stephen Root) is seen whispering in Mellon's ear -- yet another shady deal that Nucky must have made that we'll surely learn more about next season.
In the end, with no choice left, it’s Tonino (Chris Caldovino) who does Rosetti in just as the gangster is planning to start over out west. Tonino brings the knife to Nucky and Eli, waiting by the Margate shore. Nucky, who clearly spared Tonino’s life in the brothel in exchange for the hit on Rosetti, instructs him to send the body to Masseria to signify the end (or beginning) of their quarrel, and tells him he’s never welcome in Atlantic City again.
Nucky goes to see Margaret. He tries, unsuccessfully to bring her back home. He’s willing to forgive her affair with Owen, but Margaret is not convinced and closes the door on his offer of money for her and the kids. Whether she’ll hold her ground next season though remains to be seen.
“I don’t want anyone knowing who I am. I don’t want anyone coming near us who I don’t already trust.” Nucky tells his brother Eli. Later on, Nucky is recognized walking around Atlantic City, and disturbed by this, he throws his trademark red carnation on the ground at his feet in what is an obvious symbolic rejection of his former conspicuousness and tendency toward excess. Whatever’s next for Nucky in Atlantic City will be done with anonymity. As the flower drops, he disappears into a crowd like a wisp. [A-]