‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 4 Finale Recap: “Farewell Daddy Blues”

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It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Nucky Thompson is the only character to walk out of Season 4 relatively unscathed. Not because he’s the protagonist; all that’s required for Nucky to fill that particular role is to stay alive through the series finale. Rather, it’s that our antihero simply doesn’t have a lot to lose. This season’s been toying around with its main character’s fundamental emptiness for a while: Nucky’s got no family, no friends (only partners!), and no real reason to keep expanding his already substantial empire. It’s easy for him to decide he wants out. If only this show’s other characters were so lucky.

“Farewell Daddy Blues” brings the long-simmering tension between Nucky and Eli to a head. As Eli puts it so eloquently to Tolliver, a man always knows when his brother’s fucked him over. Nucky thus has little choice but to “do what I have to do,” a euphemism he uses over and over until he finds that murdering his sibling in cold blood is more difficult than he thought. We’ll never find out if he’d actually carry through with it, though, because that’s when Willy walks in and the real root of the conflict rears its ugly head. Suddenly it’s not Eli on the defensive, but Nucky.

The tragic irony of Eli’s betrayal is that even as he risks everything to get his son out of harm’s way, Will credits his uncle for getting him out from under the murder charge, driving him ever deeper into the criminal underworld Eli always wanted him to escape. That’s why Eli takes Nucky to task for turning his nephew into “a man in an empty hotel.” As always, Nucky’s just self-aware enough to see the truth without actually taking responsibility for it, so he storms out, leaving his brother to deal with an enraged Agent Tolliver while he plans his ride off into the Cuban sunset.

Tolliver grows more and more unraveled this episode as it becomes increasingly clear he’s bet his career on a bust that’s never going to happen. With “Director Hoover” staunchly uncooperative and a partner who doesn’t think he’s fit to wield a gun, Tolliver decides to prove them wrong by confronting Eli. What follows is a fight scene even more tense and brutal than the Chalky-Dunn brawl. Boardwalk has a knack for crafting unglamorous wrestling matches that don’t seem choreographed; they’re ugly, desperate fights where eyes are gouged and furniture is knocked over. Eli, grunting like an animal, comes out alive, but it’s a hollow victory. By channeling his impotent rage at his brother, Eli’s only dug his family’s hole a few inches deeper.

Luckily, some good old-fashioned 1920s racism saves the day. Under circumstances I’m saving for a bit later in the recap, Narcisse finds himself in federal custody, face to face with J. Edgar Hoover. Here, we witness firsthand just how profoundly Narcisse fails to live up to his own principles. Hoover has him all figured out; he wants Narcisse to flip on Marcus Garvey in return for his freedom and pinning Tolliver’s murder on a black assailant. And Narcisse will do it, because while Garvey’s a “hero,” he’s nothing but “a peddler and a pimp.” Hoover’s right, and the man who spent all season espousing the virtues of the “Libyan” people proves it with two simple words: “Yes, sir.”

That leaves Eli scot-free (thanks, J. Edgar!), although it’s not clear at the end of the episode whether the Thompsons know it. He’s packed off to visit “some friends out West,” meaning, of course, the Capones. Chicago has spent all of Season 4 preparing itself for Season 5, placing Van Alden squarely in the Italian camp, freshly ceded to Al Capone by a defeated Johnny Torrio. This show desperately needs to stop packing characters it doesn’t know what to do with off to the Windy City, but with a nascent Capone regime in place, I’m hopeful Eli’s arc next year will be better than this round’s How George Mueller Got His Groove Back.

And then there’s the twin tragedies of Richard Harrow and Chalky White. Despite the understanding they reached last episode, Richard and Gillian are at odds once again. Desperate to lock down the family he’s formed with Julia and Tommy, Richard testifies at Gillian’s murder trial, but quickly realizes he needs Jimmy’s body to prove that Gillian didn’t simply find her son in the bathtub. He goes to Nucky for help, and true to form, Boardwalk’s resident half-gangster throws Gillian under the bus as soon as it serves his own self-interest. With Mrs. Darmody out of the picture for good, Richard sends the Sagorskys out to his sister’s with Tommy in tow, where he promises to join them as soon as he’s repaid Nucky’s favor.

That favor turns out to be taking care of the Narcisse problem once and for all. Chalky’s come back to Atlantic City howling for blood, and in one of his few redeeming moments, Nucky continues to help him out, engineering a summit with Narcisse at the Onyx Club. The pragmatic bigotry comes off convincing enough (“I bet on a horse to win. He didn’t even place,” Nucky shrugs, claiming he doesn’t give a “rat’s ass” about who runs the Club as long as it keeps him in the black). But Richard’s waiting in the wings, ready to kill one last time. He does, except it’s Chalky’s daughter Maybelle he takes out, not Narcisse.

So while Nucky skips town, he leaves behind quite the wreckage: a nephew freshly corrupted, a longtime ally destroyed, and a fundamentally good man finally consumed by his demons. We sense trouble from the moment we watch Richard come home to the loving embrace of his wife and sister, but it still doesn’t fully prepare us for the season’s final shot: a body on a beach, showing his true face to the world while the screen fades to black. Richard deserved death less than any other character on his show, but that’s not the point. Survival in Boardwalk depends on one’s ability to live with the terrible things people do to survive. Some, like Richard and Gillian, buckle under the pressure. For others, as Nucky Thompson tells us, “It gets easier.”