Sometimes Boardwalk Empire is all brooding and introspection and heartbreaking line deliveries by Michael K. Williams. Sometimes, however, Boardwalk Empire is all action, bookended by cheesy voiceovers. That’s generally what the show turns into towards the end of the season, anyway, and it’s proving especially true now that we’re on the very last season, and a shortened one at that. “Friendless Child” races through a lot of material to set up the series’ final hour, and what it lacks in heart-wrenching major character deaths it makes up for in sheer plot.
Quantity over quality is the name of the game here, and that’s especially true in terms of fatalities. While last week gave us the timely demise of two tragic (though in Van Alden’s case, more tragicomic) heroes, “Friendless Child” announces itself with a barrage of violence, with the body count going up at a steady clip for the next hour. First, there’s the unusually campy radio announcement from the U.S. Attorney, complete with black-and-white newspaper photographs and the word “hoodlums.” Then there’s Bugsy’s abduction scene. Then there’s the bungled tradeoff, which goes down in the most foreboding Boardwalk Empire setting of all: two squadrons of cars, somewhere off the road in the dead of night.
The Willy Thompson abduction arc is the centerpiece of this episode, and under normal circumstances it’d take up half a season. Eli showing up in a panic would be the cliffhanger end of episode one; the buildup to the showdown would take most of episode two; Nucky’s sacrifice of Atlantic City and dispatching of Maranzano would be episode three. But because we’re running on a tight schedule, everything’s wrapped up so quickly that Willy doesn’t even have to miss out on work.
That final scene is a nice self-aware nod to the craziness of this week’s pacing, which brings us the end of Maranzano, Archimedes the ear-slicing bodyguard, and poor, sweet Mickey Doyle, who came thisclose to surviving long enough to inherit the club. Also, Bugsy Siegel screams a song called “My Girl’s Pussy” at the top of his lungs, but makes sure the mezuzah’s in the right place before he schtups his childhood friend’s wife. Also also, Meyer and Lucky get exactly what they’ve always wanted: Atlantic City as an outpost of their nascent syndicate. I’ll be surprised if they show up in the finale, since “Friendless Child” exists mostly to serve as their happy ending, and relieve Nucky of his crime-kingpin burdens so he can face down his personal demons instead of his business rivals.
We come even closer to learning about the nature of those personal demons in this week’s round of flashbacks. Sure enough, Nucky gets exactly what he wished for—an in to the Commodore’s inner circle—and it involves actively involving himself in, not just turning a blind eye to, the boss’s abuse of young children. The look on his face as he approaches the latest victim is best described as “insufficiently horrified,” and it’s the start of a lifetime’s worth of studied moral indifference.
Meanwhile, Gillian is ominously hanging around the Thompson household. Once Mabel gets her a bath and a dress, she’s both recognizably Gillian—the child actress has Gretchen Mol’s firm politeness on lock—and ominously not Gillian. The Gillian we know would never be so naive that she’d look to Nellie Bly for inspiration. This younger, distinctly innocent Gillian sets off Mabel’s maternal instinct, and Mabel’s inability to provide for her triggers the first signs of the madness that’ll eventually consume her. (NB: I incorrectly wrote last week that Mabel dies in childbirth; instead, she kills herself after the death of her baby, another child she’s unable to help.)
Still, we stop just short of the Big, Horrifying Thing we know Nucky’s about to do. Strangely, Gillian’s letter from the asylum almost brushes Nucky’s betrayal aside, framing him instead as her savior. Given that she’s trying to convince him to break her out of jail, though, it makes sense that Gillian would skip over facts in favor of flattery. Besides, Nucky’s conscience is doing all the guilt tripping for him; he’s finally realized he has the reverse-Midas touch, sending his loyal assistant away with (what else?) a wad of cash before he gets kidnapped and/or corrupted.
And then Nucky reads Gillian’s letter, accompanied by ham-fisted visual and sound effects that tell us what we already know. Nucky’s going to break Gillian out of the asylum, because he sees it as an opportunity to begin righting some of his most fundamental wrongs. He refused to free Gillian from one institution, her orphanage, years ago. Now he’s going to break her out of another.