Boardwalk Empire season 2 pours its last drink with Sunday’s ‘To the Lost,’which sees Jimmy Darmody trying to make amends with Nucky for his past transgressions, while Nucky faces the first trial of his indictment, and Margaret faces a difficult decision about her testimony. “To the Lost” doesn’t move quite as quickly as last week’s “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” but offers up one hell of a game-changing finale that will undoubtedly go down in TV history for its shocking character death.
I must have sat in disbelief for a solid twenty minutes at the end of Boardwalk Empire‘s ‘To the Lost,’wondering just why on Earth showrunner Terence Winter would dare kill off the show’s second leading character, and likely most empathized with, after only two seasons.
How can you kill off your young lead, your best tool for storytelling, and expect to have a show to come back to next fall? It’d be like Breaking Bad killing off Jesse Pinkman (a likely outcome, depending on who you talk to) and asking us to re-focus all our investment in Walter White’s journey. Sure there’s shock value, and storytelling challenges created by Jimmy Darmody’s death, but when the strength and discourse of a show lie in the relationship between two characters, how can we simply throw that away?
It certainly helps to be able to hear the words of showrunner Terence Winter himself, who assures us that the decision to kill Jimmy didn’t come about lightly or without attempt at reprieve. Sometimes we forget how much of TV writing relies on introducing challenges within a maintainable status quo, that change means effort, money, and creativity. The boldest of TV series follow through on their arcs, and wouldn’t have felt a need to give Jimmy a last-second reprieve, or create a quick and easy solution to get Michael Shannon back to his post-office law enforcement, and for that we should be grateful. Some TV fans would be content to pop Ned Stark (Game of Thrones)’s head right back on his shoulders, and pretend like nothing happened.
Jimmy made his bed with his season-long betrayal of Nucky, and an episode’s worth of ‘I’m sorrys’and repentance weren’t going to undo the damage caused by the Nucky-Jimmy rift. The writers know it, Nucky knows it, Jimmy knows it, and there was no other way for it to end than for Nucky to have to eliminate his unstable, if repentant surrogate son. With time, and a little reflection, we’ll come to see that as clearly as Jimmy did, even with the sky crashing down around him.
Of course, acceptance doesn’t answer the millions of questions Boardwalk Empire‘s writers now have to answer before next season, not only how to write without Jimmy, but also what becomes of the characters tied to him. We may revile Gillian Darmody for all the psychological trauma she inflicted upon Jimmy, but she’s not going to take his murder lightly, particularly with Jimmy’s son, or all the resources of the late Commodore now at her disposal.
And what of Richard , who lost both his strongest tethers to life in both Angela and Jimmy? Will he transfer his loyalty to Gillian, strike out on his own, or rather opt out altogether, in spite of his last words to Jimmy? I can’t imagine Ceander Whitlock (Dominic Chianese) and his council of elderly white rich folk reacting to the news all-that-well either. Winter mentions in the interview that it’s these kind of storytelling challenges that envigorate TV writing staffs despite the difficulty they pose, and even dead I imagine Jimmy’s shadow to loom over Boardwalk Empire for quite some time
And that’s not even taking into account all the other stories to be mined from the next season of Boardwalk Empire, like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky opting to cut Rothstein in on the heroin trade rather than usurp him, Van Alden’s re-location to Cicero* as ‘Mr. Mueller,’or Margaret deciding to transfer Nucky’s land ownership to the church. We’re only given the briefest tastes of these season 3 storylines, instead devoting much of ‘To the Lost’to Jimmy’s heartbreaking final days. Not to mention Chalky! We could always use more Chalky.
(*) As Winter mentions in the interview, the significance of Van Alden and his Swedish nurse (now mistress?) relocating to Cicero, Illinois will be lost on 90% of the viewers (myself included), Cicero having been a hub for Al Capone’s mob activity in the 1920s.
Likely the biggest theme running through Boardwalk Empire‘s ‘To the Lost’is that of honesty, and how the concept can be stretched and re-appropriated for one’s own use. Honesty is what saves Nucky from prison by winning over Margaret enough to marry him, and yet damns him, as his immediate return to lying finally incenses Margaret to take direct actions against her new husband, signing away his land. Honesty is what Jimmy uses to repair his relationship with Nucky, even if it means resigning himself to his death. And honesty is something that Eli and Nucky will likely never share, and equally likely lead to the former’s undoing.
Some of the complaints lobbied at Boardwalk Empire insist that with a cast of characters as broad as the series maintains, there isn’t time to give everyone their just due every season. We’ve barely seen Chalky White at all this season, Lucy has retreated to who knows where, Van Alden finds a quieter life out of state, and we didn’t even see Al Capone through any of ‘To the Lost.” Winter assures us they’ll all be back however, as we navigate the waters of heroin, Esther Randolph’s second attempt to take Nucky to trial, and the fallout of Jimmy’s death Perhaps with the death toll this season, it won’t be quite as hard to make room for everyone.
Directed by longtime Boardwalk and Sopranos staple Tim Van Patten, there’s a lot to be said for the direction of ‘To the Lost,’as well. Most will clamor the virtue of the Godfather-esque montage cutting between Esther’s rehearsal of her arguments and Nucky’s wedding to Margaret, but there are some very interesting choices in other direction and sound design as well. I particularly like the way sounds like ringing phones, boiling kettles, or Eddie’s footsteps intrude into the scenes, as if to say that the pressures of the outside world continually bear down on these characters, leading them to their inevitable ends. Those with an eye for directing will also appreciate some gorgeous shots like Jimmy and Richard’s ride into the KKK camp, or Jimmy’s pensive gaze out the portal as Nucky arrives at his home.
As I mentioned before, I’m unaccustomed to TV so game-changing as what happened to Jimmy tonihght, perhaps owing to the fact that I’ve never completely gone through The Sopranos. In it’s heyday I would always overhear the shocked outcry of its various character deaths, never appreciating how drastic and pivotal these events Terence Winter created were to the series at large. We (and likely Winter as well) have no way of knowing how Boardwalk Empire will bounce back from such an incredible turn as Jimmy’s death, but at the very least I more than appreciate the bravado it took to go there.
Poor one out for Boardwalk Empire‘s second season and Jimmy Darmody, y’all, and drink up. To the lost.
And Another Thing…
- I’m very much looking forward to more of Mickey Doyle next season, whom Paul Sparks is already playing with a much stronger backbone in recent episodes.
- With Margaret, Sleater, and Katy’s mutual secrets still going unaddressed, surely we can look forward to that next season as well.
- Interesting that they brought up The Commodore’s former maid as the recipient of his estate in the will, only quickly tear it up and forgo clarifying her, or Nucky’s involvement in the arsenic plot.
- Good gravy, I thought the man giving pony rides had to be wearing a mask, he looked so rubbery. Yeesh.
- Lots of great quotes tonight, but I especially like Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg)’s advice to Nucky, ‘Flip a coin. When it’s in the air, you’ll know which side you’re hoping for.’
What did YOU think?