Boardwalk Empire episode 12 review: A Return To Normalcy: season finale

It doesn't quite paper over all of the problems with the series, but the finale of Boardwalk Empire is a tremendous piece of work, reckons Paul...

This review contains spoilers.

12. A Return To Normalcy

One of my least favourite clichés is ‘you either love it or you hate it’, because it’s rarely ever used correctly. If someone describes something as ‘a real love/hate thing’, more often not if you ask them to proffer an opinion on it they’ll say “It’s OK,’ or, “It’s not great”. So, the opposite of love/hate, then.

What people really mean when they say this is that there are aspects about this ‘thing’ that work, and aspects that don’t. That they don’t say this is because it doesn’t compute that something can be both be loved and hated, that it can exist in an equal state of adulation and contempt. But it can, of course.

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All of which hopefully explains away the somewhat inconsistent tone that these Boardwalk Empire reviews have had over the course of this first season. The things I’ve loved about the show, I’ve genuinely loved, and generally they have more than outweighed the stuff that I don’t.

However, there have been some really frustratingly shoddy elements to some of the storytelling in this first series. Things that I may have been more forgiving towards on other series that don’t boast the insane pedigree that this one does, granted, but still significant enough to affect my overall enjoyment of this first season.

I refer you back to my review of last week’s Paris Green, an episode where I found virtually nothing that worked for me, and where I felt that a great deal of the momentum Boardwalk Empire had been building in recent weeks was squandered. I guess a bad episode is always going to seem a lot worse when it’s preceded by some excellent ones.

So, consistently with this inconsistency, then, Paris Green is followed up with A Return To Normalcy, the finale of this first season of Boardwalk Empire, and an absolutely awesome piece of television to boot. Last week I said that there’s no way the finale would be good enough to ignore the fact that some of this series has been a slog, and I’ll stand by that (because I have to), but, my God, do they ever come close.

This wasn’t an overtly wham bang action-filled finale to the series (although there was one great action set piece, which I’ll come on to), but it didn’t need to be. Its best scenes, as is so often the case with this show, were between characters just sat in a room together talking: Jimmy and his wife as he attempts to open up to her about his wartime experiences and in the process save their marriage, the frosty, darkly comic conversation between Van Alden and his long-suffering wife, and in an intensely moving scene that arguably featured the best acting in the entire series, Nucky revealing the fate of his late wife and child to a disbelieving Margaret.

The key scene in this episode came at around the halfway point, where Nucky is sandbagged into a meeting with his antagonist and rival, Arnold Rothstein, by Johnny Torrio. The beleaguered and usually unflappable Rothstein is feeling the heat after being indicted for fixing the World Series, and offers to end the war between New York and Atlantic City that has been raging since the pilot, if Nucky agrees to use his political influence to help him hide out in Chicago.

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Without missing a beat, Nucky agrees, on the condition that Rothstein gives him the location of the D’Alessio brothers, Nucky’s other irritants this season, and a $1 million tribute. Grudgingly, but with respect, Rothstein agrees, and we then get to see the forces of hell (namely Jimmy, Al, and a particularly badass Richard Harrow) unleashed on the unwitting D’Alessios. In the review of the pilot, I mentioned that the murder montage may have become a bit clichéd, but here it was totally earned, and seeing the series’ strongest characters finally clean house provided one of the most purely thrilling moments of the entire series.

This was intercut with Nucky holding a press conference congratulating his brother Eli for revealing the D’Alessios and the unfortunate Hans Schroeder (Margaret’s deceased husband) as a gang of bootleggers, citing the successful bust as a reason to re-elect the Republicans on the eve of the election.

It’s exhilarating, watching Nucky as the quick-witted criminal mastermind solving all of the disparate, deadly serious problems he has faced all series in one fell swoop. And the reason it doesn’t come across as a deus ex machina is because we’ve seen Nucky’s Machievellian skill many times before, most notably in the episode where Nucky almost single-handedly negotiates Harding into the position of Republican presidential nominee.

And it’s the election of Warren Harding as President that finishes up this series and gives it its rather pointed title. Harding pledges a “return to normalcy” after the tumultuous events of the progressive era. With Margaret back at his side, the control of Atlantic City secured for another term, and most of his enemies either dead or in exile, on the surface it looks as if Nucky can relax for a while, and, indeed ,return to his ‘normal’ existence (as much as being the boss of Atlantic City is normal).

But the events of this season have left Nucky with much bigger problems at hand, as it transpires that his closest allies are now conspiring to take him down. Eli feels betrayed and disrespected by Nucky deposing him of his sheriff duties in the lead up to the election (albeit only temporarily), the Commodore is angry at Nucky’s lenience towards the maid who has been attempting to poison him, and Jimmy is still a little perturbed by the revelation that Nucky may have pimped out his 13-year-old mother. The three men are seen discussing the future of Atlantic City in the ominous closing montage.

It’s a hell of a setup for the next season, and it brings me to my only real criticism of the episode. It’s so good, that I feel it could have been spread out a little more evenly across the series. There have been a few episodes which have hinged a lot of entertaining, but ultimately disposable filler around a couple of very good scenes, whereas this episode is great bit after great bit.

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I think that the series as a whole should have been a lot shorter, eight episodes, maybe, as it really did get a bit flabby in the middle. As I’ve said before, this season has been about people who are on the journey to embodying and defining the modern definition of ‘gangsters’, rather than just a traditional gangster story.

After A Return To Normalcy, the transition is pretty much complete, and the speed and gusto with which the show moves towards the next season only seems to confirm that the events of this season have effectively been an extended prologue for the real meat of the series.

It’s been enjoyable, but the luxury of knowing that Boardwalk Empire is going to be on HBO for at least another series may have been of a slight detriment to its pacing, and ultimately, its overall quality.

But this doesn’t take away from A Return To Normalcy being a totally triumphant season finale. There were so many awesome little moments and payoffs:Al cheerfully tossing the apple into the air after killing a D’Alessio, the shot of a masked Nucky preparing for the Halloween ball reflected between three mirrors, Al scolding Luciano: “Stop with your stupid jokes!”, the unrepentant maid claiming through gritted teeth she would have killed the Commodore with a shotgun if she didn’t know she would have to clear it up herself, Chalky lording it up at the election party with his girlfriend, and the reveal that rotund comic relief Baxter is stepping out with money-grabbing hussy Annabelle.

So, how does the season fare up now that we’ve reached the end? Undoubtedly a victim of unrealistically high expectations caused by the billing as a show from the creators of The Sopranos and Goodfellas, as well as the added pressure of almost instantly becoming HBO’s flagship show as it struggles to compete with the high flying FX and AMC, Boardwalk Empire is a flawed, but often brilliant series that you absolutely owe yourself to watch if you’re into television drama in any way.

Messy, gorgeous, slow, riveting, laboured and thrilling, often all at once, you will occasionally be frustrated, if you’re anything like me. But once it’s all over you won’t be able to wait for the next series. Or at the very least, you’ll be crossing your fingers for that Chalky and Richard spin-off, The Adventures of Scarface and Tinface. Because that really would be better than The Sopranos.

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Read our review of episode 11, Paris Green, here.

See all the Boardwalk Empire reviews here.

Boardwalk Empire Season 1 will air on the new Sky Atlantic channel in the New Year.

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic.

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