Boardwalk Empire season 4 finale review: Farewell Daddy Blues

Boardwalk Empire finishes its fourth season confident in its imperial phase. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers

4.12 Farewell Daddy Blues

Of the ninety-four songs recorded by Ma Rainey, around a tenth mention ‘mama’, ‘papa’ or ‘daddy’ in the title. It makes her a rather handy contemporary reference for a season in which parental relationships have been integral and one in which their eventual severing has been inevitable. Farewell Daddy Blues, which takes its name from a 1924 Rainey recording, brings such concerns to their climax and completes the painful dissections where necessary.

Capone finally got Torrio’s blessing to take over the business. It took a hail of bullets to convince poor Johnny that the new world that Prohibition had created was a little too rich for an old man and more suited to his young protégé’s singular talents. The handover has come at the right time; the Al Capone of Boardwalk Empire is ready for his next phase of development. We’ve seen him grow from the hotheaded young idiot of the first two seasons to the slightly more considered hothead of the last two. As we face the fifth, he’s ready to emerge as a boss. The clues are not just in the development of Capone’s gang (now with added Eli Thompson), appearing at the ailing Torrio’s bedside, it was notable how much Stephen Graham resembled the common image of Capone.

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His new recruit was a forced transfer. Agent Knox, or Jim Tolliver, has been such a weaselly, irritating presence that the only surprise in his beatdown by Eli is that his Department colleagues didn’t do it first. The fight itself was necessarily brutal, even cathartic. Eli had to beat an entire season’s worth of arsehole out of the guy, and out of himself. Shea Whigham has been superb as Eli this year, perfectly capturing his anger and frustration at the way his life has turned out and at the slipperiness of his grasp on his own family.

He has accused his brother of envying him, but it’s more mixed up than that. Nucky seems able to slip through whatever is thrown at him (even Knox’s plan this week) while the cost is borne again and again by his younger brother. The near-loss of his son was too much for Eli, who feared that both Nucky and Knox posed real threats to take him. When Eli savaged the agent, screaming ‘my son, my son’, he exorcised a lifetime of demons. He continued to hammer blows at him long after the desired effect had been achieved, but of course, he wasn’t fighting Knox off by this point; he was fighting himself. Just look at the moment he takes to recapture his breath after the event. A picture of tired release, it looked almost post-orgasmic.  

Nucky, as ever, slipped his punishment. Very few of Boardwalk’s characters are as proficient at the evasion of fate. It was rather touching that the episode that featured the skeletal return of Jimmy Darmody was also the last one in which his buddy Richard appeared. ‘I fought beside him’, he said in the witness stand, implying that he meant in Europe. It was a lie of convenience, intended to unseat Gillian’s weak case, but also a lie of hope. Richard longed for firmer connections, whether to Jimmy himself, to Jimmy’s late wife, who Richard could not protect, or to their son, the protection of whom gave Richard his last mission on Earth.

His day in court was made difficult by his inability to speak above a strained hoarse whisper. Whether with a shotgun or a significant look, Richard has made his point better without words since his return from France. This season had made this especially apparent, showing him crowned by an electric halo when meeting Mr Sagorsky, or even in the way he approached his sister’s house.

The first shot of Richard this season was him approaching the porch in freezing February, the house in hibernation. Viewed from behind, his mask invisible, he could have been any young man. It was a beautiful, painterly image that worked on its own terms. This week, it was made more beautiful still by the agonising symmetry of seeing Richard walk up to the same porch warmed by the balmy æther of summer.

This time, it was full of smiling faces, welcoming him home, his own face restored to its own natural symmetry. But of course it wasn’t, it was just a final reverie and Richard sat, half-faced underneath the boardwalk with only the endless sound of the sea to accompany him until the boatman made his call. Margot Bingham’s smoky singing had faded by then but the words still echoed in the viewer’s ear:

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So farewell, daddy. Someday you’ll hear bad news. When you look for your mama, she’s gone with the farewell blues.

Farewell Richard.

In seeking to protect one child, Richard deprived another parent of his own. Both Chalky and Narcisse recognized the bargaining power available to anyone who controls his rival’s children (or pseudo-children) and so both Maybelle and Daughter became pawns in their game. What had begun as a power struggle for control of territory descended into a personal conflict between two men blind to their own similarities. Chalky, for reasons discussed in earlier reviews, is lost and unaware of his path. Narcisse, who declaims passionately on the subject of his heritage, is also a man without a country. He has spent twenty-six years in the USA without becoming absorbed into it. Director Hoover, who cut through George Remus’ sad pantomime with steadfast precision, performed the same trick with the mannered act of Narcisse. ‘Brother Garvey is a great man’ said the doctor with an effort of disdain ‘Yes, but you are just a peddlar and a pimp’ His threat, that unless the captive Narcisse co-operates he ‘won’t see daylight in America again’, is one of rejection. Narcisse’s refusal to be co-opted thus far has left him weaker and susceptible to the director’s power. ‘Truth is what those in power wish it to be” admits Narcisse. Hoover is the one in power and quietly, but forcefully he extracts the doctor’s submission. It comes as a single word: ‘sir’.

Narcisse, who presents the public image of an earnest Garveyite, preaches self-respect and self-reliance, the virtues of education and African unity while poisoning the Northside with heroin and fomenting division in its representatives. I’ve read criticism of this portrayal of the Garveyist movement, but it misses the point. As Hoover tells us, Narcisse is no Garveyite, and his criminality render that movement itself criminal.

Every institution in Boardwalk Empire, whether political, commercial, legal or ideological, is presented as offering succour to the corrupt. Characters assume key positions in these bodies and exploit the power that they provide while hypocritically enjoying the enhanced public image that they offer. In terms of his relationship to his office, Narcisse is no different from Nucky Thompson, Edward Bader, Andrew Mellon, Agent Knox or any of the other slippery bastards we’ve seen.

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Nevertheless, it’s good that the question is even asked. Boardwalk Empire is serious enough it in its intent and effective enough in its execution that it deserves to be questioned on its core assumptions. That it can answer them is testament to the talents of Terence Winter and his team. It is, in terms of quality alone, a show of the first rank.

It is not so in terms of popularity. Talking hard numbers, the show has been pulling in 2m viewers, which is a fifth of that enjoyed by The Sopranos at the same stage in its lifespan, and a tiny amount when compared to current HBO stablemate Game of Thrones. It’s a respectable quantity (and bolstered by overseas viewers) but certainly not tent-pole stuff. It seems curious to those of us who remain ardent fans, but perhaps explicable. The unusual setting may be off-putting, as well as the complex nature of the plots, but they didn’t do any harm to the denizens of Winterfell or the Bada Bing. Boardwalk Empire is, on a cursory viewing, slow. But who wants to limit themselves to a merely cursory viewing? This is, for us, the show’s biggest strength. It demands loyalty and concentration. In return, it supplies consistent excellence. The fourth season has been marked by a greater confidence in the material. It has been patient, thoughtful and measured and, as the fourth gives way to the fifth, firmly in its imperial phase.

The quality of the show is not simply entertaining for the viewer; the breadth of its themes and references permits, even encourages, wider discussion, which makes reviewing it easier. Being able to take excellent performances and intelligent direction as read frees the reviewer from the constant need to pick holes in the plot or to point out which actor is doing the better job.

Thanks are due to everyone who has read these weekly recaps and in particular to those of you who have left encouraging comments. I’m pleased that you’ve found that these reviews have enhanced your enjoyment of the show; your kind comments have certainly enhanced my enjoyment of writing them. My grateful thanks to you all. 

Boardwalk Empire will return next year.

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