Boardwalk Empire Postmortem: So, What Kind of Gangster Is Nucky Now?
[WARNING: The following story reveals major details about the Season 3 finale of Boardwalk Empire. Read at your own risk.]
"You can't be half a gangster."
Jimmy Darmody's haunting words to Nucky Thompson have loomed large this season on Boardwalk Empire. But on Sunday's finale, Nucky proved he's not doing anything halfway anymore.
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To bring an end to his ongoing war with hothead Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), Nucky (Steve Buscemi) promised control of the Old Overholt Distillery to Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), who in turn convinced New York mobster Joe Masseria to pull his support of Rossetti. Although Rosetti escaped his brothel headquarters without being killed by Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), Nucky found a backstabbing ally in Rosetti's own lieutenant Tonino (Chris Caldovino), whose cousin Gyp had violently beaten to death earlier in the season.
So, everything's great, right? Not so fast. Although Nucky proved as skilled an operator as ever, he's seemingly lost Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who has moved to Brooklyn and cares little about ever taking another dime from Nucky. Plus, Nucky's deal with Rothstein was revealed to be one big double-cross when Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) put Asst. U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) on the trail of Rothstein's bootlegging dealings at Overholt.
Nucky's a full gangster all right, but he's still got plenty of enemies. Below, creator Terence Winter discusses the events of the finale and teases what's to come in Season 4.
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Did you feel any added pressure with this season finale given how huge last year's was with Jimmy's death?
Terence Winter: I wouldn't say there was pressure to live up to it. There's always pressure to do a good show, but I felt like I moved past that by the time the Season 2 finale aired. Obviously, it was a momentous event in the course of the series, but I wasn't really trying to set out like, "How do we top this?" I want every season finale to be exciting and I really don't compare them. I think the show is equally viable without Jimmy as it was with Jimmy. This is really Nucky's story. Jimmy was a part of it, but that's not what the series was about.
By that same logic, Nucky's war with Gyp Rosetti seemingly could only end the way it did: with Nucky alive and Gyp dead. Or is there a point where we move beyond Nucky's story?
Winter: Certainly Jimmy's death shows that we're not afraid to make bold moves on this show. And Nucky isn't perfect. He really took his eye off the ball in a big way this year, and a guy like Gyp Rosetti starts out to be a tiny problem and becomes the biggest problem Nucky may have ever had. Nucky is not infallible and anything can happen. I wouldn't say that anybody's safe on this show.
Several people had a chance to kill Gyp in the finale. How did you decide that Tonino would be the one to do it?
Winter: When you're Gyp Rosetti, there's probably no shortage of enemies. The interesting thing about the downfall of a guy like Gyp for us was that you can't really rule by fear and intimidation too long before you end up like Mussolini — strung up by your own people. Beating a guy to death with a shovel on the beach was the fatal mistake that Gyp made. He underestimated his lieutenant, and that's the guy who put the knife in his back. That was the moment where Gyp crossed the line on the wrong person, and Tonino lets him have it.
Part of Nucky taking his eye off the ball was his relationship with Billie Kent (Meg Chambers Steedle). Will her death continue to impact Nucky or will she serve as a reminder to not make that mistake again?
Winter: That's probably accurate. I think by the end of the season, Nucky has learned a big lesson about being a gangster. I mean, when you see him at the end and on the boardwalk and the guy says, "Hey, you're Nucky Thompson aren't you?" and he just looks at the guy, that's a different Nucky than we've ever seen. That's not the glad-handing politician who'll stop and shake your hand and make small talk. This is a guy who now knows who he is. There are a lot of things that haunt Nucky and whether or not he completely moves on from any of them remains to be seen.
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Nucky let Eli (Shea Whigham) back into his circle, but it seems he'll be keeping a much smaller crew.
Winter: He says to Eli, "I don't want to deal with anybody who we don't already know." By the end, blood is certainly thicker than water and Nucky and Eli are back together. That's definitely a major part of what we wanted to do during the season.
On the other hand, things aren't so chummy between Nucky and Margaret. Is she really out of his life at this point?
Winter: Season 3 was a real journey for Margaret. She started out adrift, living in this loveless marriage. She's wealthy and has everything she wants in the material sense, but her life is very empty and she starts really looking for some purpose. She goes on that journey and does find something worthwhile to do [at the clinic], and, of course, by the season's end the great irony is that she herself is pregnant and has an abortion. There's a major move in her relationship with Nucky. She is living off in Brooklyn alone and doesn't want to take anything from him. She will still be a big part of the show as we move forward, but how she relates to Nucky and what kind of relationship they have I can't really say until you tune in next September.
In the past we've seen Margaret ashamed of her actions because of her faith. Is that still at play here?
Winter: No. I think by the end of Season 2, when she wrote that check and basically gave the church her land, that was her settling her account with God. I think that was her saying, "OK, I'm literally paying my penance." I don't think the religious aspect is something she worries about anymore.
Her fall from grace parallels that of Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
Winter: That's the whole point of Van Alden. He's got all these codes he lives by and the joke is that no one else really takes any of this stuff seriously. The only one who is actually trying to adhere to these impossible mandates fails miserably. So little by little, the guy just comes apart at the seams. He finds it impossible to live that way and succumbs to all these temptations. As things continue, what we find is the thing Van Alden is really good at is actually being bad. He's actually very effective selling alcohol. He's not a good salesman for irons and he can't function in that environment, but he actually can make a little money doing this. I think as the series progresses we'll see a little more of that.
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Of course, we've already seen those actions put Van Alden right in the middle of a war between Dean O'Banion and Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
Winter: This season really marked the rise of Al Capone. He's not just a thug. He's more calculating. He's more vicious, more violent. As we move forward in the series, 1924 was the year Capone took over Cicero, Ill. and sort of made that his headquarters and that was the year he had his war with Dean O'Banion. So, yes, Van Alden will be squarely in the middle of that as we move into Season 4.
Gillian (Gretchen Mol) had a darker fate than the rest of the ensemble this season.
Winter: Yeah. This season was really her coming to grips with Jimmy's death once and for all and trying to make a way for herself in the world. But she's not really cut out to be a mom as we've seen. She sort of ended in a place probably befitting somebody as evil as she is. It'll be interesting to see how her journey continues.
We did see her babbling to Nucky at the end. So, Gyp didn't give her a lethal dose of heroin, right?
Winter: She lives. She survives.
The sequence with Harrow killing Rosetti's men was fantastic, but it seemed to bring an end to his relationship with Julia and maybe even Tommy.
Winter: That was sort of our little homage to the end of The Searchers, Harrow coming back and delivering the kid to the house. Unfortunately, even though his relationship with Julia is going well, generally when you show up covered in blood in the middle of the night with no explanation it's going to take a little while to rehabilitate that relationship. Without saying where that all goes, that's as far as we can take Harrow and Julia at that moment. We're enormously interested in exploring Harrow as a real person, not just a killer and a wounded soldier. It was a really fun departure to get to know him as an actual man. It was one of my favorite story lines this season.
Nucky gave Rothstein control of the Old Overholt distillery to get out of this mess with Gyp, but it's a big double-cross. We should expect a pretty big fight next season, no?
Winter: We'll come back to this series probably another year into the future, so where that leads Nucky and Rothstein remains to be seen. But I will say that they are not very fond of each other as we go out of Season 3. Nucky felt betrayed by Rothstein. He's now paying him back in a very big way. I don't think that relationship repairs itself very quickly.
So will that be the major conflict of the season or should we expect another Gyp Rosetti type to foil Nucky?
Winter: Without saying what it is, there's always going to be conflicts and problems for Nucky. Life is not easy as a gangster and certainly dramatically there's got to be some challenges, some dangers, and some big obstacles to face. He'll have a lot of them. In Season 4, he continues on his trajectory. Whether that's a rise or a descent depends on how you view gangsterism, I guess. But like I said, this is a very different Nucky now, and that's really more of who Nucky is moving forward. He's much more tightly organized, much more calculating — a much more shrewd gangster.
What did you think of Boardwalk Empire's season finale?