In this environment of violence and corruption and death, power and allegiances may shift, but one thing remains constant: the environment, one that is restricting and cruel, unrelenting and indifferent to the plights of its inhabitants. All empires eventually crumble, and what’s left is the need for survival; what’s left is the question of whether you can make peace with the inevitability of your mortality.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen a Nucky Thompson who wants to go legitimate, who wants to leave a legacy for himself and be admired to no end. However, we’re now also seeing a Nucky Thompson who slowly loses everything, who is betrayed and hurt, who is left reciting “Song of Hiawatha” and fighting people in a dive bar after he finds out about Sally’s death. Sally’s mortality reminds him of his past, of his decision to–in a scene that really makes a case for these flashbacks’ necessity–turn over a young Gillian Darmody to the Commodore. Here, we see his point of no return, the point at which he truly becomes the Nucky we know today, the Nucky who’s left knocked out in the street.
Because, after all, this isn’t really a tale about Nucky’s redemption; it’s a tale about Nucky trying to quench the steady flow of guilt that’s built up over the years. He offered money to Chalky last week and offers money to Joel Harper this week, stating that it’s “for me”, and we see that this is a selfish man through and through. In the end, it’s simply all about him. He had family to cling onto with Mabel, but we know that she dies and that he is left with nothing but empty power. “You start at the bottom. You don’t have a choice. Get yourself ahead. What else can you do?” Nucky tells the women at the bar, but the real essence of his situation is encapsulated by his bitter “For what though, huh? For what? No one talks about that!” What is his purpose? What kind of man will he die as?
For Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White, they die in as “nice” a way as you can die in this show. Van Alden, whose frustration has been building up since he became Mueller, finally explodes, embracing his identity as the man he was as he has his hands around Al Capone’s neck. He knows that there’s no way out, that he’s in for, so he does what he’s been wanting to do for a while now. “I AM NELSON KASPAR VAN ALDEN. I am a sworn agent of the United States Treasury, and I swear by Jesus, our lord, that JUSTICE will rain down upon you as if it is my last–” This is a heartbreaking, cathartic, and even humorous, moment, and Michael Shannon is perfect in his final scene.
We get a contrast of Van Alden’s explosion with Chalky’s quiet acceptance of his fate, with the inevitability hanging over the scene involving him, Narcisse, Daughter, and Althea. Michael Kenneth Williams is brilliant when it comes to conveying a range of emotions amid a largely stoic character, and this is his crowning achievement in a series full of great performances. Him listening to the recording is a beautiful, beautiful moment, and the shot of him straightening his jacket and smiling before he’s shot is marvelously done by the production team and by Williams. Chalky was already on a suicide mission, but when he comes face to face with his past, with the idea of love, he decides to find meaning in that love rather than in revenge.
Valentin Narcisse walks away unharmed, but who’s truly the free one here?
– “Your wife told you to rob Al Capone?”
“We were having troubles at home.”
“…I can vouch for that.”
-Hmm. Is that Tommy Darmody with Mickey?
-The sound of the needle on the blank part of the record is used over the credits. It’s a great choice.
-Great casting with the young people all around, especially Eli and Nucky.
– “Call me what you will. I never pretended to be your friend.” Last week, Nucky told Chalky that they were friends.
-The final scene of the series is of Van Alden and Richard Harrow–both alive again–seeing each other’s faces, then high five-ing and skipping off into the sunset as they flip off everyone around them (everyone around them is dead).
-Van Alden technically ends up succeeding, as Mike D’Angelo now has the ledgers; Al Capone will soon be in jail. Van Alden also ends up essentially taking a bullet for Eli.
-So, this is one of the best episodes this show has produced. My all time favorite is still “Two Imposters”, but this comes incredibly close.
-Two more. I’m excited.
Photo credit: HBO, Boardwalk Empire