Boardwalk Empire’s season three finale is here, with “Margate Sands.” If you haven’t seen it, duck and cover. There are spoilers ahead.
The finale wastes no time, wading neck deep into the bodies right from the word go. We open with a montage of the gang war that has overtaken Atlantic City, between Nucky Thompson’s men (led by his brother Eli, Chalky White, and Al Capone) and Gyp Rosetti’s men (a band of Italians, many of which are “on loan” from Joe Masseria.) Over various shots of the gangster on gangster violence, we hear the mayor trying to reassure reporters that he has the situation in hand and that regular citizens should not be concerned for their safety. He ends his press conference by saying, “Nucky Thompson doesn’t run this city, I do!” The press cannot control their laughter at this absurd claim.
Nucky has a phone conversation from his lumberyard headquarters with Micky Doyle about the Overholt Distillery–Andrew Mellon’s property in Pennsylvania. Doyle has discovered that the distillery is quite expansive. Large enough, in fact, to make whoever runs it the biggest (and most profitable) bootlegger in the country. Outside, Chalky and Capone, and their respective crews, are butting heads. Nucky and Eli try to defuse the situation, and Capone reminds Nucky that his deal is with him, NOT Torrio, and Nucky skeptically asks what a handshake with Capone is worth. Capone offers to take some guys out to Margate and try to draw out Rosetti.
Masseria is also curious about what he’s getting for his investment in this conflict. He pays Rosetti a visit at the Artemis Club, and breaks down the numbers. Twelve of the forty-three men he “donated” are dead. Rosetti proudly boasts that he’s got Nucky’s hotel, casino, warehouse–’but not Nucky’ Masseria interrupts to point out. He is clearly less confident that Rosetti has an endgame in sight. “Everybody dies,” he intones in his fluid Italian. “Not everybody keeps their promises.” He then adjusts the clock on the mantel, and turning to Rosetti, “Now you know what time it is.” Indeed.
Gillian, trying to drop off lunch to Tommy’s room, gets the usual scumbag eye-f**k from one of Rosetti’s men who is guarding the door. Once inside, she can’t even get Tommy to come out of his sheet fort to eat his ham sandwich. She offers to come inside and sit with him, but when she tries, he shies away from her. She looks as though she’s been struck when she realizes her precious Tommy is afraid of her. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
Nucky and Eli are mending their relationship, along with an old car. They bond over the manual labor they are not usually tasked with doing. Eli believes they can take back their town, but Nucky confesses to his brother that he believes he’s finished in Atlantic City, even if he wins this war. Nobody will want to do business with him again, and he’ll be nothing. “It’s over here, no matter how this plays out,” he says resignedly to Eli.
In a brief chat that highlights the conversational whims of both men, Mickey Doyle rings up Arnold Rothstein. “Am I disturbing you?” “Yes.” So Mickey gets right to the point, explaining to Rothstein about Nucky’s new role with the Overholt Distillery, and the vast potential of the place. He points out that Nucky’s back is to the wall, and for a little support, he could be persuaded to trade almost anything. “I’m listening,” says Rothstein, willing to tolerate a sycophant like Doyle for a lucrative new business venture.
And remember Luciano, getting arrested? Now the cops are shaking him down, demanding information about the drugs, his partners, etc. But Luciano isn’t talking. He won’t name names. He will, however, offer the cops the location of 50 more pounds of heroin, should they be interested. It would appear that they are both very interested.
And now we come to a scene that both disgusted and fascinated me, as Gillian approaches Rosetti directly to try to get what she wants–namely, her and Tommy the hell out of town. Rosetti is pretty blunt about not letting her go. Then everything shifts. He tries to turn on the charm, assuring her that he could show her the best things in life if she stays. That someone like her is suited to rule beside him. “I would treat you like a queen, up on a pedestal.” You can see Gillian immediately change gears. She’s an old hand at seduction, so this is dance she recognizes, and one she’s good at. She coyly asks Rosetti where he is, if she’s on a pedestal. He explains he is nothing more than a bug on her foot. “I could crush you,” she whispers to him, and it’s clear she’s speaking his language now. We’ve already seen what revs Rosetti’s engine in an earlier episode. We know he likes the rough stuff, and now Gillian knows it too. “Is that what you like?”
In what is perhaps one of the most awesomely twisted dialogue exchanges of the season, Rosetti tries to regain the upper hand and shake off Gillian’s spell. “You’re a pistol, Red,” he says, half chuckling. But Gillian knows that sex is her only leverage now, so she leans in and offers this: “Then why don’t you pull my trigger, and see what shoots out.”
Now that we all feel like we need to take a shower, let’s check back in with Nucky. Rothstein has phoned, and wants to make a deal. Turns out the distillery offer did the trick. He’ll get Masseria to call off his guys, and Nucky will hand over a whopping 99% of the Overholt. Nucky takes the deal, hangs up, and mentions something to Eli about “bait.” Hmmm.
Margaret, who was absent from last week’s episode, reappears, now meeting with a doctor. She needs a delicate service provided. The code for abortion in the 1920s turns out to be “the return of my monthlies.” The doctor’s wife is actually very kind, with no judgment, even when Margaret looks around the exam room and proclaims, “I’m lost. I’m completely lost.”
Meyer and Luciano are meeting with Rothstein in the aftermath of the drug mess. Meyer isn’t happy with Luciano for using the drugs as a get out of jail free card, but they’re both even more unhappy when they enter the room and learn the truth. Rothstein, it turns out, is almost always on top of things. The two “cops” that Luciano dealt with were, in fact, just goons for hire. Once they had the drugs, Rothstein was able to make an offer to Masseria to go into the heroin trade together, and cut out Meyer and Luciano entirely. Seeing this whole betrayal unfold in front of them, Meyer and Luciano respond quite differently. Luciano is enraged, yelling and almost making threats. Almost. Meyer, the more level-headed, manages to stop him, reminding him that it wouldn’t take much to get them both killed here. Rothstein keeps smiling that s**t-eating grin, and patronizingly says about the angry Luciano, “I thought I was having a civilizing effect, but there’s only so much a person can learn.” He and Masseria strike their deal, and Masseria accordingly agrees to call off his men who are in Atlantic City with Rosetti.
Chalky and Capone are once more mixing it up in the lumberyard, when Eli and Nucky come out to quiet everyone down and request a meeting with them both. Nucky announces that Masseria will be calling off his support, leaving Rosetti under-manned at the Artemis Club. The four men go inside to make their plans.
In a scene I would like scrubbed from my brain, Gillian and Rosetti start to get intimate, if you can call humiliating, choking, and stabbing each other with hypodermic needles “intimate.” Gillian isn’t able to make her move quick enough once she has Rosetti in a compromising position, so he manages to overpower her and she goes down for the count, needle in her arm. Then Rosetti realizes in a panic that all of Masseria’s men are leaving. He races down the stairs and is barely able to yell at his remaining men, when one goes down from a bullet to the brain.
Now we’re coming to the best part of the episode: Richard Harrow, masked avenger. Seriously…Richard shows up to the Club and just drops bodies left and right. He’s so kind and quiet most of the time, that we sometimes forget what an incredibly mother-effing bad-ass soldier he actually is. He makes short work of almost every guy left in the house. Then he gets to Tommy’s room, and finds Tommy with a gun pointed at his head. The guy holding that gun orders Richard to drop his weapons. Richard, his face and mask covered in blood, kneels down carefully and asks Tommy to close his eyes. Tommy does, and there’s a brief moment of confusion and fear on the man’s face as he realizes something is about to happen. But he’s too slow–Richard has whipped out a gun and nailed him through the face. He falls backward, and Tommy rushes into Richard’s arms. Seriously. SO bad-ass.
Nucky and Eli get to the Artemis Club too late. Richard has already come and gone, leaving destruction in his wake, and Rosetti is nowhere to be found. Only Gillian is there, high out of her gourd, muttering about being taken upstairs and having things done to her. She cannot tell Nucky what happened. Then they hear a noise from the closet, where one of Rosetti’s remaining men had hid himself…
Richard brings Tommy to the Sagorskys. Julia comes outside, but she’s confused and frightened by the state that Richard is in. Surprisingly, it is Mr. Sagorsky who takes charge, ordering her to bring Tommy inside, and telling Richard, not unkindly, that he should clean himself up before he comes back. Then Richard makes the ultimate sacrifice play, saying he just wanted Tommy somewhere safe. It sounds like he is giving Julia up, and Tommy too for that matter, thinking that the kind of life he has made for himself, where he can still kill in that way, shouldn’t touch them. It broke my heart watching him walk away from that house, his mask still covered in blood.
In one brief scene we learn the angle Nucky is playing with his business. Remember how Rothstein is almost always on top of things? Keyword there is “almost.” Mellon calls Esther Randolph and tells her that his distillery has been commandeered by a criminal outfit run by a Mr. Arnold Rothstein, and he wishes to press charges. In one fell swoop Nucky has gotten the distillery back, made a lot of trouble for his competitors, and gotten the upper hand on Rosetti. Often down, never out.
And Rosetti…crowing maniacally on the beach, having lost almost everything, he still clings to the idea of the American criminal’s dream…a fresh start in a small town…a speakeasy or two…as he urinates on the sand, soaking up the sunshine, he suddenly contorts and gags. We pan out to see his flunky jamming a knife into him, again and again. The same flunky who was hidden in the closet at the Artemis Club. He walks up the road to the Thompsons’ car. “It’s done,” he tells Nucky and Eli. Nucky instructs him to take the body to Masseria. “This could be the end of problems, or the beginning. I’m obliging either way.”
Our coda is Nucky trying to persuade Margaret to come back to him. He’s on top once more. He has everything…and nothing. He forgives her, offers her money, tries to persuade her to come home. “This is only money…it doesn’t mean anything.” “Yes it does,” she replies quietly, as she shuts the door on him and returns to the one small bed she is sharing with the children. He is left wandering the boardwalk alone, his domain again, but when he’s recognized he drops the red carnation from his buttonhole. Devoid of color, now he’s able to slip unnoticed into the crowd.
Quote of the night:
“Sometimes I wish someone would give me exactly what I deserve.” – Gillian Darmody