Boardwalk Empire Season 3 finale recap: “Margate Sands”

Terence Winter wound the spring tight in Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire, each violent twist seeing a piece of Nucky Thompson’s East Coast criminal syndicate fall away and leaving the Atlantic City boss seemingly alone, friendless and on the lam from his enemies. It took all of his residual wheeling and dealing, and a conspicuously rainbow-esque coalition, not just to save his life, but, in Sunday night’s finale, to turn the tables on ever-ticking-timebomb-psychotic New York hood Gyp Rosetti in a dizzying, elegiac menagerie of graphic violence on par with HBO’s equally awesome Band of Brothers. Which, to hammer the point, was set during World War II.

This is why HBO makes original television shows, freeing creators like Winter to plot such intricate chess games that the dovetailing of all the moves makes for a magnificent release — even as they sidestep the tiresome happy endings of Hollywood convention. Amid the seamlessly corrupt status quo of 1920s American laissez faire, morality becomes fluid and even a Machiavellian heel like Nucky (Steve Buscemi) can draw some sympathy. Seriously, where else can pop-culturally-engrained villain Al Capone (the ever-awesome Brit thespian Stephen Graham) arrive at head of a small army of Chicago gunsels and quip, “You and me sit down and we talk about who dies,” and have us almost cheering as if it were the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry?

Rosetti, played with such chilling, vein-bulging menace by Bobby Canavale that his every scene had us on edge, proved an unlikely but fitting catalyst of the dissolution of Nucky’s Atlantic City fiefdom. Irked by Nucky’s attempt to streamline booze distribution through New York kingpin Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), and irk inflamed into vendetta by his schizophrenic manias, Gyp was the anti-Nucky — someone whose style and mentality was diametric opposite to Nucky’s cool-hand, graft-centric, everything-is-business power brokerage. Gyp took things personally — even things that didn’t exist — and piece-by-piece, homicidal-rage-by-homicidal-rage, interrupted the flow of booze from Nucky to his various partners, then took over distribution wholesale, then secured the sponsorship of Cosa Nostra godfather Joe Masseria to storm AC itself.

Along the way, Nucky’s support system flagged, as New York and Philadelphia mob bosses with icy politeness abandoned him to his seeming fate, and estranged wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) let fly her long-repressed passions for his enforcer, roguish Irish import Owen (Charlie Cox). This soapier element went compounded with Owen’s murder at Masseria’s hands after Rothstein’s capos tipped Masseria to Owen’s imminent assassination attempt, scrapping Margaret’s plan to flee west with him, her children and — the big reveal — his unborn baby.

The vicious physical unseating of Nucky from his luxe-hotel headquarters by Gyp’s Masseria men proved breathtaking enough, and his flight into the AC’s more destitute precincts took on the feel of an archetypal odyssey. It is impossible to overstate the satisfaction of seeing Chalky White (the always mesmerizing Michael Kenneth Williams), Nucky’s capo of the African-American quarter, don the White Knight role, even after Nucky has rebuffed his entreaties to build a stake in the Boardwalk’s legitimate business out of deference to the odious, indefensible American apartheid. Nucky’s fall means de facto leveling of social status, and Chalky has become something more than subordinate when he imparts the simple wisdom that all self-styled Great Men should hearken to, “Go without, you see what you really need.”

Chalky carries nearly as much villainous baggage as Nucky himself, yet Chalky and his men’s faceoff with Gyp — a line-in-the-sand in front of the “colored” roadhouse in which Nucky is hiding — assumes the gravity of a little, early victory in civil rights, as does the tenuous coalition between Chalky’s cadres and Capone’s in forming Nucky’s ad hoc army of resistance. The color line remains, but it dims with common cause and, with simple elegance, doing stuff towards the same goal, as they take the war to Gyp with cinematic fury. Williams and Graham say profound things with simple looks and nods that are both heartwarming and bespeaking of historical gravitas (however fictional), even for the blood still wet on their characters’ hands.

Nucky’s steady string of machinations, laid throughout the season — making tense, grudging alliances with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and an upstart Justice Department prosecutor — give him the chits to move Rothstein to strike a deal with Masseria. Masseria withdraws his troops, hell comes calling on Gyp, aided in a startlingly bloody subplot by coldly efficient World War I vet Richard (Jack Huston). Yet even within this masterstroke, Nucky has impregnated it with some crafty payback for fellow chessmaster Rothstein, likely still to be seen.

Atlantic City is Nucky’s again, yes, but how much wisdom he has taken from his odyssey will map how much of a delay he has bought himself in his presumptively tragic cycle. Chalky has proven himself equal to at least a claim to a seat at The Man’s table — and Capone, we can assume, doesn’t do anything for nothing. More screentime for both actors can only bode well for when this show resumes, nowhere near soon enough.

Images and video: HBO

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