Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you haven't seen the Season 3 finale of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," titled "Margate Sands."
After a terrific penultimate episode that inspired us to ask if "Two Imposters" was the best episode of "Boardwalk Empire" ever, the Season 3 finale built on that momentum with another stellar episode that gave "Boardwalk" fans the bloodbath they've been waiting for and brilliantly tied up nearly every loose end the show raised this season.
Capone and Chalky's forces banded together to give Nucky the manpower he needed to take back control of Atlantic City. Gillian tried to kill Gyp, before one of his own guys stabbed him in the back. Harrow went on an epic rampage to rescue Jimmy's son. There was enough political wheeling and dealing to make your head spin. Nucky and Margaret appeared to be done for good. Let's go through "Margate Sands" chronologically to break it all down.
The episode set the bloody tone from the first scene, with Capone's guys mowing down some of Rosetti's men with machine guns. The tommy guns Capone's guys were using seemed to be an advancement in weaponry that gave them a serious leg up in the battle for Atlantic City.
That first scene segued into a montage of gangster violence hitting all sides of the conflict, with guys getting gunned down and stabbed in card games, in warehouses and on the boardwalk. It was a nice touch to juxtapose all the violence with a press conference, as Mayor Bader hilariously tried to reassure the media that everything was under control. "Let's get something straight," he said. "Nucky Thompson doesn't run this city -- I do," and got laughed off the podium.
Meanwhile, Nucky's forces set up shop in the lumber yard, where his allies -- Chalky's blacks and Capone's Italian Chicagoans -- were feuding like kids in a schoolyard. (As a sidenote, Chalky's boxing stance was hilarious, and should be made into an animated gif immediately. Still, I wouldn't want to mess with him.) Nucky used the office phone to wheel and deal, but paused a few times to break up fights and to spend some quality time with Eli.
After taking his brother, wife and allies for granted all season, this vulnerable Nucky seemed to finally realize the importance of taking care of the people closest to him. He asked Eli about his family before getting wistful about the mistakes he'd made along the way. "We didn't stop while the going was good," he lamented. And although he told Eli the cold truth that he'll never be sheriff again, that doesn't mean he can't head the enforcement arm of Nucky's new, shadowy regime.
It did't take long for the Masseria-Rosetti alliance to fray, which left Rosetti outmanned and outgunned. Masseria came to town to tell Gyp that he wasn't happy with the return on his investment: He had lost 12 of the 43 men he sent, and he was pissed. Masseria didn't care that Rosetti had claimed Nucky's casino, hotel and warehouse. "You no have Nucky Thompson," he told him ominously.
And before too long, Arnold Rothstein stepped in with a deal that severed the Masseria-Rosetti alliance completely. After Mickey Doyle -- betraying Nucky -- tipped Rothstein off that the Overholt Distillery in Pennsylvania was big enough to make its proprietor the biggest bootlegger in the country, Rothstein called Nucky and presented him with a deal: He would convince Masseria to pull his support for Rosetti in exchange for Nucky handing over 99 percent of his stake in the business. With his back against the wall and his life in danger, Nucky agreed to those vindictive terms, but he would get his revenge against Rothstein later. (Or were Doyle and Nucky in on the plan to trap Rothstein together? Several commenters have pointed to Nucky's "big bait catches big rat" line to support that theory. Check out the discussion in the comments for more.)
But Luciano and Lansky ended up getting screwed. After they went ahead with their heroin deal -- using financing from Masseria against Rothstein's orders -- Rothstein enlisted two crooked cops to pose as buyers from Buffalo. They arrested Luciano and roughed him up, with one cop delivering this gem of a line: "Pricks like you ... nobody remembers them. All that stays is the law." It was wonderfully ironic, since "Boardwalk" lionizes gangsters as superheroes.
The cops let Luciano walk in exchange for his entire 50-pound $200,000 stash, which Rothstein then gave to Masseria as a peace offering. Luciano flipped out when he was confronted with the betrayal, and the complicated scheme seemed to set the stage for a more independent Luciano next season.
Back at the Artemis Club, Gillian tried to take back control of her business and made the episode's first attempt on Rosetti's life. After playing him like a fiddle with some belittling dirty talk, she tried to stick a heroin-filled syringe into his neck while he was mid-erotic asphyxiation. But Gillian got a case of premature stabulation and made her move too soon. Rosetti had enough strength left to fight her off, and injected her with the needle instead. In a great touch, the scene ended with Rosetti looking out the window to see Masseria's men abandoning him and driving away.
They didn't get very far, as Nucky got his first piece of revenge against Rothstein and Masseria. Chalky and Capone's forces had the road leading out of Atlantic City surrounded, and Masseria's men drove right into an ambush of gunfire from both sides. After the storm of shots had stopped, Chalky and Capone surveyed the damage and respectfully smiled at each other, basking in the newfound camaraderie of gunning down a common enemy.
The second part of Nucky's revenge scheme against Rothstein was political, and brilliantly executed. After Rothstein refused to help him in his feud with Rosetti and then demanded 99 percent of Overholt, Nucky used his greed against him, enlisting his political allies Gaston Means and Andrew Mellon to screw Rothstein over. With Means literally whispering "Arnold Rothstein" in his ear, Mellon called Esther Randolph and instructed her to raid the distillery and indict the men controlling it. "Nucky Thompson was the one who brought this illegality to my attention," Mellon told her with a straight face. It was the ultimate political screwing, and it reinforced the one essential "Boardwalk Empire" truism: Nucky always wins everything.
Then it was Harrow's turn for a massacre. He stormed Gillian's Aretmis Club, armed with his sniper rifle and an arsenal of backup weapons, gunning down nearly all of Rosetti's men -- though Rosetti himself escaped -- in an absolutely wild scene. All season I've been rooting for a Harrow-Nucky alliance to take Gyp down, but as it turned out, Harrow acted completely on his own to rescue Jimmy's son from his twisted grandmother and dangerous surroundings. It was somewhat strange how Harrow appeared at the perfect moment to do Nucky's work for him, and it had me wishing texting existed in the '20s so they could have gotten on the same page and cemented an alliance out of their common interests.
But the action was awesome enough to ignore the serendipity of it all, particularly the final stand-off scene when Harrow finally reached Tommy's bedroom, only to find one of Gyp's goons holding a gun to his head. As Harrow lowered his rifle to the perfect angle, he took his left hand off the gun, appearing to surrender, and told Tommy to shut his eyes before pulling the trigger and blowing the guy's face off. And that is how a gravely-voiced, half-faced expert marksman who longs for a family takes care of business!
While Gyp and two of his men escaped and fled to the beach, Nucky and Eli showed up at the Artemis Club with pistols and were shocked to find the place littered with dead bodies. It didn't quite make sense that they would go there alone without any backup -- they didn't know that Harrow's rampage had killed a dozen of Rosetti's men, after all -- but that's a minor quibble. At the Artemis Club, they found Gyp's No. 2 man Tennino hiding in a closet. And while the audience wasn't privy to their discussion, they offered him his life in exchange for Rosetti's.
So Tennino met up with Gyp and his two guys in what turned out to be Rosetti's swansong. Bobby Cannavale capped off an awesome "Boardwalk" arc with another powerhouse scene: Gyp seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown, imitating Nucky and yelling inane things like, "We go West!" while grappling with his sudden misfortune. And while he was singing a silly song and taking a piss, Tennino walked up behind him and stabbed him in the back ... and then turned him around and stabbed him in the front. After Gyp brutally buried Tennino's cousin in the sand and bashed his head to pieces with a shovel, I wondered if one of Gyp's own guys might end up taking him out, and Tennino took his revenge for his cousin's horrible death. Gyp got what was coming to him, and it was a fitting final scene for the memorable character that propelled much of the action of Season 3.
Harrow took Tommy to his lady Julia's house, still covered in blood and cradling the boy in his arms. While she was horrified at what she saw, her unusually sober father urged her to take Tommy, and he gave Harrow a lesson about "how a soldier returns from war." He encouraged Richard to clean himself up and come back tomorrow, but Harrow walked away with such a sense of sadness that I wondered if he may not be coming back. Maybe Gillian's cruel taunts got to him, and he doesn't believe he could ever be the family man he's dreamt about being. But I hope we see them together as a happy family in the Season 4 premiere. In the meantime, I'll be scrapbooking about it.
There was some synchronicity between that scene and Nucky's attempt to reconcile with Margaret, who took refuge in New York after leaving him. She went to a doctor's office feeling "completely lost," and got what seemed to be a 1920s abortion, ending the pregnancy that resulted from her affair with Owen.
Later, just after Margaret's "monthly" returned, Nucky showed up and made one last plea to win her back by offering her money and trying to break through her wall of guilt. "You need to ask yourself how much you're willing to sacrifice just to prove a point that doesn't matter to anyone. Nobody's watching now, nobody's judging. This is only money -- it doesn't mean anything," he said tenderly, but she walked away without taking his help. His attempt to reconcile their marriage appeared to fail. She's seen too much of Nucky's brutality and selfishness, and seemed to no longer want any part of him.
The episode went back to the boardwalk for its finale scene, with Nucky strolling alone as sad ragtime piano played. I was hoping to see Chalky's club up and running -- and it better be next season -- but not enough time had elapsed for Nucky to make good on that promise yet. When a passerby recognized him, Nucky just stared off into the distance and threw his signature red carnation lapel pin to the ground. He won the war, but lost a lot along the way. He seemed to be longing for anonymity, and coming to terms with the fact that his "full gangster" lifestyle means that he can no longer be a public celebrity. Too bad "Boardwalk Empire" has turned him into a legend.
What did you think of this episode? What were your favorite moments? What did I miss? Share your thoughts, theories and observations in the comments. And thank you for reading these recaps this season and creating such a lively discussion in the comments week after week. See you for Season 4.