Boardwalk Empire, Ep. 5.07: “Friendless Child” laments its losses and rhymes like poetry

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Boardwalk Empire Season 5, Episode 7: “Friendless Child”
Written by Riccardo DiLoreto, Cristine Chambers and Howard Korder
Directed by Allen Coulter
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO

Three seasons ago Enoch “Nucky” Thompson met his former protege, Jimmy Darmody, in a dusty field and told him that he wasn’t seeking redemption. And then he shot him in the head. Twice.

Things have changed.

In the ten years since that fateful night, the second of two life-changing moments for Nucky, Atlantic City’s former treasurer has found himself worn down like a statue on the shore. Each and every role of the tide has taken a little bit of him away, and now there’s nothing left but a sad old man who yearns to be a simple and decent person again.

In this sense, the irony of the past and present segments of “Friendless Child” rhyme like the alternating schemes of poetry. The juxtaposition of a young and ambitious Nucky who is willing to do whatever he can to get ahead, and a crushed and beaten Nucky who will get on his hands and knees in front of the empire he’s built, and offer it all to save the life of one good boy, is the most beautiful realization of this character that has ever been made.

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It is a scene meant only for Nucky. Even with all of the other major players present, and even with the death of Mickey Doyle, the series’ omnipresent comic foil, the scene may as well be a classic aside in a theater play. You can almost feel the lights fade, and the tension of the focus, as one of the most powerful men in the country gives up everything he has ever been in a matter of seconds.

That this is the moment that Gillian chooses to reach out to him from her self-made hell is yet another master stroke. Even more so than Jimmy, or Margaret, or Owen, or Billie Kent, or Willy, or anyone else that Nucky has tried to save, or aid, or rescue, or offer salvation to–there is Gillian. For there was once an intelligent, ingenious, talented, charismatic, and ultimately innocent, little girl who he sold up the river to get ahead.

All of these flashback sequences have been building up to this exact moment, and that these increasingly frequent fever dreams and alcoholic arias have come to haunt Nucky at this time in his life, like the ghosts of Christmas past, add an element of Shakespearian tragedy to his character. Nucky was a king, but his time is long past, and only now can he see that his crown was made of naught but ash.

At any other time in the series’ 12 year timeline, Nucky wouldn’t have blinked an eye at Gillian’s request, but now he just might give up what little he has left to save her. Gillian has always been a cold and cruel character in the series, and that has made it easy to forget where she came from. At last, with this episode, the writers have revealed their hand to the audience, and their reasoning behind the decision to synchronize flashbacks into an already over-crowded 8 part curtain call–it’s all been for this moment, to remind us who these two characters are, and who they were, once upon a time.

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Furthermore, “Friendless Child” is truly an hour for the lost, and as such, it may be Boardwalk‘s finest one at that. With the end very much in sight there is scarcely a second wasted here. Eli’s heart-breaking moments with his son, Lucky, Benny and Meyer smirking and cracking wise about what they’ve inherited, and Mike D’angelo mounting the case that will soon bury one of the most notorious gangsters in North American history; all of these moments  roll by with quick snaps of the camera.

Meanwhile the deaths of Salvatore Maranzano and Mickey Doyle are almost afterthoughts, even in the deliberate verse of their ends. Maranzano goes out like the Roman generals that he so heartily admired, and Mickey takes his turn in the middle of cutting one last bargain, a slip of the tongue too many in a lifetime of them.

So here we are at the end. And as Nucky has sent away his latest ward, the last person who could possibly offer his services or ask him for help, he gets a call from the first. If the finale can match this hour, or even surpass it, the legacy of Boardwalk Empire will bow out with a grace and power that belies its legacy.

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