Playing the long game in TV storytelling is tricky business. The general principle is that patience pays off eventually, but that doesn’t mean that the build-up to the payoff shouldn’t be involving too. Boardwalk Empire often walks that fine line, and the end results usually but don’t always justify the water-treading. In the case of season five, Nucky’s flashbacks and Gillian’s asylum stay have been the odd ducks of this year’s storylines. And while I stand by what I’ve written about them in previous reviews, last night’s “Friendless Child” finally provided them with the dramatic weight that’s mostly been missing.
With the young Gillian now staying at the Thompson household after being caught by Deputy Nucky last week, Nucky and Mabel must decide on what to do with the child. Nucky would rather send her back to the Trenton orphanage where she came from, much to Mabel’s chagrin. Fleshing out Gillian with this back-story and her relationship with Nucky long before the events of season one turns out to be much more engaging than Nucky bumbling around as a kid in the early going.
It also provides a thematic connection with Gillian’s current situation in 1931. The show is clearly drawing a parallel between the harshness of her younger years and now at the asylum. Knowing that Nucky will eventually give her over to the commodore, present day Gillian’s plea letter to Nucky for help draws a clearer arc of redemption for our protagonist. The decision that ultimately set him on the dark path will eventually (presumably?) lead towards his last move.
Prior to that, though, the gangland war between him and the Luciano/Lansky/Torrio team had been raging on between now and last week’s “Devil You Know,” which is cannily explained in a radio news show condemning the criminal menaces terrorizing the streets. I can’t help but feel that this was an instance where the shortened season order forced show creator Terrence Winter and his writing team to nip and tuck their plotlines. It feels like an entire episode devoted to the conflict is missing, and to jump from Mickey’s “To war!” moment to basically the end of it all with everyone sorting things out deflates the tension, even with Mickey biting the bullet.
However, placing Nucky on desperate terms with his men constantly dying in battle does allow Steve Buscemi the chance to break out of his character’s terse but laid back composure. He’s breaking down and he knows that the only way to end this well is to strike a deal with his adversaries by giving up everything to them. Even if it means getting on his knees and allowing the two to walk all over him, Nucky’s will to drop it all right then and there.
This is especially important to him given that Lucky and Meyer took Will Thompson hostage after Nucky’s men took one of their own. The timing couldn’t have been worse as Eli, fresh off the Chicago train with flies in tow and looking worse for wear, tentatively reunites with his son on the street after so many years apart. The dichotomy between the pair’s life paths couldn’t be more apparent than from Will’s well-groomed suit and Eli’s rumpled and dirty mess of an outfit. Like Nucky, Eli has been pushed to the brink, and he too wants to just set things right.
When Lucky’s gang gets trigger happy at the hostage exchange, the simultaneous rage and terror on Shea Whigham’s face truly shows how Eli will do anything to hang onto the one good thing left in his life. This would include offing Don Maranzano with a goon squad in a hit scene that strongly recalls the murder of Julius Caesar. Whether that connection was intentional or not is hard to tell, but it does allow the Don to go out in grand fashion. Everyone’s on their way out in some way, shape, or form, and come next week’s series finale, it seems like the Capone empire is about to crumble too, if Mike D’Angelo gets his way.
EPISODE RATING: 8/10