Boardwalk Empire Finale: We Waited All Season For This?


Last night’s season 2 finale of “Boardwalk Empire” has generated some strong reactions from fans, as Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) was killed at the end of the episode by Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). The plot twist rivaled the death of Ned Stark in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” as one of the bigger TV surprises of 2011, though in this case the twist seemed forced and out of place.

Many fans are upset, as Jimmy was a popular character. He was a tortured soul who was an integral part of the storyline through the first two seasons. That said, I’m not bothered that the writers decided to kill him off, but I wasn’t very impressed with the way they got to this point.

Season 2 revolved around the many troubles faced by Nucky Thompson. Nothing was going right for him, and Jimmy joined forces with his father with the encouragement of his bizarre mother (Gretchen Mol) to try to take back control of Atlantic City from Nucky. From the beginning it was clear that Jimmy wasn’t cut out to be a boss. He was indecisive and didn’t have much business sense. Next to characters like Al Capone (brilliantly played by Stephen Graham) and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Jimmy looked like a naive kid as he bumbled his way through a bunch of failed deals. When it came time to kill off Nucky, Jimmy didn’t have the stomach for it, though he reluctantly went along with the plan when pressed by the real gangsters and Nucky’s brother Eli.

Yet Jimmy and fellow war vet Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) never hesitated to use violence violence against others, like scalping a foul-mouthed rich guy who ridiculed Jimmy and struck him in the face with his cane as his business ventures went south. Jimmy was an enforcer, not a leader.

But there was something deeper going on, as Jimmy was fighting all sorts of demons, from his troubled childhood to his relationship with his mother to his experiences in the war. The writers tried to convey this throughout the season, and frankly it wasn’t very fun to watch. You wanted to root for Jimmy, but the wild swings in his behavior made little sense.

All of this strange behavior became easier to understand in one of the final episodes when we had a long flashback to Jimmy’s time at Princeton. The episode seemed like a waste of time until we saw the scene where Jimmy’s mother has sex with him at the end of a drunken night for both of them. Gretchen Mol’s character was always a little creepy and this took the bizarre relationship to another level. Jimmy then quits Princeton and joins the army, and the war experience finished him off on an emotional level.

Yet this entire setup leads to a moment where Jimmy lets Nucky kill him without a fight as explained by showrunner Terence Winter in a recent interview:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first know that you were going to kill off Jimmy?

TERENCE WINTER: Probably at the very beginning of season 2. The idea was to try and push things to their absolute limit, even if it makes it difficult for yourself and your writing team. If you take things to their logical extreme with the situation we created, Jimmy has betrayed Nucky, he tried to have him killed. You want to be honest about the storytelling. In the pilot, Jimmy told Nucky: “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” We wanted with the first two seasons to follow that trajectory, where he goes full season from being the guy who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty to actually pulling the trigger himself. And what’s the strongest version of that? To pull the trigger on the very guy who told him, “You can’t be half a gangster anymore.” It’s like, “Guess what? You’re right. I can’t. And here’s me now fully becoming a gangster.” Anything short of Nucky doing it himself wouldn’t feel real, it wouldn’t be real. And it would be a cheat for us to say, “We want to keep our beloved character Jimmy Darmody alive.”

One of the things I wanted to do by design in the finale is make the audience pissed off [at the start of the episode]. I wanted people to say [when it seemed like Nucky and Jimmy would reconcile], “Oh great, after all that, it’s all going to be forgotten and Jimmy is going to be back in Nucky’s good graces.” I wanted them to think right up to the very end that Nucky is going to forgive him and take him back. It was a really hard decision. You’re sort of blowing up your own show, in some ways. Now we’re back in the writers room trying to figure out where we go from here without Jimmy Darmody.

My only concern plot-wise was wondering whether Jimmy would really go so willingly to what he likely believes is his death.

We know with [the previous week’s episode] that he’s so emotionally damaged. I don’t think Jimmy ever expected to come back alive from World War I. I think he probably left for the war hoping he would die and was surprised he survived. He’s been a walking dead person ever since we’ve met him. He’s come back and gone through the motions of a person trying to make his way in the world, but ultimately becomes resigned to his fate. He gets manipulated into this run against Nucky, who was his mentor, and really the only father figure of any meaning that he has. The plot failed and he knows, as a good solider, he’s going to have to fall on his sword. He fully knows what he’s walking into at the end. He’s not armed. He says goodbye to his son. He basically gives Richard Harrow permission to not come with him. He knows he needs to be punished. The circumstances of his life have unraveled to the point where he’s willing to accept his fate. And psychologically Harrow is prepared to respect that as a soldier.

I guess he succeeded in his trick for the final episode (I was fooled), but overall it was a failure. I just don’t buy it that Jimmy would voluntarily go on to his death. He moves Heaven and Earth to save Nucky from his legal troubles, and then let’s Nucky take him out? It just didn’t make sense. He also leaves his son in the care of the mother he’s come to hate. It was great to see him finally tell her to shut up when he had his final meeting with his father’s associates.

Also, Nucky is smart, and he knew that Jimmy was truly sorry for his mistakes. Jimmy proved it with his actions by basically saving Nucky’s life. It would have made sense to have a reconciliation at the end, but I guess that wouldn’t give them headlines with a big plot twist. Meanwhile he lets his brother Eli slide even though Eli never lifted a finger to help Nucky.

Cable dramas like “Boardwalk Empire” can be great because networks like HBO let the creators and writers tell their stories with minimal interference. This often produces complex character and rich stories.

Here, however, the characters are so complex that we can’t predict any of their behavior. Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) was just as unpredictable as Jimmy, and now we have Nucky shooting Jimmy just so he can look like he’s turning into a “full gangster.”

I’ll watch the show when it returns, but right now it’s a mess. Hopefully the writers can up their game with a fresh start.