So many conflicts remain unresolved as “Boardwalk Empire” heads into its season finale that it seems like it would take a bloodbath to sort the whole thing out.
Or, it’s entirely possible the producers and writers of this HBO series — which ends its third season Sunday night (Dec. 2) at 9/8c — have contrived some other means, other than all-out war, to restore Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) to his former position at the top of the Atlantic City power structure, circa 1923.
A scenario in which Nucky comes out on top would not surprise us, since he is this show’s main character and Buscemi is the star of the series, which will be back for a fourth season next year, presumably with Nucky. But there were plenty of surprises — and great moments — in the episodes that have aired so far this season, leading up to this weekend’s season-ending finale.
1) The over-the-top sadism of Gyp Rosetti: We can’t remember a villain as odious as this guy on any TV show of the past decade. Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), a Mafia hood from New York who was a thorn in Nucky Thompson’s side all season, was responsible for some of the most sadistic acts we’ve ever seen in a television drama. Here’s a list: Beating some poor passerby to death with a tire iron (in his very first scene); casually burning a county sheriff alive; slugging a priest, in a church, and robbing him; beating another sheriff almost to death; and using a shovel to repeatedly smash the head of a man buried in the sand up to his neck (this was the worst of all). Add Rosetti’s bizarre, sadistic sex preferences and you’ve got a guy whose death most viewers will welcome.
2) The bombing of Babette’s: It happened at the end of Episode 8, and it took the life of Nucky’s girlfriend, the showgirl Billie Kent (Meg Steedle), and untold others. But it didn’t kill Nucky and co-horts Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), as had been intended. But Gyp’s destruction of Babette’s, the hard-partying nightclub that had been at the center of so many memorable scenes in “Boardwalk Empire’s” first two-and-a-half seasons, was an indication that big changes were afoot in the world of Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City.
3) The death of Owen Slater: To our eyes, Nucky’s supremely self-confident Irish enforcer (and manager of various liquor enterprises) was too charismatic a character to be summarily bumped off. That’s why it may have been the single most surprising moment of the entire season when Owen’s lifeless body was delivered late one night in a packing crate to Nucky’s home (in Episode 10). Owen apparently lost his life when he attempted to ambush a rival gangleader in a Lower East Side bathhouse. His death served at least one plot purpose, though: Margaret’s extreme grief about Owen’s death revealed to Nucky that his wife (Kelly Macdonald) was having an affair with Owen, right under Nucky’s nose.
4) Speaking of sadism: Among this show’s most intriguing characters has long been the wayward, religious federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), whose attempts to lead a righteous life have been so unsuccessful over these three seasons that they would be comical if they weren’t so violent. A case in point: The scene in Episode 8 in which Van Alden lost his temper at a fellow iron salesman and pressed one of the hot gadgets against the guy’s cheek, seriously burning him, and then destroyed the office. This scene was a surprise because it came out of nowhere.
5) Honorable mention in the violence category: Our favorite character of all on this show is the masked World War I veteran Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who is by turns a sentimental romantic and cold-hearted killer. One of the earliest surprises this season was Harrow’s murder in Episode 1 of Manny the butcher. That incident came out of nowhere too, but it was an act of revenge for a murder perpetrated by Manny (William Forsythe) in the previous season.
We have a feeling Harrow will play a violent part in the season finale this Sunday. The episode, titled “Margate Sands” (Margate is a residential community just south of Atlantic City), airs at 9/8c Sunday night on HBO.