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“Friendless Child” – BOARDWALK EMPIRE Season 5, Episode 7

“I told myself, ‘If he’s doing OK, it was worth it.’”

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The war between Luciano and Nucky is yet another victim of BOARDWALK’s abbreviated final season, and the main thrust of this episode revolves around the mutual kidnapping of Bugsy (at the time, “Benny”) Siegel and Willie Thompson. After the extended montage that opens the episode summarizing the high body count of the war, Nucky meets with Maranzano, whose “wait and see” policy regarding Luciano is not working for Nucky. Maranzano may have more resources and less of a personal stake in the conflict than Nucky does, and he is confident that Luciano will make a mistake soon. Nucky is not satisfied with waiting, and news from Mickey Doyle (which is the worst kind of news, really) that one of their trucks has been firebombed pushes him over the edge. He sends Mickey and Archie to New York to kidnap Bugsy.

When we last saw Bugsy several episodes ago, he was doing Luciano’s bidding in Harlem. This week he visits one of his girls on the side in Brooklyn while her husband is at the racetrack. Bugsy crosses paths with said husband, Morris, as he’s leaving the building, who is star-struck enough at the famous gangster to buy the flimsy lie that Bugsy is collecting money from another tenant in the building. They are interrupted by the arrival of Archie, and after a brief gunfight (poor, clueless Morris is gets a flesh wound in the crossfire), Archie carries Bugsy out at knifepoint.

As expected, Eli is back in Atlantic City after escaping Capone’s detection, and goes to see Willie outside his office. It seems, after so many episodes away from his storyline, that Willie is legitimately working for the government, even though he has been demoted to little more than a clerk. Eli looks like a bum next to Willie, and assesses his son’s nice clothes and place of work. There is a sadness and finality to the way that Eli speaks to Willie, and it seemed to me that Eli might be planning to commit suicide after this meeting. Whether or not this was the case, however, the father and son are interrupted by Luciano’s lackeys, who grab Willie and drive off with him.

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Nucky ties Bugsy to a chair and calls Luciano during a meeting with Lansky and Torrio. Bugsy tells them he’s been kidnapped and is in Atlantic City, but Luciano thinks he’s joking and hangs up on him. Nucky calls Luciano back and demands a meeting, but Luciano hangs up again.

When Nucky’s phone rings again, Margaret is on the other line. She tells Nucky that she has shorted 50,000 shares of the Mayflower Grain Corporation, who turned down Nucky earlier this season when he asked them to invest in Bacardi. Nucky asks her to short 50,000 more, assuring that the market will take notice.

Willie insists to Luciano that he has nothing to do with Nucky or his business, but Luciano warns that whatever harm Nucky does to Bugsy, Luciano will reciprocate on Willie. After Eli arrives at the club, confronting his brother for the first time in seven years to tell him about Willie’s kidnapping, Nucky calls Luciano. Luciano demands that they talk in person.

Their meeting out in the New Jersey cornfields looks similar to many such ominous meetings-gone-wrong throughout the series’ history. As they wait, Mickey asks Nucky what he’s going to get for sticking by Nucky’s side (ugh, what a weasel). Nucky promises him full ownership in title of the club, and a percentage of total profits. “You caught me in a good mood,” Nucky tells him. Luciano and an impressive array of thugs get out of their cars, and when it comes time to actually exchange hostages, Bugsy knocks Willie off-balance and pushes him back over to Luciano’s side. Nucky protests, but Luciano makes a good point – Nucky would have likely done the same to him or anyone else once upon a time. Luciano demands to take control of all of Nucky’s business, including Cuba (what will presumably become part of Lansky’s real-world empire). Mickey, sensing the deal he just made with Nucky is just as quickly dissolving, steps up and tries to talk to Luciano one-on-one. Luciano has about as much patience for Mickey as I do, however, and shoots him right in the vocal chords. RIP, you mouthy bastard.

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Nucky manages to stop a full-on shootout from erupting, and Lansky insists Nucky get down on his knees and beg for Willie’s release. Nucky admits that he’s been outsmarted, but also points out that Luciano can’t take control of Nucky’s holdings with Maranzano still alive. Nucky promises to “take care of” Maranzano within 24 hours in exchange for Willie.

Meanwhile, Mike D’Angelo presents his case against Capone, famously based not on murder or mayhem, but on tax evasion. D’Angelo lays out the considerable amount of evidence, and the judge issues the warrant. Cut to a group of Feds storming into an office, but it’s not D’Angelo and his team. Eli and his cohorts flash badges to get into Maranzano’s office and make quite a show of stabbing him to death. Their real-world significance here is two-fold. Firstly, because the cut makes a show of leaving out Capone’s arrest, I can safely assume that it will be a significant scene in the finale next week. Additionally, this marks the first time that a fictionalized character has gotten to kill a real gangster in the show. While the assassination went down in the exact same manner in real life, it was actually carried out by Bugsy instead of by a third party on Luciano’s orders as it is in the show. The result, however, is the same: Luciano gets all. Willie is thrown out of a car just as he was kidnapped, right outside the courthouse.

Back at his office, Joe Harper (aka Tommy Darmody?) continues to try to insert himself in the business, just as an enterprising young Nucky does in this week’s flashbacks. Nucky even tells him “you can sweep the sand,” in reference to his first job with the Sherriff and Commodore. Nucky, presumably feeling the weight of the decisions that have led him down this path, tries to pay Harper to leave town and start over. Harper takes the money and leaves.

While the “present day” action this week builds to a bit of an anti-climax, Nucky’s flashbacks are ramping up the tension as we get closer to the most tragic events in Nucky’s past. After Nucky captured Gillian last week, Mabel insists that they keep Gillian at the house and help her find a job. “Girls are always needed,” she insists, and unfortunately Nucky finds that to be true when he gets a late night call from Sherriff Lindsay. The Sherriff brings Nucky to the Commodore’s doorstep, but he refuses to cross the threshold himself. He tells Nucky “I believe I’m done,” hands Nucky his badge and walks away. The Commodore (suspenders half down, ick) and Leander instruct Nucky to take a young girl home, and to tell her parents “no further payments will be forthcoming.” Nucky finds the girl in the Commodore’s room, shaking. “Conduct yourself with honor, and we’ll see what happens next.” When Nucky comes home, Mabel tells him that Gillian ran away while she was asleep, and blames Nucky’s hostility for Gillian’s disappearance. Nucky reprimands Mabel, telling her “You can’t fix everything.”

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The episode closes with one of the most effective sequences this season, as Nucky finally reads the letter from “Nellie Bly” that he received earlier this season. It turns out that it was Nucky that Gillian was writing to from the asylum, and she pleads with him to help her again as he did when she was a little girl. As many fans suspected earlier this season, the emotional focus of the show’s finale will be Nucky’s reckoning with his past sins, largely symbolized by Gillian herself. Now that Luciano and Lansky have control of Nucky’s empire, I personally don’t think they will feel the need to kill him. If Nucky doesn’t make it out of Sunday’s finale alive, will it be at Gillian’s hand? Given the dire situation that she faces under Doctor Cotton’s control, Gillian is likely primarily concerned with getting out of the asylum whole.

BOARDWALK is in a very unique position going into its finale. Unlike many other prestige dramas, the inclusion of historical figures removes some element of surprise (not that the show hasn’t had it’s share of shocking deaths). But here, we pretty much know the set of major events that are going to happen on Sunday. Gillian will be sold to the Commodore in exchange for some sort of power/promotion for Nucky, Mabel is going to lose their baby and commit suicide, and Al Capone is going to be arrested. While I don’t think it’s unreasonable to theorize that Gillian is going to pull the trigger on Nucky, would it matter much at this point? Either way, Nucky has left a legacy, even if it’s one defined by absence rather than presence. His exposing Willie to the criminal life seems to have throughly steered him in the other direction, hopefully one where he can do some good in the world. Additionally, he is going to have a profound effect on the already ailing stock market when Margaret’s strike against Mayflower Grain is complete. His character arc, on the other hand, is ultimately cyclical. He sinned in order to get ahead, and is now paying for it. He is presented with a manifestation of these sins (Gillian) and has to directly confront the fact that he is largely responsible for her predicament. If he does die, it will be because of the wheels he set in motion long ago.

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