For a lot of people, “Boardwalk Empire” had to have a dynamite finale in order to have a successful first season. I would have been more forgiving of a finale that simply moved things forward an inch or two, given how much I’ve enjoyed much of the season, but even I was feeling deflated by the first third of “A Return to Normalcy.” There’s not a lot that happens, and while everything in that first third is beautifully written and acted, it’s hard not to fear that this is all going to end with a long, quiet exhale, rather than the bang the season’s been leading up to. It’s often realistic to end on a bit of anticlimax, honestly, but Nucky and his team had been tracking the D’Alessios for so long that the audience could be forgiven for just wanting to see a little violence. “Boardwalk Empire” has always been handsome, but it hasn’t often been visceral, and “Normalcy” was the season’s last, best shot at hitting the audience square in the gut.
Fortunately, “A Return to Normalcy” delivered that punch to the gut in spades, probably starting with the scene where Margaret sees the names of Nucky’s dead wife and son on a gravestone while she’s out for an All Saints’ Day prayer service on Halloween night. The election’s in a few days, and Nucky’s been so busy that he and Margaret haven’t had to have contact in the wake of her leaving him. Seeing those names on the grave, though, brings back to her all of her feelings for the man, which originally went well beyond the simple pleasure in the nice things he could buy her. When this show started, there was a deep, almost needful connection between the two, perhaps based on a subconscious understanding of how much each had lost. So Margaret goes to Nucky, and as he tells her the long, sad story of how he lost his wife and child, that connection seems to come back … until she tells him that, no, she’s not going to be anything other than Mrs. Schroeder to him from now on.
People take steps toward change in “A Return to Normalcy,” but they don’t actually change, not really. Margaret takes this stand; she needs to know just how much sin she can live with. But when she gets the rag that prophesies destitution in her cake, how close she could come to losing everything is thrown right back in her face. It’s rather too cute, honestly, and a bit too easy to just have Margaret rush back to Nucky in the wake of this, but run back she does, as the episode ends. The closing montage, set to a Vaudeville performance, reveals all of the characters in moments of crisis, save Nucky and Margaret, who seem happy to be back together. They seem happy, that is, until they walk out onto the boardwalk, the sun coming up in the east, and look out over the waves. For just a moment, the briefest hints of indecision cross both of their faces, and then the camera pans up to take in the whole of the boardwalk, with all of its delights slumbering for the moment. They and the series will be back in due time.