Boardwalk Empire became a wrecking ball last night, word to Miley Cyrus.
It wasn't the first time. Series creator Terence Winter and company have done that three times now, and each time it's involved the death of a major character. The first time happened in the season two episode "Georgia Peaches," when Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino) was gunned down by that son-of-a-bitch Manny Horvtiz (William Forsythe) for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second occasion was when Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) shot his protege-turned-enemy Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in the face for his pile-up of wrongdoings, in the masterful season two finale, "To the Lost." And the third definite time in which Boardwalk Empire left me in near shambles was last night, at the end of the superb fourth season's knockout finale, "Farewell Daddy Blues," when Richard Harrow died.
Hands down, my favorite Boardwalk Empire character has been Richard Harrow, the enigmatic, wholly fascinating, half-faced war veteran played magnificently by Jack Huston. On a sprawling show replete with well-written characters, namely Stephen Graham's explosive Al Capone and Michael Shannon's unstable Nelson Van Alden, Huston's Richard Harrow has been Boardwalk's greatest invention. Most of the show's players are real-life history makers, like Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and the Capone siblings; Richard Harrow, on the other hand, comes directly from the brains of Winter and his fellow writers/producers, meaning there's been no Wikipedia page or Google searches available to figure out what makes Richard tick, and where his storyline's been heading.
Played with impeccable subtlety by Huston, Richard was TV's most haunting character—a physically and mentally scarred vet who wanted nothing more than to have his own family, and who was proficient enough with weaponry to go all Charles Bronson on foes to ensure the safety of his loved ones. He was a fascinating and singular combination of gentleness and mystery offset by moments of stone-faced destruction.
GIF via A Thing Like That
Most of all, he was sympathetic.
At least to me. Perhaps it's because I, too, yearn for things in my personal life that feel so painfully out of reach, and, I, too, have trouble looking into mirrors, the ridiculous but unfortunately true byproduct of insecurities that have developed since childhood. With Richard Harrow, something clicked for me. I remember watching the season two episode "Gimcrack & Bunkum," the one where Richard heads into the woods to hunt, but, really, to attempt suicide, and feeling like I'd been slugged in the belly, the wind knocked out of me.
In that broken man with the ghoulish half-mask covering the left side of his face, I often saw myself. All of my self-doubts. All of battle scars, albeit of the emotional variety. I wanted him to win. Somehow. Richard Harrow deserved so much more than he ever received, but I always knew he'd meet his maker before receiving everything owed to him. That never stopped me from hoping for the most unlikely outcome, though.
Richard always seemed to be Boardwalk's most expendable major character, especially following the death of Jimmy, for whom Richard served as the loyalist of armed enforcers. Throughout season four, his arc dovetailed with Gillian's (Gretchen Mol), both wrapped around the custody battle over Jimmy's young son, Tommy. The endgame was apparent all along—Richard, a tragic character if there ever was one, would be Wrap City once Tommy's future was secured. And once Richard negotiated with Nucky to get the location of Jimmy's actual rotting corpse, then pointing the authorities towards it—proving that Gillian did kill an innocent man and pass his dead body off as Jimmy's, thus sending her to jail and away from Tommy for good—I knew Richard wasn't making it out of "Farewell Daddy Blues" alive. And that gut feeling left my gut feeling hollow.
It was obvious that Richard's vow to do anything for Nucky in exchange for Jimmy's body meant that Nucky would have him use his marksmanship skills to assassinate the increasingly problematic Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). What episode writers Winter and Howard Korder did so brilliantly in "Farewell Daddy Blues," though, was turn Nucky's plan to shit. For once, Richard's hitman work got botched—taking longer than usual to pull the trigger once Narcisse was in his gun's sights, Richard finally took the shot when, unbeknownst to him, Chalky's daughter stepped right into the gun's scope. He'd murdered an innocent woman, and due to the shock of his grave mistake, Richard stood frozen long enough for one of Narcisse's goons to fire a round into his chest.
Watching Richard stumble through the club's frenzied crowd, gripping the bullet wound beneath his coat, I kept telling myself, "He's going to live. He's going to live." Seeing him settle down underneath the boardwalk, on the sandy beach where so many of his best memories with his wife Julia (Wrenn Schmidt), Angela, and Tommy took place, I'd hoped that, somehow, we'd find out his wound wasn't fatal.
GIF via A Thing Like That
And then the rest of episode went on, leaving me and every other Richard Harrow supporter hanging, with fingers crossed. And then, just as the end credits seemed ready to roll, and the question of Richard's condition felt like it was going to become the cruelest of cliffhangers, there he was, sitting on that train, en route to meet up with Julia and Tommy. He made it, I thought.
Not so fast, I thought next, as Richard slowly approached that scenic farmhouse, where his loved ones were all quietly sitting on the front porch, awaiting his arrival. Julia walked towards him, and the camera cut back to Richard's face, only the mask was gone, and it was full-on Jack Huston face. He was happy—Richard's dream of having a family had come true, complete with the total restoration of his mug. And I was right there with him, incredibly happy for my favorite character on 2013 television not named Walter White. Yes, I knew he was dead, and the whole thing was a beautifully staged and photographed dream sequence, the latest in Boardwalk Empire's amazing death sequences by way of emotionally paralyzing dream cutaways (i.e., the flashback to Jimmy fighting in the war as he's dying), but I was still content. Even as the scene cut back to Richard's lifeless body leaning up against the boardwalk's beam, on the beach, with only the sounds of crashing waves and squawking pelicans filling the soundtrack.
I'm not afraid to admit it: The sight of Richard Harrow's dead body, his soul having drifted off to his own personal heaven, left me in tears. It was the scene's elegant presentation, the exceptional handiwork of director Tim Van Patten. It was the assurance that, like myself, Boardwalk Empire's creators adored Jack Huston's at-one-time sideline character, so much so that they ended the show's best season to date by sending him off in a perfectly bittersweet way. And it was the realization that, although I can't wait for Boardwalk's fifth season to start in September 2014, the show will never be the same again for me. Richard Harrow is gone. Maybe, like so many of Boardwalk's characters, I took him for granted—yes, I'd always known he was a personal favorite, but I'd never expected his inevitable death to crush me like that.
But it did. And for that, I'm forever indebted to Terrence Winter, Jack Huston, HBO, and Boardwalk Empire.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)