[WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers from Sunday's Season 4 finale of Boardwalk Empire. Read at your own risk.]
If there's one thing you can count on in a Boardwalk Empire season finale, it's a pile of dead bodies.
And although Season 4's final hour certainly delivered some brutal (and in some cases, heartbreaking) send-offs, the episode was most significant for the number of characters who managed to escape the mayhem. Perhaps the most notable survivor was Eli (Shea Whigham), who, despite being forced to conspire against his brother Nucky (Steve Buscmemi), was spared thanks to his son William (Ben Rosenfield).
"If Willie hadn't walked in, it would have been the end," executive producer Terence Winter tells TVGuide.com. "Nucky would have put the bullet in Eli's head. He was prepared to do it, making a very persuasive argument that Eli had it coming. But the fact that his son walked in at the moment is what saved his life."
Of course, Nucky didn't just let Eli live. He also set up his escape to the Midwest after Eli killed Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty), who forced Eli to betray Nucky in the first place. Even though Eli's hands were tied by Knox, Winter says Nucky isn't likely to forgive Eli, who previously betrayed him in Season 2.
"I don't think that relationship is ever going to be the same again," he says. "Nucky feels a certain amount of responsibility toward June and the other kids. [He and Eli] have business interests in common, but for the most part, I think the brother relationship as they know it is over. That's something [Nucky] can't forgive."
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Also living to fight another day is Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), who, after surviving an assassination attempt ordered by Nucky, was arrested and turned into an informant for J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) and the Bureau of Investigation. Winter says that unlike other recent antagonists, viewers can expect more of Narcisse next season. "Cutting a deal with the FBI, if anything, is only giving Narcisse more power," Winter says. "He has got friends in very high places now."
Narcisse's nemesis, however, is weaker than ever. After all, it was during a meeting with Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) that Narcisse's planned murder was accidentally thwarted by Chalky's daughter Maybelle (Christina Jackson), who stepped in front of the sniper's bullet without knowing it. "Chalky is very much a broken man by the end of Season 4," Winter says. "But he is extremely resilient and will come back from this in some way, shape or form. There is a lot of damage done to Chalky psychologically, and how he and Nucky work through it will be the stuff we'll be exploring as we move forward in the series."
Of course, the episode's biggest tragedy is the death of Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who was the unwitting sniper who killed Maybelle and was fatally shot in the aftermath. Despite spending the entire season trying to shed his days a gun-for-hire, Richard was forced to pick up his gun one last time as part of a deal he made with Nucky that revealed where Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) was buried in order to put Gillian (Gretchen Mol) away for murder.
Winter says the choice to kill off Richard was extremely difficult. "After wrestling with it for quite a while, it just felt that, as Oscar Boneau said in Episode 11, eventually we all run out of road," he says. "You can't pull the trigger that many times and walk away unscathed. It just felt like the more powerful ending for that story. ... We said to ourselves, 'If and when he picks up the gun again, it's going to be the last time.' And of course... that's the way it played out."
TVGuide.com also chatted with Huston about saying goodbye to his character. Read on to see why he thinks Richard deserved to die and whether he believes Richard died a happy death.
When did you know that Richard wouldn't survive the season?
I had inkling this would be his last season in the beginning. As the season progressed, I felt like it was what needed to happen. I got the phone call from Terry basically on the last episode. It was a beautiful phone call. He said, "When I pitched it to the writers, people started crying. ... It's the hardest thing I've had to do but it's the right thing." I didn't object to it in any way. I was very open because I thought this was what had to happen. You do fall in love with these characters, but you also have to realize that beloved characters will always die. I was just very honored that he did it in such a special, heartfelt way.
Why do you think now was the right time for Richard to die?
After four seasons of killing and going [back and forth], you would have seen it before. With tragic characters, they have to go out tragically. That's how Richard had to go, and he's going out when people still loved him. That was the most important thing to me: that he would die when people still loved him, not when they were bored of him.
At the beginning of the season, Richard couldn't escape his murderous past no matter how hard he tried.
I feel like he lost himself. He's always been filled with conflict. He was emotionally conflicted and morally conflicted. He would kill. He was good at it. He saw himself as a beast, but he also wanted love. So, when he was asked to kill again, he did it because he wanted to save Tommy. He didn't want to kill anymore, but he did it purely for the child and for his love.
Obviously Richard shooting Maybelle was a freak accident, but do you think Richard's hesitance to become a killer again is what ultimately led to his death?
I think it's interesting. He actually had Narciesse in his sights. And it was just that [extra] moment. I think that was what was meant to happen. That's the tragedy. He knew he didn't want to kill any more, but he came back to kill and it went wrong. Maybell steps out in front of it. His gut was right. He wasn't ready to kill again. It went wrong, and it's never gone wrong for him before. That was the end of him.
So, when Richard gets shot, does he think that's what he deserves?
Yeah, I think he deserved it. That's why I think he succumbs to it. He's walking, he goes out, and he goes and dies. It's very fitting that he does it under the boardwalk where he and Julia spent their first night together. It was such a beautiful thing that he went and laid there, and that was his heaven. I think that dream sequence at the end is what his dream always was: to approach a family. His sister was there, their new child, his wife, Paul, Tommy. He didn't get to see them again, but he basically got his heaven. In his head, Tommy's going to be okay. So at least he can die peaceful.
Do you think he regrets that he broke the promise he made Julia at the train station, or did he know he was lying to her?
I think he knows. That's why he's sending them all up to see his sister. He's getting them out. He was always so intuitive. He knew that Jimmy was going to die. He knew what was going to happen. He's always a step ahead. He was questioning his ability as a killer, as a sniper. Richard had never once faltered in his confidence in his ability to kill, but now doesn't feel comfortable doing it. His confidence isn't there, which means there's a possibility that things could wrong. Maybe he just had the intuition that something is going to go horribly wrong. But he doesn't want to scare anyone. He doesn't want to burden them with the thought of what he's going to go do. He loves Tommy and he loves her. He gives them a kiss, and that's as close as he'll get to his paradise.
He also got to finally do right by Jimmy, even if it was mostly to hurt Gillian in court.
He always felt very bad. It wasn't honorable what they did to Jimmy's body. He never saw the honor in that and he hated that. So, now the truth has come out and he will hopefully get the burial he deserves.
So you definitely think Richard dies happy?
He did find love. He got married. He had a family. He experienced something that he never thought he would experience. ... We did a few takes [of the last scene] where he was smiling under the boardwalk. There was just like a slight smile on one side of his face, and the reason being that finally he's at peace. He's always just been in this constant torment and conflict that finally Richard can lay down. He's found peace at last. In a way, it is sort of beautiful.
And we finally get to see Richard's face in that final dream sequence.
That was Terry's doing, and that was also heartbreaking. In heaven, he's whole again. He's a man. He's what he's always seen himself on the inside. You're not sure if he's dead. Then, you see that face. It was very bold and beautiful.
What was it like shooting those final images?
It chokes me up thinking about it. It was a pretty rough day doing that because it's saying goodbye to someone you love. I love him with all my heart. He's within me. It's amazing how a character can take on such a life and become such an important person to you even though they're fictional. It's amazing.
Did you take any piece of Richard with you?
I've got my mask. That's already in a box, framed and everything. That will be one of the big moments in my life, being cast as Richard Harrow. The character of Richard, we've explored in some amazing ways — ways which I never thought would happen after being cast in three episodes, and then being asked to come back, and then become a series regular. It will be remembered for the rest of my life.
What did you think of the Boardwalk Empire season finale?