The 14 Best Boardwalk Empire Episodes, Ranked

"Boardwalk Empire" is something of an outlier in the so-called "Golden Age of Television." The show premiered on September 19, 2010 and received robust critical praise. Despite the reviews, "Boardwalk Empire" did not find the audience enjoyed by its contemporaries and it has not yet matched the reputation of its predecessors. One way or another, the story of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson has been outflanked by "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones," "The Sopranos," and "The Wire." Consequently, eight years after its expedited fifth and final season, it's time for something of a retrospective.

Set during the 13 years of Prohibition, "Boardwalk Empire" spins fact and fiction into an exquisite tapestry of family, greed, lust, and brutal gangster politics. Nucky Thompson's grip on Atlantic City may be the show's center of gravity, but it also captures the zeitgeist of American organized crime in the early 20th century. The real-life figures are too numerous to quantify here, but they include everyone from Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to Joseph Kennedy, Jack Dempsey, and Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the World Series. Historical purists may lament how these stories are mixed with fictitious events and characters such as Nelson Van Alden, a zealous FBI agent played by brilliant character actor Michael Shannon. Most will agree that "Boardwalk Empire" balances these elements well, invigorating history while crafting a narrative rich in heart, pathos, and Machiavellian danger. Here are the 14 best "Boardwalk Empire" episodes, ranked.

14. Boardwalk Empire — S1, EP1

The first episode of "Boardwalk Empire" broke records with its $18 million budget and you can see the money all over the screen, especially in the costumes and set design. The $5 million boardwalk is the beating heart of the show and it is revealed here with sumptuous, lively energy. Also revealed are the dark forces that conspire along the boardwalk and throughout the American Northeast and Midwest, namely New York, Chicago, and the myriad outposts and distilleries between them.

The pilot establishes Nucky's key relationships with Eli, his brother and local police chief; Margaret Shroeder, his budding love interest; the Commodore, his aging mentor; and especially Jimmy Darmody, a troubled WWI veteran. "You can't be half a gangster," Jimmy says as he pleads with Nucky to join his criminal organization. This line summarizes the conceit of the show's first season. Nucky can no longer balance his position as politician and mobster, for Prohibition has inflamed the criminal landscape to new heights of blood and lucre.

13. Under God's Power She Flourishes — S2, EP11

Devastated by Angela's murder, Jimmy sinks into a liquor-drenched depression, literally prostrate with grief on the bedroom floor. Meanwhile, we are taken back to Jimmy's time at Princeton, where he studied literature. Coy and youthful, he cut a different figure back then, before the war. Yet we see that Jimmy was damaged even before the trenches. We see that he still has that fire in him and that it is stoked by his mother Gillian, who, after her latest manipulation of Jimmy, consummates their relationship in drunken lust. It is a skin-crawling moment of incestuous love, to be sure. 

Then, we cut to the present day where a confrontation between Jimmy, Gillian, and the bestial Commodore ends in deranged bloodshed. All of this seediness partly stems from the sordid original sin that will eventually confront Nucky Thomspon on the boardwalk in 1931. 

12. Resolution — S3, EP1

"Resolution" introduces us to Mr. Rossetti, perhaps the most flamboyant villain in all of "Boardwalk Empire." A completely unhinged force, Rossetti spends the third season waging outright war against Nucky Thompson following a disagreement on liquor distribution.

Before that, en route to the meeting, Rossetti and his men get a flat tire on a coastal road along the beautiful Atlantic coast. Fortunately, a passing motorist offers to loosen the wheel nuts with some 3-in-1. "I don't know what that is," Rossetti says, rudely. "Oil, what else?" the motorist replies. This off-hand remark seals his fate, for Rossetti has lethally thin skin that only excessive violence can thicken. Eventually, with the help of the 3-in-1, Rossetti arrives in Atlantic City for the meeting with Nucky and other mobsters. Nucky wastes no time in announcing that he will be selling his liquor exclusively to Arnold Rothstein, which will drive up prices for everyone else. Enraged, Rosetti launches a tirade, insulting almost everyone at the table, especially Nucky, whom he refers to as a "breadstick in a bow tie." Actors must resent screenwriters on occasion.

11. You'd Be Surprised — S3, EP5

There's a lot going on in "You'd Be Surprised" as events turn for Nucky, Margaret, Gillian, and especially Nelson Van Alden, whose identity is almost exposed. However, the episode's lasting impression is made in the attempted whacking of Rosetti, who's taken over a hotel in Tabor Heights, a small New Jersey village. Rosetti and his men have staked out the village as it is a crucial thoroughfare for Nucky's liquor trucks, which pass through en route to Arnold Rothstein in New York. In retaliation, Rothstein sends Benny Siegel, a psychopathic teenager who will one day become the infamous "Bugsy" Siegel, to pose as a paperboy, enter the hotel, and assassinate Rosetti.

What follows is one of the bloodiest moments in "Boardwalk Empire." Armed with a Colt 1911, Siegel kills three henchmen, the paperboy he was impersonating, and a waitress who joined Rosetti in the bedroom, where they indulged in sadomasochistic sex. Rosetti uses the poor woman as a human shield before returning fire, seeing off the threat. Then, in a visceral nod to "Taxi Driver," the camera follows Rosetti from above as he walks, naked and blood-spattered, down the hallway with a gun in his hand and a belt strapped around his neck. It is a potent example of sex and violence in television's "Golden Age."

10. The Pony — S3, EP8

"The Pony" sees another attempted whacking in the war with Rossetti. This time, Nucky is strolling toward a club on the boardwalk with his mistress Billie Kent, who runs forward and waits for him at the entrance. As Nucky and Billie's eyes meet, an explosion bursts from the doorway, killing Billie and knocking dozens off their feet. It's a shocking moment and we feel the pain of Nucky's disorientation.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Illinois, Nelson Van Alden (or "George") is at the end of his tether. He works as an iron salesman with a hateful clique of colleagues who subscribe to that awful maxim, "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!" 

Naturally, these people have a hive-minded instinct for noticing those who don't want any part of the "fun," and Van Alden is certainly one of those people. So when Van Alden is chosen for a pitch training session, his colleague makes sure to mock Van Alden with the most irritating fey voice imaginable, much to the delight of the jeering morons behind him. Happily, there is catharsis. Van Alden presses a steaming iron into his face, leaving a purple bow-shaped lesion. He then throws his weight around, chucking tables and breaking typewriters as his victim writhes on the ground, wailing like Peter Griffin.

9. A Return to Normalcy — S1, EP12

How does Nucky Thompson return to normalcy? With guns and murder, of course. The conclusion of Season 1 eradicates the D'Alessio brothers with a distinct Corleone flavor. In "The Godfather," the child's baptism is contrasted with organized murder in one of the cinema's great montages, whereas in "A Return to Normalcy," Nucky's glib-sounding speech is contrasted not only with our knowledge of his lies but by a series of slayings that intersperse it. However, normalcy doesn't last long in Nucky's world. The death of one alliance gives birth to another, and this time they include Nucky's friends and family, all of them loaded with dark, selfish, and violent impulses. 

On the other side of the law, Nelson Van Alden continues his fall into the abyss, having killed his colleague in the previous episode during a fit of zealous rage. Lucy, Nucky's former mistress, tells Van Alden that she is pregnant following their one-night stand, sending his life into an ever deeper spiral. 

8. Georgia Peaches — S2, EP10

"Georgia Peaches" features plenty of religious fervor from Margaret Shroeder, or "Prissy O'Frowney" as Rolling Stone once dubbed her. That's a brilliant quip because Margaret really is a prissy individual prone to earnest, self-righteous frowning. Margaret's character is written well on occasion but the stubbornly po-faced demeanor often reduces her to a disapproving mob wife stock character, albeit one with an incongruous amount of piety.

"Georgia Peaches" concerns more than just Margaret, though. After Jimmy's men fail to assassinate Manny Horvitz, the Ukrainian butcher personally retaliates by raiding Jimmy's home, where he finds Angela and her lover Louise. Horvitz executes both of them with chilling ruthlessness, although not without some disgust. In fact, according to director Jeremy Podeswa, actor William Forsythe expressed some concern about how the scene would be perceived, namely by his children. Forsythe remained true to his character's brutality while adding conflicted texture to his performance.

7. Devil You Know — S5, EP6

It was always easy to sympathize with Nelson Van Alden. He's a religious fanatic, not to mention a zealous authoritarian, but he's also an intelligent/inhibited man who is riddled with torment and angst. When he falls into the underworld's grip through misdeeds and misfortunes, Van Alden loses his religious coping mechanism and becomes a quiet, brooding presence, appealing to the nihilist in all of us. Van Alden is not a good man, but he is certainly better than the crooks who have him under their thumb.

Van Alden is essentially a 6-foot-4 pressure cooker and, in "Devil You Know," he finally detonates. After years of surviving by the skin of his teeth, Van Alden finds himself trapped at all angles in the office of Al Capone, who holds a gun to his head and asks for any last words. Well, Van Alden certainly has. He punches Al in the face and throttles him over his desk, announcing his true identity and swearing, with the zealotry of old, that "justice will rain down upon you!" Sadly, another undercover agent shoots him dead, afraid that he too will be exposed. It's a fitting send-off for a fascinating character.

6. Friendless Child — S5, EP7

The show's penultimate episode, "Friendless Child" signals the end of Nucky Thompson as a force in the criminal underworld, and it happens in sudden, dramatic fashion. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky kidnap Eli's son, prompting an armed hostage exchange that goes quickly awry. As Nucky feels his grip on the situation loosen, perennial fool Mickey Doyle steps forward, attempting to reason with Luciano. He is met with a bullet to the throat, ending an incredulously long career in which he insulted countless dangerous people. More shots ring out, hitting and killing Arquimedes, Nucky's trusted Cuban bodyguard. 

Bravely, Nucky demands his men to stop and acquiesces to Luciano's demands, signing over every part of his boardwalk empire. The scene is a highwire situation that feels acutely dangerous owing to the show's habit of ruthlessly dispatching its characters. However, Nucky's time is not yet up. He may have been spared by his criminal rivals but the real danger is still out there, lurking in unassuming form. 

5. Gimcrack & Bunkum — S2, EP5

Another explosive episode, "Gimcrack & Binkum" shows Richard Harrow and Eli Thompson at their lowest. Disfigured and lonely, Harrow prepares to commit suicide, while the forever hapless Eli controls an altercation with savage murder. Earlier in the episode we even see Eli and Nucky get physical by pushing, punching, and clawing at each other in a Victorian conservatory. It's a reminder that the best fight scenes are ugly and scrappy, not gracefully balletic spectacles edited into a frenetic blur.

As is typical in "Boardwalk Empire," the violence comes all at once. An attempted suicide, a brutal murder, and a vicious brawl are not enough. So, in the episode's closing moments, Richard and Jimmy pay a visit to Jackson Parkhurst, a wealthy old imperialist who has offended the Commodore clan. After expressing his disdain for Native Americans, Richard and Jimmy implement some poetic justice by scalping him.

4. Eldorado — S5, EP8

The ending of "Boardwalk Empire" was expedited by HBO executives, causing Terence Winter and his writing team to rush toward a conclusion during the fifth season's eight-episode run. Fortunately, they overcame these limitations and ended Nucky Thompson's story with a movingly realized narrative of his original sin. Season 5 has two main threads, one that follows the contemporary Nucky Thompson of 1931, and another that charts the rise of the young and ambitious Nucky in the late 1800s when he worked under the Commodore. 

The original sin concerns Gillian, whom Nucky traffics for exploitation by the Commodore. In the closing moments of "Eldorado," the memory of this crime weaves into the Nucky of 1931, who is confronted by someone on the boardwalk. Unlike the ambiguous ending of "The Sopranos," which is perhaps the closest relative of "Boardwalk Empire," the denouement of this final episode leaves very little to the imagination. 

3. To the Lost — S2, EP12

A bold and moving conclusion to the second season, the death of Jimmy Darmody was the right thing for the story, even if it disappointed some viewers. Darmody was too damaged and nihilistic to go any further. He actually wills Nucky to kill him, saying that he "died in the trench, years back." After Nucky delivers a coup de grâce, there is a flashback to Jimmy in the trenches, his head resting against his bayonet in prayer as he prepares to go over the top. It's a brief but beautifully staged moment, graded in dour colors and scored evocatively by Giuseppe Verdi's "Quattro pezzi sacri."

Again, the death was a bold creative decision. So bold, in fact, that it may have cost the show some of its viewership. One Reddit user said it was a "huge mistake to kill him off," adding that, "the show was never as great again." The absence of Pitt's star quality may have harmed the show's popularity compared to "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," but showrunner Terence Winter was clear on his principles, stating, "We had to just completely divorce ourselves from the idea of, 'Okay, this is Michael Pitt' ... it's just a character and what is best for the story." 

2. Two Imposters — S3, EP11

This is a crazy one. Out of the six total people whom Nucky kills during the run of "Boardwalk Empire," four of them occur in this episode. Those killings happen not in some alleyway or backlot, but in his suite at the Ritz. Nucky and his butler Eddie notice the phone line is cut moments before Rosetti's men barge into the suite, shooting anything that moves. Nucky, a former politician, shows he has no problem dispatching enemies at point-blank range, yet he is forced to retreat because of Rosetti's overwhelming numbers.

This home invasion is the final push of Nucky's mob war and it is a truly dramatic shake-up of an episode. We see Nucky on the run and out of his element, seeking the refuge of Chalky White, who hides Nucky and Eddie from Rossetti's thugs, who tail them in a tense game of cat-and-mouse.

1. Margate Sands — S3, EP12

Earlier in Season 3, Nucky approached Arnold Rothstein and other regional mobsters to back him up against Rosetti. He should have just asked Richard Harrow, the First World War's answer to John Rambo. HAving said that, no request of Nucky's could motivate Harrow like Tommy Darmody, the young son of Jimmy, Harrow's late friend. It is Tommy's presence at the Commodore's mansion, which has been overrun by Rosetti and his men, that causes Harrow to walk in armed with pistols, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle.

What follows is another of the show's many bloodbaths. Harrow obliterates everyone in his path. Rosetti's goons just can't compete with the veteran's skill and focus. Admirers of physical effects will be impressed here, as the squibs and spatter work are executed with savage artistry. However, don't mistake this for wanton violence. This is Richard Harrow at his most righteous and, after a season of Rosetti's untamed villainy, it is a beautiful thing to see.