A Few Words About the Lovable Monster of 'Boardwalk Empire'

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Last night, Boardwalk Empire ended the season with a moment of truth for Richard Harrow. We're dealing with it. Caution: spoilers. 

Richard Harrow, Boardwalk Empire's sad, disfigured assassin, probably didn't deserve to die, but die he did on last night's finally, and so we bid farewell to one of the most wonderful performances on TV. 

Harrow's death was mostly unexpected. Boardwalk Empire unfolds slowly, and Harrow did not have as big a role this season as he did the last. After running away from Atlantic City out of shame—going to the midwest to be a hired killer—he returned to be a father to Tommy, the son of his fellow vet and friend Jimmy Darmody, and a partner to Julia Sagorsky, the woman he fell in love with in the third season. But in order to keep Tommy in Julia's care, he made a deal with criminal kingpin Nucky Thompson. If Nucky revealed the location of Jimmy's body, keeping Gillian Darmody in jail and away from her grandson Tommy, Harrow would return to killing.

The job, of course, went awry. He shot Chalky White's innocent daughter instead of the villainous Dr. Valentin Narcisse, and was in turn shot himself. There's a flicker of hope when we see Harrow, on a train, going to meet Julia and Tommy, but then we realize it's only a dream. Harrow is dying, alone, underneath the boardwalk. The mask that hid his gruesome facial injury from World War I, discarded in the sand.

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Harrow, as creator Terence Winter has brought up in post-mortem interviews, is a murderer. And yet, much to the credit of actor Jack Huston, he was lovable—a tortured soul doing the only thing he knew how to do well, dreaming of a better life. He nearly had that life, but he ended up sacrificing it, with the good of his surrogate son, Tommy, in mind. 

What was brilliant about Huston's performance as Harrow was you saw a man who saw himself as a scary outcast. Harrow had a growl for a voice that he used infrequently. In another context he might seem like a villain. Yet Huston and the Boardwalk writers constantly imbued him with vulnerability. He was, despite himself, good with children from the very start, and a romantic, cutting out and saving pictures of generic families and happy couples, envisioning a life he thought was impossible. 

One understands why, in the creative evolution of the show, Richard had to die. He was never going to get the happiness he deserved, and ultimately wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he did. And, yet, it's devastating to say goodbye to the character. He saw himself as a monster, but we saw him as a lost boy. R.I.P. 


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.