by: Michael Shields and Chris Thompson
We remember Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow, a tragic character who met a beautiful end….
The ocean waves crash upon the shore, delicately caressing the soft morsels of sand. A train whistle beckons, whisking us away with the blink of an eye to a vacant set of railroad tracks. Surrounding us is the fragile chirp of forest birds as our minds are set at ease. The tracks, and the sunlit train that follows them, take us on a journey to a timeworn farmhouse with a broad front porch harboring those held dear. A glimpse into one man’s heaven. Here, in the warmth that surrounds him, previously blemished flesh is restored, replaced with a smile and the comfort of knowing that he has finally arrived at that one place that he cherished most, home.
Of all the story arc’s in Boardwalk Empire, none have been as tragic (or as endearing) as the life and times of Richard Harrow. Played brilliantly by Jack Huston, Richard Harrow was many things. He was a disfigured war veteran and a criminal. A bodyguard, a bootlegger and a hit-man. But he also possessed a less sinister side. He was a loving brother. A loyal friend. An adoptive father and a devoted husband. To say that Richard Harrow was the moral compass of Boardwalk Empire could not be farther from the truth, but what violence and hurt he did put out into the world he labored fiercely (and ultimately to his demise) to make up for in his love and devotion to those he tried to protect. In Boardwalk Empire, Richard Harrow was our Tin Man. Our tragic casualty of a world into which he no longer fit. A man burdened with lofty goals and an enormous heart. A man who tried to play both sides. Who danced too close to good and evil and who realized (in a final stroke of poetic beauty) that you can’t have it both ways. That you have to choose a side in life lest it choose you. Richard Harrow died learning this lesson, but not before leaving his mark on our hearts and in our minds. And though he may not be missed in the grand scheme of Boardwalk Empire’s story, he will be missed to us. So, it is only fitting that we take a moment and reflect on how truly great our Tin Man was.
When we first met Richard Harrow he was a shell of a man. War had not only tormented and captured his soul, but it had ravished his face as well, forcing him to wear a tin mask perpetually. A fateful meeting with another wounded veteran, Jimmy Darmody, at an Army hospital in Chicago, allowed us the opportunity to get to know Richard Harrow better. As the friendship that these two forged developed, we were shown what type of man Richard had become. Through their instant kinship we learned that he was more than an anguished trained assassin. We learned that he was in fact more complex and more human than any character we had yet to stumble upon in Boardwalk Empire. Richard was the executioner with a heart of gold, a good man who found it difficult to connect with people on a deeper level due to his injuries and the demons of his past. Like a convict released back into society after a lengthy stint in prison, Richard’s acclimation to a world free of war proved not to be without complications. He was now a monster, a sideshow freak1, a man who hid shamefully behind a false face in order to walk amongst us. A man who, in a moment of desperation, set off into the woods to free himself from the gut-wrenching pain of being alive because all that surrounded him was death. Yet, on the threshold of ending his own life, the indulgent wings of fate swooped in and allowed poor Richard yet another shot at life, and ultimately, redemption.
Richard was truly a sheep in wolves clothing, a man whose motivations for even the most dastardly of deeds was love and a devotion to those who saw him for who he truly was. Richard was a killer, of that there can be no doubt. And being the logical man that he was at times he was well aware of this, making it only natural that he take up a life of crime after returning home. But there was always within Richard this idea, this feeling that came out only in the quiet moments when left alone; that if he had not left to go fight in the war things could have gone a lot differently for him. That deep down inside he was a good man. A family man. That he could have settled down close to his sister in Plover, Wisconsin where he was from. Maybe live out a happy and productive farm life with a wife that he loved, a few children, and a family that he cherished above all else. But as it is with all tragedies, we learned early on in Boardwalk Empire that there was no way its version of Richard could ever achieve his idealized view of himself. He knew that his life could never be what he had once hoped. That that future was closed to him. And as downbeat as it sounds, Richard did try his hardest to make the best out of the hand that he was ultimately dealt.
It would be logical to surmise that Richard knew the ultimate cost of his final pact with Nucky Thompson. That he understood his heartfelt embrace with his wife Julia and surrogate son Tommy at the train station would be his last. Richard sacrificed himself for their well being, doing whatever it took to assure that Jimmy’s mother Gillian stayed in jail and away from them both for good2. Furthermore, it would also be rational to assume that because of Richard’s miscue, which cost young Maybelle her life, he would not be able to live with what he had done. That the bullet which was finally his undoing only struck him because he allowed it to be so. It was his penance, his final act of contrition for all the lives taken by his hand. In the twisted and savage tale that is Boardwalk Empire, no man is as responsible for as much carnage as Richard Harrow was. In fact, its not even close. Which makes the notion that he is so beloved that much more intriguing. Regardless of all the bodies that he left in his wake we will forever regard Richard far more for his loving and protective nature than for his hurt. His tragic tale will be remembered not due to the lofty body count he amassed, but rather because the motivation for all that he did was simply, love.
Life is cheap on Boardwalk Empire and no one character knew this fact better than Richard. War taught him to be good at killing. Showed him that in life you are either a casualty or a victor. But Life taught him that victories are useless if every day you survive you yearn for death. What does a victory mean to a broken man like Richard Harrow? Does it mean he endures the pain and horrors of trench warfare during World War I only to return with half his face and very little of his soul? Does it mean he struggles to survive in a world he no longer fits into3 by becoming a loyal friend to Jimmy Darmody, a man who like him just wanted to die? Does it mean he becomes a criminal and a hit man only to realize that he is exactly what all his victims ultimately become: a casualty? Or does it mean that he somehow finds love? Finds something to believe in besides his own impending death? That he gets married, adopts Jimmy’s child and starts a family? Richard achieved all these victories but in the end he died trying to protect the one thing he could hold onto, the only victory that made any sense – family.
Richard was a unique man to say the least. With his gravelly voice, disfigured face, and antisocial behavior he seemed alone in the world, adrift and unrelatable. Yet, it was the heartfelt connections Richard shared with the people in his life, few as they may have been, that were the most intense and emotional on all of Boardwalk Empire. Whether it was with Jimmy, Jimmy’s wife Angela, Julia, or Tommy, the relationships explored throughout Richard’s journey embodied what it means to empathize with another, to share the pain and joys that life bestows upon us. These affecting moments were heartbreaking reminders of how much we need others in our life; people to pick us up when we are down, to hold us steady when we are overwrought, and to affirm the most basic of premises, that we are worthy of this world, and worthy of love.
Against all odds Richard Harrow found love. He found a family and a level of happiness he could have never envisioned outside of his scrapbook filled with pictures of family, sweethearts and houses. It was befitting, as the light dimmed upon his final moments on Earth, that he spent those moments under the very boardwalk where he spent his first night with the love of his life. In his final moments, as his life finally caught up with his death, he dreamed himself tragically back into that place where he, the broken man with half of a face, felt completely whole – Julia’s arms.