HBO’s polarizing gangland period drama returns for its final season. It is exactly the show you remember, and that’s a good thing.
It is with a heavy heart that I take up the assignment of covering Boardwalk Empire’s 5th and final season for the site. I have loved the show since its premiere episode, and have had no qualms with declaring it the best show on television since The Sopranos (appropriate given that BE show runner Terrence Winter was David Chase’s right hand man). I have defended it from countless naysayers who claim it’s all glossy style with glacial pacing and flimsy, unlikable characters. Many of these same people praise Matthew Weiner’s (another Sopranos alum) Mad Men to the high heavens while ignoring its excruciating, watching-paint-dry plotting, characters who flip-flop at the writers’ whims (I’m looking at you Don Draper), and nostalgia for a nonexistent 60’s era that looks better suited for an interactive museum piece than quality cable television. But I digress. I’m used to being alone on my little island when it comes to Boardwalk, but then again I actually WATCH the show.
Narrative dramatic television is changing, and for many shows it is no longer necessarily appropriate to review a show on an episode to episode basis (hence my disdain for weekly recaps where reviewers get to moan and scrutinize when in fact they have no idea where the story might be headed and how wrong they can be within a week’s time). Many TV dramas now play the long game, unfolding like great novels where every episode (chapter) is part of a much larger puzzle where one hopes the payoff will be worth all the build-up. This freedom with time and plotting has allowed story structure to become much more dynamic, in-depth, and cohesive. Writers now have the tools to really lay the bricks down for individual moments and characters whose relationships and actions will dictate the direction of the story’s past, present, and future. And so to appreciate shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire you have to commit to the whole and not just the sum of its parts. In this age of internet induced mass population ADHD that is asking a lot of viewers and you often find that these shows work better for many people when they have the option of binge watching (thank god for Netflix and HBO GO).
Playing the long game has been Boardwalk’s greatest strength. EVERY moment matters, and that is a testament to its genius writing. Winter knows how to tell a terrific story as long as you have the patience to go with it, and not just wait for the next bloody gangland shoot-out (and there are plenty). And perhaps that was always the problem with Boardwalk – it was never the show anyone wanted it to be. HBO wanted a 1920’s-set Sopranos that would reap them awards glory and critical praise (they got splashes of both, but more out of respect than adoration), viewers wanted a high-octane gangster story with a body count to rival any Martin Scorsese picture, and critics wanted the greatest drama ever put on television, aka The Sopranos Part 2. And who could blame them? The amount of money and talent pumped into the first season was staggering, but what they got was one of the most nuanced and immaculately crafted shows in the history of television, with a lead character that defies just about every preconceived notion of what a protagonist should be. Nucky Thompson, as played by Steven Buscemi, is an enigma, going against all previous definitions of a gangster while imbedding his character with wit, self-loathing, and dangerous cunning. He is not a monster, but the product of the American Dream, personified in greed, lust, and pints of blood. We were never meant to connect to Thompson the way we connected to Tony Soprano through family and love. That made Tony palatable until he suddenly wasn’t. Thompson has always been a sly bastard out for his own self interests. And I suspect that is exactly the way he will go out.
Though by most accounts last season was the show’s best (its quality only improves every year), many people have simply stopped caring about Boardwalk Empire, which in turn has led to the decision for this 5th season to be its last. That isn’t the story you’ll hear from either Winter or HBO (and good on him for not bad-mouthing his employer, especially when he has another show in the pipeline), but the “creative” decisions made for this last season are tough pills to swallow. It starts with a jarring seven-year time jump from the end of last season, landing us into the year 1931 while skipping over great historically and narratively important events such as Arnold Rothstein’s murder, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the Atlantic City Conference. This time jump also poses some character problems, specifically relating to aging and relationships (an especially unfortunate case when referring to Margaret and Rothstein, whose sudden and unorthodox partnership was one of the juiciest tidbits sprinkled in last season). And then of course there is the short order of only eight episodes, which seems mighty restrictive on a show that’s cast of characters span several cities and even countries (welcome to Cuba, Boardwalk). But in Winter we must trust, and for Boardwalk loyalists he has yet to let us down by the end of each season, unless you are one of the “fans” still harping on about Jimmy’s death – a creative decision that breathed new life into the show and forever cemented its reputation for being heartbreakingly unpredictable.
And it certainly remains as unpredictable as ever, as this new season flashes back to 1884 during Nucky’s childhood as he is taken under the Commodore’s wing, before cutting forward in time as Nucky is desperately trying to go legitimate in sunny Havana, Cuba. Patricia Arquette’s Sally is still hanging about, using Nucky for her own ends, while Meyer Lansky is also on vacation in Cuba shadily seeking his own investments. Lucky Luciano orchestrates the murder of his boss Joe Massaria, while taking up employment with yet another Italian gangster – Salvatore Maranzano. Chalky White has found himself down and out as part of a chain gang before teaming up with a fellow inmate during an unplanned violent escape. And then there is poor Kelly MacDonald’s Margaret (a performance still woefully underappreciated), who gets to witness her boss blowing his brains out before being unceremoniously fired from her secretarial job, all due to the aftereffects of the crash of 1929. In this season premiere episode we get several childhood flashbacks, a body count of at least a dozen, one failed attempt on Nucky’s life, and lots of political talk (specifically about the repeal of the Volstead Act) to get the wheels turning. And we haven’t even checked in on Al Capone, Gillian Darmody, Nelson Van Alden, Dr. Narcisse, or Eli Thompson yet. This season is going to be chock-full of plot points which makes the flashback sequences a little worrying. With so many character’s stories to wrap-up in such a short amount of time, the decision to go back to Nucky’s start seems ill-advised. But it is important to remember that the story began with Nucky, and it will end with Nucky. He has always been the focal point even when other characters had more lurid parts to play. Winter’s approach is to make the story come full circle. We’ll see how that pans out.
The good news for fans is that this season is just as painstakingly gorgeous as the rest, and its sense of identity is still firmly in place, much to the chagrin of those who continue to wish the show was something it never intended to be. Has there ever been a more thoughtfully composed, costumed, designed and acted show on television? Director Tim Van Patten shapes the opening episode with typical expert precision, and every actor slips into the skin of their characters with ease and confidence. And after last season’s claustrophobic setting and unbearable tension threatened to choke the whole enterprise, you can breathe a sigh of relief that the show has its epic scale back again. Boardwalk Empire’s lyrical gangland approach has a beauty to it that few shows could ever hope to emulate. Terrence Winter and company have the opportunity to do something really special with this last season, and it’s clear that the long game is as important to its narrative as ever. It’s time to settle in and take the story as it comes. Welcome back to the Boardwalk.