Boardwalk Empire comes to its tragic, inevitable, but beautifully constructed conclusion.
Defiant to the last, Boardwalk Empire’s final season went out its own way. The show’s signature slow burn storytelling remained firmly in place despite a truncated eight episode season; some characters received a well-earned pardon while many more met violent ends regardless of their allegiances, and the walking enigma that is Nucky Thompson remained the central focus despite more exciting developments happening outside of his direct narrative. The fifth season’s use of Nucky’s childhood flashbacks seemed at odds with the present-day happenings early on, especially since most of what was being depicted was information already given to the audience verbally in previous seasons. But finally seeing these moments gave crucial insight into the good man that Enoch was, and the single event that changed him into the hardened gangster that headlined the series. Nucky’s faux adopted son/rival Jimmy may have died back in Season 2, but his presence was felt throughout the show’s entirety. After last night’s finale it is clear why. Boardwalk Empire was always about Jimmy Darmody – Nucky’s original sin.
Anyone who thought last night’s finale wouldn’t end in tragedy was delusional. Enoch Thompson may be based on a real historical figure who lived well into his 70s, but showrunner Terrence Winter has always played fast and loose with the historical events surrounding his life. Not so much with the other real life gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, whose fall (the former) and rise to power (the latter) are presented fairly accurately by the show’s end. When the moment arrives when Jimmy’s son Tommy Darmody reveals himself to his father’s former mentor and puts three metal slugs in him, it feels like poetic justice. It is because of Nucky that the Darmodys’ lives were filled with despair – a once hopeful family torn apart by sexual abuse, violence, opportunism, and, ultimately, death. It all started with Nucky making the decision that his career was more important than the wellbeing of a thirteen-year-old girl, as he turned Gillian (Jimmy’s mother) over to the sexual predator known as the Commodore. It is during this repulsive act that Nucky makes a promise he will never be able to keep as he tells Gillian “I will always take care of you.” Those are the words that eventually destroy Thompson, as he is directly responsible for her son Jimmy’s birth and death (by his own hand) and Gillian’s total psychotic break, which leaves her grandson Tommy tormented by an inescapable past. Many fans may have predicted that the young man named Joe Harper weaseling his way into Nucky’s crumbling empire was actually Tommy Darmody, but that didn’t lessen the impact of his reveal and final act. The intercutting between the Gillian flashback and Nucky’s death was beautiful in execution. And that shot of Nucky lying dead on the Boardwalk with a bullet through his cheek (closely resembling Jimmy’s death) was possibly the most arresting image in the show’s history.
Boardwalk Empire dealt with many farewells in its final episodes – some violent, others quietly devastating. Nucky and Margaret’s last dance in the El Dorado hotel is filled with nostalgia, and goodbyes go unspoken. And Margaret’s admittance that their doomed relationship was as much her fault as his was quietly touching – “All you did was offer. I was the one who took.” Nelson Van Alden got to reclaim his title as a prohibition agent for a brief moment before being shot in the back of the head by another undercover agent entrenched in the Capone Empire — a fitting end for a character lost at sea for quite a few seasons. His buddy act with the disgraced Eli Thompson was one of the comedic highlights of the final episodes. Speaking of Eli: his family may have disowned him after his extramarital affair with Van Alden’s wife, but Nucky gives him another chance at life by leaving him a paper bag filled with stock winnings. How Eli managed to survive the length of this show is still perplexing given all of his numerous betrayals. Chalky got to do right by Daughter, offering her a future out from under Dr. Narcisse’s thumb, before being killed in an alley by Narcisse’s cronies. And Narcisse himself meets an undignified end as he is murdered in the streets by Luciano’s newly formed five family mafia organization. And then, of course, there is Gillian, who begs Nucky to rescue her from her nightmare of confinement in an insane asylum. By the time he arrives and makes clear he has no intention of rescuing her, the damage is already done. Nucky isn’t seeking redemption for his past crimes. There is no rescuing either one of them.
The most emotional moment of the finale doesn’t actually involve Nucky at all, but calls back to Jimmy Darmody nonetheless. Before handing himself into the authorities for tax evasion, Al Capone shares a tearful goodbye with his deaf son. Capone may have been a boisterous monster, but he loved his family and all that he did was for them. The scene serves as a reminder that these men didn’t want to be murderers and crooks – they did what they did for a better life. They were chasing the American Dream just like the rest of us, but the road they took could only lead to tragedy. Capone gets to say the goodbye to his son that Jimmy was robbed of with Tommy. Perhaps if he had, Tommy wouldn’t have gone down the same destructive path as his father. Men are not born monsters. They are made.
The show’s fitting final image is a young Nucky Thompson swimming in the Atlantic Ocean chasing the Commodore’s coin. And that was his downfall. Nucky always wanted more, until his reach exceeded his grasp. A bullet was always waiting for Nucky in the end. And so, Boardwalk Empire comes to a melancholy close. It is a show that stuck to its guns no matter the frustration of its audience. Terrence Winter and company have crafted one of the most fully realized portraits of the destruction of the American dream ever conceived, and they did it on their own terms. This last season may have been shorter than the others, and the time jump may have been disconcerting at first, but they stuck the landing and provided an defining finale for such a complex portrait. Boardwalk Empire has been more admired than loved since its premiere, but history will be kinder to this show than many realize. Its complete picture is so much greater than the sum of its parts. But hasn’t that always been the case?
All you gotta worry about is when you run out of booze, you run out of company. And the only person left to judge you is you.
– James Darmody