The series finale of Boardwalk Empire was broadcast last Sunday, and I’m still reeling from its near-perfection.
As I mentioned in my post last year about the Season 4 finale, this show has never been a critic’s darling, or a pop culture phenomenon like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. I also mentioned last year that it stood apart from other anti-hero television series because its anti-hero was one of the least interesting characters in the story.
What a difference a year makes.
With the death of fan-favorite character Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) in the Season 4 finale, it was a neat question how the show would pull fans in for the final eight episodes. It did it by finally focusing on the one character that had been almost neglected, even though he is the star of the show: Nucky (Steve Buscemi). Within all these episodes, there are flashbacks to Nucky’s impoverished childhood and ambitious young adulthood.
What’s so fascinating about these flashbacks is we already knew almost every plot point revealed: Nucky growing up in a home with a drunken, abusive father. His marriage to a woman named Mabel, who committed suicide after the death of their only child. His association with the Commodore and the fact that Nucky was the one who pimped out 12 year old Gillian Darmody to him, resulting in the birth of Jimmy Darmody.
Plus one intriguing and revealing unknown fact: he worked as a deputy sheriff as a young man.
This is a beautiful example of how showing can be so much more powerful than telling.
(I have to give major props to the casting people for the actors chosen for the flashbacks, all of them so on point–ESPECIALLY Marc Pickering, a young man with an eerie resemblance to Steve Buscemi who also happens to be a fine actor.)
The show began its final season by skipping ahead seven years since the previous season to 1931, on the cusp of Repeal of Prohibition. In the meantime, Nucky and his lover Sally (Patricia Arquette) established themselves in Cuba and are seen trying to make a deal with Bacardi from the moment repeal is implemented. Unfortunately for Sally, she gets caught up in Cuban political turmoil and is shot to death.
In fact, several characters bite the dust over the final episodes, falling one after the other like dominoes. Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is finally found by the Feds, who press him and Nucky’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham) into service to set up Al Capone (Stephen Graham) for a downfall.
When Eli and Van Alden try to steal Capone’s books, they are easily found out by Capone’s brother. At the last moment Van Alden admits he was a Fed and gets his brains blown out by an undercover Fed for his trouble. The act that began his ruin–killing his own partner–is mirrored in his death. Somehow, Eli survives the encounter.
(Did you ever think Eli was the “most likely to survive” character of the series? Me neither. He has more lives than he has kids.)
Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) escapes from a chain gang and hunts down Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) for a bit of long-delayed revenge. Instead, he finds his erstwhile lover Daughter (Margot Bingham)–and her little girl, who seems just the right age to be Chalky’s child. He makes a bargain with Narcisse to leave Daughter alone so she can pursue her singing career. He knows the bargain means Narcisse will kill him–which he does. During his last moments of life, Chalky reveals he is the show’s one true romantic, happy to die for the woman he loves. Or perhaps he’s just tired of living with the crushing guilt over his daughter Maybelle’s death.
Narcisse, who is warned by Chalky just before his death that any belief he is free of the white syndicate is an illusion, is shot and killed a short time later. Deluded to the end, he perhaps could have survived the encounter if he had stayed down and played dead. Instead, he tries to stand up and his assassins finish him off.
The non-fictional characters’ fates mostly mirror historical fact. Capone is arrested on tax evasion charges. Charlie Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) take over the syndicate, bringing organized crime into the modern age. The green kids from earlier seasons are all grown up and ready to sweep away the elders who have been standing in their way. Jimmy Darmody’s mistake was a lack of patience.
Nucky’s ex Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) is in trouble in the beginning, with her benefactor Arnold Rothstein gone and his wife squeezing her for money she believes Margaret owes her. She appeals to Nucky for help, resulting, not in reconciliation, but a better understanding between the former husband and wife.
Like Eli, Margaret is one of the few characters who manages to survive and even thrive. In a stock manipulation scheme with Nucky, she makes him a fortune (also for Joe Kennedy–yes, THAT Joe Kennedy, who has dealings with Nucky). After years of depending on men to keep her, Margaret finally emerges as a savvy business woman who can take care of herself. Unlike the other characters who gamble everything on one throw, Margaret makes only a modest sum for herself in the stock scheme. The impression is she will stay comfortable if not rich for the rest of her life, while others chase huge fortunes that quickly slip through their fingers. She is ruthless but not stupid.
As for Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), after her arrest at the end of Season 4 for the murder of the young man she tried to pass off as her son’s dead body, she somehow finagled her way into a mental hospital. In a classic case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire, the doctor in charge is a raging misogynist who operates on his female patients, removing organs as if that can remove what bothers him about them. Gillian begins begging Nucky for help. In spite of Gillian’s many evil deeds, there’s an aching poignancy to her despair.
With the filled in context of her earliest relationship with Nucky, it plays out as even more devastating. She was a runaway orphan living under the boardwalk when Deputy Thompson caught her stealing. Taking her home to his wife in an initial act of kindness, he soon regrets being responsible for her fate. His wife Mabel wants to save her somehow. In the end, he causes her downfall for his own gain.
In 1931, once again Nucky fails Gillian. Once again, he acts resentful of being reminded of the crime(s) he has committed against her. He promises her if she can find a way out of the institution she will be taken care of, but it’s clear Gillian is never leaving.
It’s Nucky’s original sin that commands center stage during the last episode. Taken under the wing of the local Atlantic City sheriff as a boy and loved by a good woman as a young man, Nucky had the chance to live a respectable life. But the hunger in him wouldn’t let him be satisfied with doing better than his father, and hoping his children would one day do better than him.
We see more echoes of Jimmy Darmody’s declaration in Season 1 that “you can’t be half a gangster.” In a flashback, Gillian tells Nucky that his wife told her he doesn’t know how to be a good person. Actually, I think it’s more accurate to say he doesn’t know how to entirely commit to being a truly good or a truly bad person. Young adult Nucky says to the Commodore, “I’m who I need to be.” The Commodore replies, “How does that make you anyone at all?”
In 1931, he tries to one-up Luciano and Lansky by kidnapping their partner Bugsy Siegel. They retaliate by kidnapping Nucky’s nephew Willie. Nucky folds like a cheap suit, handing over everything he has to the new syndicate. Maybe for the only time, he comes through for one of his many surrogate children.
It seemed over the second half of the season that he had found another potential surrogate son–a young boy who worked for him named Joe. Theories started flying across the internet almost immediately that he was really Tommy Darmody (though he seemed too old). Turned out, the theories were correct.
Intercut with the flashback where Nucky is manipulated by the Commodore into offering up 12 year old Gillian to him, Joe (Tommy) guns Nucky down. He shoots him in the exact spot in the face where Nucky shot his father Jimmy.
I can only imagine his parents Jimmy and Angela and his foster father Richard Harrow weeping in their graves. They all wanted to protect Tommy. But the train of fate that started the moment young Nucky took young Gillian’s hand and promised always to look after her couldn’t be stopped. Three generations of one family ruined by one man’s ambition.
Characters are truly defined by the choices they make, not the words they say.
The final shot of the series is of young Nucky in the ocean, reaching out to grab one of the coins thrown off the boardwalk by rich dandies. In a scene showing this ritual in the first episode of the season, Nucky can never catch one. In this last image, he finally catches the coin.
The empire built by Nucky was elusive, transitory. Like the huge fortunes lost in the crash of 1929, it was more a state of mind than an actual fact.
If only the boy had really grabbed the gold coin, perhaps he wouldn’t have spent his whole life trying to grab the gold ring.