“Be honest and true, boys, whatever you do, boys, let this be your motto through life. Both now and forever, be this your endeavor when wrong with the right is at strife. The best and the truest alas are the fewest, but be one of these if you can. In duty ne’er fail, your find will avail you and bring its reward when a man…”
Last night’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire” marked the beginning of its inevitable conclusion in terms of both the story and the series. As many are aware, HBO has advertised this season as being the show’s final. While I do have mixed feelings about the end of the series, I keep in mind that the character that has been much larger than the main protagonist was the Prohibition in the United States. The series began with the start of Prohibition and how the criminals, politicians and power brokers in Atlantic City (and abroad the eastern United States) profited immensely from the enacted law. The story has moved seven years forward into 1931, after the start of the Great Depression. And with that in place, where does that leave Nucky Thompson and his business regarding all of that liquid gold in liquor?
I have to tip my hat to Tim Van Patten for his directorial prowess. The opening of the episode begins underwater with young boys swimming to catch what appear to be golden coins. The scene was shot beautifully with a degree of surrealism that left me intrigued and curious. Shortly, we learn that this scene takes place in Atlantic City during 1884. We see a younger Louis Kaestner (The Commodore, now played by John Ellison Conlee) throwing gold $1 coins into the sea from the boardwalk. The younger boys are all flocking to grab as many coins as they can. One of these boys is a young Nucky Thompson (played by Nolan Lyons). He failed to grab any for himself, but he’s attracted to the Commodore because of his power over Atlantic City and his seemingly vast disposable wealth. The scene then shifts to 1931 in Havana, Cuba. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson is reminiscing about those childhood memories while awaiting a business associate who’s several days late for a discussion. Rosanna Arquette reprises her role as Sally Wheet and jointly runs a Cuban night club establishment with Nucky. With the Stock Market crash of 1927, Nucky and Sally meet with a United States senator who runs the Senate sub-committee for foreign trade. No longer a bootlegger, Nucky wants to grease the politician to have the Prohibition Act repealed and Bacardi Rum from Cuba transported to and sold in the United States.
The 1927 crash has affected the business districts in New York City. Margaret Rowan (portrayed by Kelly MacDonald) is giving her attention to a speech made by her boss, Mr. Bennett. He begins talking about a Mickey Mouse film we saw with his wife during the weekend. He uses the film as an example of perseverance in the face of difficulty. When he assures his staff that ‘everything will turn out fine‘ in regards to the economy, he pulls out a handgun and commits suicide in full view of everyone. With rich men like Arnold Rothstein penniless and dead, Bennett’s business went the same way. He followed suit and, by doing so, proved that he wasn’t tailor-made for this line of work once it became a financial difficulty. Later, Margaret is questioned by Bennett’s boss, Mr. Connors. He asked her about a key to Bennett’s file so he can remove its contents. She lies about not knowing about a key, but later after hours, we see her pulling the key from its location and attempting to take the contents (presumably cash). Connors appears before she can open the cabinet. Quick on her feet, she tells him that she found the key.
Nucky may have exiled himself from America, but his money is still as copious as his influence. I wish I we could say the same for Chalky White (played by Michael Kenneth Williams). Now imprisoned and part of a chain-gang of all-Black prisoners complete with the standard striped prison garb, Chalky now sports a white beard and looks haggard in his fall from grace. With guards regularly abusing the prisoners as they perform hard labor, one can no doubt attest that Mr. White is not adjusting well to this new life. When an inmate riot occurs during a work routine results in death on both sides, Chalky sees this as an opportunity to escape. He keys from a dead guard and frees both himself and another inmate who had spent most of these scene attempting to make small-talk with Chalky. Both then run to parts unknown as the camera focuses on their discarded bondage.
With Arnold Rothstein now dead, his protégés Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Charlie Luciano (Vincent Piazza) are now poised to take center stage in organized crime. Both men are separate from another but still share a level of pragmatism. Meyer arrives in Cuba claiming that he’s there for a vacation, but I think he sees potential dollar signs in Nucky’s business. Meanwhile in the Bronx, Charlie has Don Masseria killed and pays tribute to current family head, Don Salvatore. From here, I deduce that this is beginning of La Cosa Nostra. The scenes getting the most prominent focus are the ones from Nucky’s childhood. He lives with his loving mother, his brother Eli, a sickly younger sister and an abusive father. Enoch (as his mother calls him) comforts his sister during the night and proclaims that the only way to get money is to ‘get there first‘. He participates in money-making schemes with his peers, but is never quick enough to get paid. When the Commodore’s hat blows in the wind, Nucky finds it as well as a $50 bill in it. Days later, after another failed attempt with his peers, he returns the hat and the money to the Commodore. There, he learns a valuable lesson: You don’t make money by being honest. But taking a shine to him for his persistence, he puts young Nucky to work anyway.
Overall, I thought the episode was a good start. It would’ve been nice to see Stephen Graham and Michael Shannon in this opener, but I reckon they’ll appear in the next upcoming episodes. I’d like to see how the Great Depression has affected their characters’ business in Chicago. Jeffrey Wright’s Valentin Narcisse needs to re-appear. As the breakout character in previous season, the concluding season now would feel incomplete without his presence. The episode’s title is made reference to in the opening underwater scene, but it also carries irony. The quote I started off this review with shares that irony given the events depicted. Honest living is a slow-track that leads to slow reward, if anything. Moving faster with no regard for others yields a faster reward. The tagline of the final season is “No One Goes Quietly“. It intimates that every character will die this season. With only seven episodes remaining, I just hope the writers don’t rush to tie up loose ends in a contrived manner. Grade: A-
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, movies, hip-hop, et. al.