As I watched the series finale of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire unfold, I did so with a bottle of the Famous Grouse Whiskey. It was for three reasons I made this viewing a special occasion involving libations:
- I like this particular brand of whiskey.
- It was a way of paying homage to the series.
- To make one final toast to the lost.
I have to admit that the season and its finale certainly lived up to the tagline in the featured uppermost image. While deaths were expected, the way in which the final inevitable one was portrayed wasn’t in the least bit shocking. Although compared to the historical fact surrounding said death, the fictionalized version was eminently less boring. Most characters received their just due, call it karma or circumstance, but their resolutions carried pride along with a degree of resignation. With this being the conclusion for the series, director Tim Van Patten chose the approach of making the final season come full circle. The titles for both the season opener and the finale are tied together by gold. In addition, the final episode did not begin with the customary introductory credits after the opening recap. It’s the one episode of the series that didn’t have the familiar opening guitar twang of the Brian Jonestown Massacre as a backdrop against Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson looking at the breadth of his criminal empire. Van Patten was subtle with in reminding the audience of the outcome of last week’s episode: Nucky Thompson no longer has an empire.
The episode starts with a shot of a man’s clothing neatly folded on a beach. From behind, the man is readily identified as Nucky taking a swim in the ocean. It then switches to 1897. Deputy Sheriff Enoch Thompson approaches the Commodore and tells him that he wants the Sheriff position. The Commodore dismisses his intents with his usual condescension, even going so far as to tell Enoch that having a wife and children are distractions from being the top cop. He then seems to pay Enoch his full attention when the latter makes an implied threat about the Commodore’s shady dealings. Enoch later goes home and finds Mabel distraught from having a miscarriage. She puts on a facade to pretend that she’s fine, but Enoch is more upset than her. Moments later, Eli barges in requests his brother’s help at their parents’ home. He arrives to find his father, Ethan, drunk outside with a shotgun in hand. Ethan struck the boys’ mother to which Enoch takes legal and personal umbrage. They get into a scuffle over Enoch not telling him about Mabel’s pregnancy. With the end of both men trading blows, Enoch warns him not to touch his mother. The next day, Enoch is present (bruised and in uniform) at the Alderman’s parade on the boardwalk. He spots young Gillian Darmody as a performer in the parade and approaches her. They talk, with her questioning Enoch’s morality. He then goes to speak to the Commodore who takes his badge as the Deputy Sheriff. The Commodore reiterates his disdain for Enoch’s belief in hard work and staunch morality. Minutes later, he’s officially made the Sheriff with the Commodore looking on. With his future with the Commodore secured, he suggests to Gillian that she enroll in the Commodore’s “employment”.
In the organized crime front in Chicago, Al Capone consults with his lawyer about his options. The Capones are now aware of Mike D’Angelo’s duplicity (he’s also Irish, with the surname “Malone”) and the lawyer advises Al to turn himself in. Thinking of himself as untouchable, he merely jokes about his predicament. At home, he treats his nervous wife with the same dismissive attitude. It’s only when he’s with his deaf teenaged son that he shows his true fears and vulnerability. With both of them teary-eyed, Al admits that he’ll be going to jail. He gives his son some fatherly advice before they share a hug. On the day of the trial, he plays to the press with his exuberant public image.
In New York City, Charlie Luciano and company are in the final stages of making the Commission a reality. Luciano reminisces to when they first met Nucky Thompson and how that had him believing that they were on top. Compared to now, it was nothing. He makes it clear that he wants all of organized crime on board with his plans or else. He later tells Bugsy Siegel that he wants “two shooters in public” for some assassination job and to have it done before the “big meeting”. At first, I believed Nucky to be the target. But in Harlem, Dr. Valentin Narcisse is leaving a church while being praised by the churchgoers. He’s then gunned down by Luciano’s men in broad daylight. With the elimination of all of his rivals, Luciano meets with the top mafia dons and proposes that organized crime be run like a business, with them serving as its board of directors. With every don now an equal, the plan is to make more money together than individually.
In the present day, Joseph P. Kennedy meets with the primary shareholders of the Mayflower corporation. Mayflower’s success is dependent upon the Repeal of the Prohibition Act and the enactment of the repeal remains up in the air. Nucky’s short-selling of stock is depreciating the value of the company. Kennedy, understanding what’s happening, vows to fix the problem. He meets Margaret Rowan and tells her that he’s aware of Nucky manipulating his company’s stock through her. She’s calm and shows a shrewd understanding of the market, even as Kennedy grows increasingly agitated when he learns that his partners are getting rid of their stock. She gives Kennedy some savvy (but legal) stock advice. Together, they watch as Mayflower’s stock plummets to drastically lower numbers. Margaret waits until it’s at a low-enough price to close the short-positions in the company. Kennedy is relieved and remarks to Margaret they’re going to have a long and prosperous business relationship. Margaret later meets with Nucky to share the fruits of the stock manipulation. He made close to $2.5 Million while Margaret made close to $30K. She asks for advice in the business world, to which he relays a story from his time as the Commodore’s busboy. Evey time he received money, it increased his hunger for more. He briefly dances with her in a vacant condominium before being interrupted by a realtor showing the property to a married couple.
Afterwards, Nucky walks on the boardwalk and is approached by woman in a sideshow attraction. She tells him that she’s from the future and he watches a tele-image of her singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. He later pays a visit to his brother Eli Thompson at the latter’s request. Still disheveled and down on his luck, he listens as Nucky regales him of swimming in the ocean (the opening scene) and how he hasn’t done it in 45 years. He makes a point about swimming so far that he couldn’t turn back and how one doesn’t know about a point-of-no-return until it’s been passed. Eli tells him that June won’t see him and then Nucky says that he won’t be seeing his brother again. He leaves him a big paper bag and moves to leave. He stops himself, relents and engages Eli in a final brotherly embrace. When he leaves, Eli sees that the bag is full of banded cash and some shaving materials.
He then goes to meet Gillian Darmody one last time. He praises her survival instinct and tells her that he plans to leave Atlantic City for good. He informs her that he set up a trust fund for her, but wants no more connection beyond that. Nucky regrets the past and what he did to Gillian, but she’s to incoherent and inattentive to engage him. Dr. Cotton gave her the stomach surgery to “fix” her mental state, which means Nucky again arrived too late to truly help her. He returns to his former club one last time to collect his personal effects. He finds a postcard that Mabel sent him during childhood. He then receives a phone call from a hotel manager informing him that Joel Harper’s been causing a disturbance. Nucky bails him out, talks to him and gives him money again. Harper dismisses them money and follows Nucky to the boardwalk. He then reveals himself to be Tommy Darmody and shoots Nucky, leaving him dead in the same manner as Nucky did to his father, Jimmy Darmody, over a decade ago.
THOUGHTS: I wasn’t disappointed with the how the series ended, but comprising the final season of only eight episodes left a little more to be desired. We see the start of Enoch Thompson becoming the Sheriff and subsequently being officially under the Commordore’s wing, but anything beyond that can only be inferred from information given in previous episodes. With the flashback side-story concluded, it’s now clear to me why writers Terrence Winter and Howard Korder focused on this particular section of Nucky Thompson’s past. By introducing Gillian Darmody to the Commodore, he scarred her for life. It’s an action, as indicated in his final scene with the adult Gillian, that plagued his conscience. So in many ways, his death at the hands of Tommy Darmody was fitting and ironic. The Commodore raped Gillian Darmody when she was a teenager, resulting in the conception and eventual birth of Jimmy Darmody. Her damaged emotional state led to an incestuous relationship with Jimmy, which didn’t prevent him from having his own wife and son. The Commodore groomed Nucky to take his place one day, but when it actually happened, the Commodore still wanted to be part of the action. And the child that he bore so recklessly and carelessly eventually grew older and slew the giant that was his father. Then the son is slain by Nucky, the man he considered a father-figure. Since childhood, the Commodore’s shadow has loomed over him. Being killed by the man’s grandson completes the cipher. Also, Joel Harper being Tommy Darmody went against my own conclusions about the character. Sure, he bore an almost uncanny resemblance to Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, but the age of the character didn’t prove to me that it was Tommy until he confirmed it. Again, it was fitting for Nucky to be killed by son of the man he himself killed. After all he had been through between seasons three up until the end, he seemed to give to welcome it with resignation and some relief.
Dr. Narcisse’s ending satisfied me. Having him killed in front of several people sent a message for certain. They should’ve explored him more this season. I still would like to know what happened when he was captured and interrogated by J. Edgar Hoover in the season four finale. When introduced, Jeffrey Wright portrayed him similar to Giancarlo Esposito’s Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad: A dangerous drug dealer hiding in plain sight. In the final season, he gave the character nuances that showed that there were some chinks in his armor. The outcomes for Charlie Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone were historically accurate. Stephen Graham, although, gives Capone a humanizing moment with his family before accepting his inevitable sentence. But the former three (particularly the focus of Vincent Piazza’s Luciano) are left to prosper. With Nucky now dead, his family has a new lease on life without his name hovering over them ominously. Eli now has the money to start over, Willie may become New York’s district attorney, and Margaret’s self-sufficient by her wits. It’s interesting to note that Margaret (an Irish immigrant) learned to be shrewd and play the game via two wealthy Irish-Americans.
Gillian Darmody’s outcome reminded me of the tragic end of Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She wanted to escape this mini-institution before it chewed her up, and that’s exactly what happened. The operation on her stomach left her emotionally lobotomized. I had grown bored with her storyline this season and was glad to see it wrapped up. When she was arrested in that sting operation last season, it was good to see that she received comeuppance and I had hoped that was the last I’d see of her. Overall, I thought the series finale was satisfying. Perhaps not a riotous jaw-dropper like those of Breaking Bad or The Wire before them, but on the same level in terms of not leaving the viewer lost like Damon Lindelof. I’ve watched the series since the pilot episode aired and saw it unfold over five seasons with grit, drama, attention to detail and an astounding lack of anachronisms for a period piece. It’s given memorable quotes ingrained in mainstream pop and, being about gangsters, was eventually included as part of hip-hop music’s never-ending fascination with and adoption of fictionalized gangster motifs (Season three’s Gyp Rosetti’s “Everybody got guns!” line comes to mind).
In closing, the series has been rewarding for this viewer. There were plenty of memorable characters, the kind you root for and the ones who are flat-out detestable. Though Nucky Thompson may have been the main focus, he was never the main character. That character is liquor, always has been. That liquid gold (this episode’s title “Eldorado” has gold as one of its connotations) that most of the characters were scheming and killing each other over. If liquor could be cast in the form of a woman in this series, she’d probably laugh at all these gangsters fighting over her. Several characters managed to survive until the end, but liquor was the main one and the real winner. While I give the series finale a Grade A-, I’d like to touch off this review and the series’ conclusion with three words that I think sums up its aspirations, pays homage to one of it’s most acclaimed episodes and pays tribute to both its fallen characters and the series itself:
All images, and likenesses, appear courtesy of Home Box Office Entertainment.
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.
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