Terence Winter has professed his love for “The Sopranos” finale, but the “Boardwalk Empire” creator certainly didn’t choose to emulate his former show’s cryptic conclusion in crafting a fifth season that steadfastly built toward its final, revelatory sequences. And that’s to his and the program’s credit, as the HBO drama methodically detailed the history of its central character, Nucky Thompson, while tying up loose ends (or most of them, anyway) with a ruthless efficiency that would have made Michael Corleone proud.
Sunday’s closing hour (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) saw Nucky become the embodiment of fellow mobster Johnny Torrio’s rueful admonition that there’s little point to being the richest man in the graveyard. In that, he joined a rather lengthy roster of key players who had bitten the dust in this fast-moving final flight of episodes, to the point where in hindsight the truncated eight-episode season felt a trifle rushed.
With Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky White and Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden having already met violent ends (hell, the gambler Arnold Rothstein, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, checked out in the prolonged lapse between seasons), the question lingered as to whether Nucky (Steve Buscemi) – having shrewdly cashed out, under pressure from the rising tandem of Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) – could somehow cheat the fates and get out alive.
Still, the beautifully crafted flashbacks that ran throughout the season made clear Nucky’s statement to the tragic Gillian (Gretchen Mol) in the finale – that “The past is the past. Nobody can change it” – was true. Having sacrificed Gillian’s adolescence on the altar of his own ambition, then killed her son Jimmy (Michael Pitt, we hardly knew ye) for betraying him, Nucky finally met his maker at the hands of Gillian’s grandson, which certainly had the feeling of poetic justice and what goes around, comes around.
Written by Winter and Howard Korder and directed by fellow “Sopranos” alum Tim Van Patten, the climactic hour was thus just the closing chapter in what was really a novelized season-long finale, bearing a closer resemblance in that respect to “Breaking Bad’s” finishing arc than its spiritual predecessor.
The emphasis on who lived or died, however, could easily obscure the many splendid smaller moments that made “Boardwalk’s” capper so satisfying, from the unexpectedly tender exchange between Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and his deaf son to Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) telling Joseph Kennedy (Matt Letscher) – one of the real-life figures the show deftly wove into its fabric – “Think about the things you want in life, and then picture yourself in a dress.”
Having absorbed the entire season, the arc of the flashbacks reinforces that for all the grim business transacted elsewhere, this was steadfastly Nucky’s story, depicting the unhappy youth leading toward the choices that eventually caught up with him. And while the series made no alibis for his terrible and selfish behavior, Buscemi invested the character with enough roguish charm that it was easy to half-hope he’d get away with it, even if he didn’t really deserve to.
Beyond the core cast, it’s also hard to say enough about the remarkable performances by the two actors tasked with playing younger versions of Nucky: Nolan Lyons, the boyhood incarnation; and Marc Pickering, who managed to capture Buscemi’s mannerisms and cadence without drifting into an impersonation. To draw an obvious comparison to cinematic mob lore, Robert De Niro’s young Vito Corleone comes to mind.
“Boardwalk” always faced a delicate balancing act, since it couldn’t tamper too much with the major historical figures in its orbit – one reason why the decision to fictionalize Nucky (his alter ego, Nucky Johnson, actually died of natural causes in his 80s) was such a wise maneuver from the get-go.
Series finales have almost become as tricky a business as illegal bootlegging, and it’s rare for one to leave everybody content. Moreover, some really do need to be chewed over for a spell to fully appreciate them – or, conversely, let settle in where they went wrong.
Still, “Boardwalk’s” long-view strategy couldn’t have been executed much better, cementing its place as one of the best programs ever not to win best-series Emmy. For a franchise that carried such high expectations thanks to its high-class cast and auspices, this drama that began in the heyday of Prohibition really was good until the last bittersweet drop.