TV Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Finale Good To the Last Drop (SPOILERS)

Emmy Award Nominations: 10 Things the
Courtesy of HBO

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.

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  1. mmmmkultra says:

    On Devil’s Food, 1919

    Ask those Black Sox
    those ballplayers if Arnold Rothstein’s lips smacked of milk sweat
    drunk on devil’s food when the fix was in. Luciano
    in the upstairs lavatory, hamming it up in the abattoir,
    turncoat henchmen boil down the bathtub
    in a hiss of lye
    while Lucky sits as if poolside
    by poppy plants.

    Job openings
    like staph infections
    from Five Points to Red Hook.
    Ask those Bowery Boys. Otherwise
    just hard jobs, hardly jobs
    so boy-gangsters, Irish boys, Jewish and Italian boys
    pocket day-glo green apples from side-street fruit stands—
    hooligan’s parade of produce shivering garland
    across Manhattan projects.

    Across the alleys
    string bridges stretched from tenement windows
    better fitted to dripping laundry’s lukewarm gruel
    than snapping suicides back at cataract’s soggy parchment
    ballooning the sky.

    But years pass
    and once lawful little quakes
    swallow apartment blocks from front stoops, flesh-made
    cake figurines cleft staircases, stand on deck,
    pinstriped sleeves shoved up machine guns—
    Chicago Organ Grinders and New York Street Sweepers,
    draining numbers of men
    into sums of zero
    behind five and dimes and mint green soda parlors,
    portioning fathers into moist corpse cake
    delivered to the Missus whole carcass, but sometimes
    just choice cuts.

  2. Victor Kwon says:

    Cheers to the cast and crew of Boardwalk Empire, and to HBO for making what is now the two best shows never to win a series Emmy – the other, IMHO, was The Wire. The one word that always comes to mind when I think of it is exquisite. Every detail of the show was exquisite, especially the set and costumes. Beautifully acted, and the story line -sometimes arguably to the show’s detriment- prevented any viewer from being lazy.

    I wish it could have lasted for several more seasons.

  3. Bravo to HBO and the cast for providing us with a magnificent show. I agree with your opinion that this show was Emmy-worthy. Thanks for writing a great article.

  4. ruxpin says:

    I think it sucks it over they could have gone on for a few more years

  5. Kathy Cheer says:

    Adieu, to the marvelous cast and imaginative, talented crew for the Wonder known as “Boardwalk Empire”. I would have preferred a finale similar to that of the original “Moulin Rouge” in which the characters in Lautrec’s paintings floated before his dying eyes. To the talented Mr. Buscemi whom I’ve watched in so many movies, I say “wundebar!”

  6. Maureen McCole says:

    Agree 100% that Boardwalk Empire is one of the top three HBO series of all time. Do not want to say goodbye to all those brilliantly played characters.

    I also felt the final episodes were a bit rushed and that actor Marc Pickering was sensational as the younger Nucky.

    My only question is did the Lucky gang plant Tommy Darmody into Nucky’s employ to gather info or did he come on his own to avenge his Dad’s death and Grandmother’s plight?

    I also sensed that after Tommy shot Nucky, he seemed grief-stricken and was extending his hands to touch Nucky’s gesture. My gut tells me that Tommy truly liked Nucky and really felt bad about killing him. Too much ambition wreaks havoc on one’s soul in the end.

    RIP, Nucky Thompson. We will miss you, but hope that we learn from your character.

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