‘Boardwalk Empire:’ Series Creator Terence Winter Explains the Powerful Finale

Terence Winter Boardwalk Empire
Jake Chessum for Variety

Score the “Boardwalk Empire” finale as one HBO mob drama where viewers won’t be debating what happened a decade later.

In fact, the eight-episode fifth season steadily built, through its flashbacks in particular, toward the show’s powerful conclusion, while wrapping up various loose ends (and leaving a few dangling) along the way.

Series creator Terence Winter, in an interview, said the producers “told exactly the story we wanted to tell,” moving at their own pace and speed. Indeed, despite the amount of plot developments jammed into the last season, Winter said he determined the number of episodes after hashing out the climactic arc with the writing staff.

“They said, ‘What do you think you need to wrap it up?’” Winter said, referring to HBO. “I didn’t feel like we left anything out.”

As for the details of that wrap-up (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), Winter said while there was some talk of having the central character survive, Nucky Thompson – a fictionalized version of Nucky Johnson, who actually died in his mid-80s – wasn’t equipped to deal with the new breed of mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

“It would have felt false to create a phony world where Nucky came out of that in any way,” he said, especially after the penultimate episode, where a humbled Nucky (played by Steve Buscemi) was forced to hand over his turf to the upstarts, literally and figuratively brought to his knees.

Nucky had obviously exhibited considerable strategic savvy in the past, including his all-out war with the crazed Gyp Rosetti, which required enlisting key allies to ward off the threat. Yet in Luciano, Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, Winter noted, “you’re going up against the heavyweight champions of organized crime.”

Of course, “Boardwalk’s” reliance on real-life characters, interacting with fictional ones, provided some curbs as to the show’s outcome. Still, Winter and company were able to provide unexpected detours even then, such as Al Capone’s tender conversation with his deaf son before going off to jail.

Winter also expressed some satisfaction in presenting what amounts to a less-Hollywood-ized portrait of how Capone was brought down on tax-evasion charges, and noted that whatever limitations might be imposed by mixing fact with fiction, “The reality helps. Some of your work is already done for you.”

Addressing the high mortality rate among key characters, Winter said the lesson was less “Crime doesn’t pay” than the reality of what a life steeped in such violence has augured.

“Historically, these guys wind up dead or in prison,” he said. “It’s very rare these guys know when to walk away.”

Still, it wasn’t the other bosses but rather Tommy Darmody, the grandson of Gillian and son of Jimmy, who ultimately killed Nucky – a “more fitting end,” Winter suggested, given Nucky’s “original act of betrayal” in handing over a young Gillian to the pedophilic whims of his boss, the Commodore.

As the flashbacks make clear, “That was the pivotal moment in his whole life, when he went down the rabbit hole,” Winter said. “It all goes to hell at that moment.”

Winter also expressed gratitude to casting director Meredith Tucker for the performers found to play younger versions of Nucky, Gillian and the Commodore, noting that Marc Pickering – the British actor who portrayed Nucky as a young adult – nailed the audition despite having to do so via Skype. (And yes, those were prosthetic teeth he wore.)

When it was suggested the entire season was, essentially, the finale – insofar as the details of Nucky’s life had to be filled in to bring his fate full circle – Winter conceded that was probably true.

“You do need all eight of those [hours] to effectively tell the story,” he said.

Winter doesn’t plan a long break before launching into his next project, but for now, he can take his own well-deserved bow. And while Nucky didn’t meet the flashiest of ends, it’s hard to accuse those HBO billboards for the final season of overstating their case with the slogan, “No One Goes Quietly.”

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  1. I want to know about Nucky’s teeth when he was a young man, how the hell did they do that?

  2. Allen Rubin says:

    The only problem I have with the ending( which is a really big problem} is that Tommy Darmody would have only been about 11 or 12 years old in 1931 since he was only about 5 in 1924, the year season 4 ended so having a boy who looked somewhere between 16 and 18 playing Tommy ruined the ending for me, knowing that it destroyed the timeline of the show. The first 4 seasons of the show was great and the audience deserved an ending that could have could have really have happened following the timeline that they established throughout the show.

    • kara says:

      I disagree. Tommy was born in 1917 after Jimmy left for the war. This makes him about 7 by 1924 and 14-15 in 1931. This is consistent with what he says when his older self is introduced in season 5 where he claims to be 15 years old. (I agree the actor looks older but the character isn’t)

  3. AMC4x4 says:

    Have to say I always enjoyed this show, and the writers were honest right until the end. Brilliant.

  4. Christie says:

    Loved every minute of the final season- Bravo! I didn’t go quietly either… Thank you Mr. Winter!!

  5. the end sucked period….. these guys today think they have to have a mind blowing end instead of something you can walk away from and say man that was great im glad he made it … not today

  6. John says:

    After five years of excellent shows the finale was a total disappointment. Without any further of development of the plot of Charles Darmody after he left with Julia and her father this ending is just pulled out of a hat as if the authors just wanted the show to be over before they went to their next assignment. The end makes a mockery of the boy’s rescue by Richard and the great relationship that developed between the war scarred and sympathetic Richard and the wonderful Julia. It also takes the multi-dimensional character Nucky and just puts three bullets in him instead of leaving him to reflect upon his guilt, his loss of empire, and the degenerate stat into which he brought himself.

  7. …if by ‘powerful finale’ you meant ‘sloppy wrap up’ then by all means.

  8. Becky says:

    Oh please. Obviously if the real Nucky this character was based on lived into his 80’s then some gangsters DID survive it all. They did in my city – some in prison and others lived to a ripe old age. Mr. Winter is just following the current belief in Hollywood that you don’t dare have a happy “Hollywood” ending lest they get blasted by the critics (think Siskel and Ebert and their review of Pretty Woman). What they should’ve had was Nucky, Chalky and Nucky’s girlfriend in Cuba living a peaceful life down there or somewhere else. Nope, that just wouldn’t go with the current belief that violent and depressing endings are the way to go. I can just see the end of Game of Thrones coming with one or no likable/deserving characters that haven’t been killed off. Then Hollywood wonders why nobody wants to go to the movies or get invested in long complicated series any more.

    And extra points to anyone who got that the kid was Jimmy’s. Even after he mumbled his name who made that connection?

  9. I am glad Margaret Thompson landed on her feet. I thought the ending could go one of 2 ways, the way it ended except I could never imagine who the shooter would have been, or Nucky wound up totally broke and back into a life of poverty.

  10. dunstan says:

    I watched every episode and was rarely, if ever, disappointed. Bravo to the writers, directors and cast and crew.

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