‘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.”