One generation passeth away, another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever. Ecclesiastes 1:4
The Victorians believed that a good death was one that gave you time to prepare; a slow death was a chance to settle accounts and make amends. The fifth season of Boardwalk Empire has been just such a death: HBO gave series creator Terence Winter notice that it would be the series’ last, and many of the arcs of this truncated final run have felt like a wake, as accounts are settled and those interested in last-minute redemption attempt it. It’s also been a season even more consumed than usual with the tensions between the old generation and the new one—the passing of an age. “In the end,” warns the Commodore, “we do what we have the nerve for, or we disappear.”
In the series finale (named “Eldorado” for the sheer impossibility of it all), some look for closure, some gather to share their grief for the old ways, and others gather to move on. And as often happens to those who are grieving, in the last moments of Boardwalk Empire, the world shrinks, and almost everyone’s just concerned about themselves. The dead are never mentioned; they’ll all be reunited soon enough.
Of them all, by series’ end, Capone has risen highest. But the Revenue Service trapped him in a way no gangster ever could, and it’s all he can do to say goodbye to his son. It’s a wrenchingly honest and unselfconscious moment of connection for a character who’s risen to caricature, and the first time this season we see Capone out of his Versailles. The caricature’s back as soon as he faces the press on his way up the steps of the courthouse to face the music (dressed in angel white), but Stephen Graham leaves us with one last glimpse of Capone the man, as he sits quietly in the back of a car that might as well be a hearse, steeling himself and struggling just to breathe.
It feels odd, if fitting, that in an episode so concerned with small goodbyes, the sort of crime-boss meeting that would be a major beat in any of the early seasons feels like an afterthought here. Luciano gets his nails buffed and talks about the other bosses as if these are the old days, but in case you need a reminder this is a new age, he doesn’t bother beating around the bush: “The old way of doing things, it’s over.” And so it is. When we leave them, Luciano is introducing new ways of handling the traditional business via coalition—and eliminating everyone in their way. (Narcisse included, it seems; may Chalky stare him down in the afterlife.)
But this episode moves exponentially faster into the future, and so even Luciano’s behind the times. The newer, more ambitious bullying takes place on the stock market, courtesy of Margaret, whose $2 million haul puts her stock-market play among the biggest heists the show’s ever pulled. After several seasons of being benignly sidelined, her major moments of navigating obstacles—with Rothstein, as a working woman, or on the stock market—were seeds of a new age at which she is uniquely competent. The question, in some story we’ll never see, is whether wisdom or greed will win out, though I wonder if here there’s a sliver of hope; she bet much smaller for herself than for anyone else, and by now she knows the wisdom of walking away.
This episode, like this season, moves around Nucky in smaller and smaller circles. His farewell to Eli is a repressed goodbye and a final hug for a pair of brothers who will each be dead to the other from now on. (There’s even a suitably sticky flashback, as Eli drops the dime on Nucky for the first time, and Nucky stands off against his father, a sadly posturing attempt at the masculine gangster agita he’s always been lacking, and maybe only Eli knows he ever tried to summon.) The long slow descent into poison that characterized Nucky and Margaret’s marriage achieves that same sense of a shared secret being taken to the grave. It makes it both silent-film cheesy and terribly sad that Nucky’s final dance with Margaret pretends it’s a new beginning. Each of them already knows better. Their dance is interrupted; another family, younger and happier, stands in the threshold of the empty apartment Margaret and Nucky know they’ll never live in.
And in Nucky’s final farewell to the colleagues of his golden days (one of the most nihilistic scenes the show’s ever given us), he goes to answer Gillian’s pleading letter in person. There—in a dress that distinctly recalls the confection Mabel gave her when Gillian could still imagine that Nucky offered sanctuary—Gillian must sit and listen to Nucky proclaim just how much he refuses to save her. In this funereal frame, the flashbacks to Nucky’s past, which never illuminated as much as they were perhaps meant to, become a deathbed confession. He’s as guilty as it comes. And he’s always known it.
The show has often hinted at and slithered around the precipitating sin of Nucky handing Gillian over to the Commodore, and setting half a dozen tragedies in motion. At last, these flashbacks serve their purpose in reminding us of that wrong—and of the bone-deep moral inertia that keeps him from fighting now to make it right. It’s as appalling as anything else Nucky’s ever pulled (more now, given the differences in their power since she’s fallen so terribly far), and a dismissal made even worse by the ever-present reminders of how deliberately he once broke her trust for his own ambition.
The very last gasp-worthy twist of the show, therefore, seems roundabout but only fair—a funeral guest who shows up at the graveside to accuse the guilty. The unassuming young Joe Harper who’s been floating in the corners of Nucky’s coterie isn’t just a chance for Nucky to relive the days when he still could have walked away from the life he has now; Joe is actually Tommy Darmody, who’s been waiting for his chance to take revenge. It’s an audacious move that works just enough for the last big reveal that even Nucky can think of nothing to say in his defense, in the moment before Tommy pulls the trigger.
Whether Nucky’s death feels like a tragedy will rest heavily on how you feel about Nucky. The show, for all its reminders that Nucky is as terrible as any of the men around him, has also reminded us he’s human, and kept him at the thick of things, less a moral compass than a central absence of one. What you can’t say is that Nucky’s death is a surprise; that’s a tragedy that’s been brewing since the series’ first moments, when the very first crew that ever moved against him was on the move. That it happens when it does seems downright generous, when he’s made what peace he can and has refused to do the thing that might have saved him. The combination of a desire to be loved and a desire to escape culpability feels uniquely Nucky; he died as he lived, on the boardwalk that saw it all.
Boardwalk Empire has always been something of a mystery in the crowd of paid-cable prestige dramas. Its creative and production pedigree was unparalleled when it premiered five years ago, with a Martin Scorsese-helmed pilot that carried a $4 million budget and was studded with movie talent. It’s never suffered from a particularly large viewership, perhaps because the slow-burn pacing and occasional unevenness of some of the many meandering subplots kept Boardwalk from becoming the compulsively watchable hit HBO must have hoped for. But it’s remained a show rich in detail both aesthetic and narrative. Its returning stable of directors (familiar enough that it’s fitting Tim Van Patten turned the lights off) offered a distinctly cinematic aesthetic, and the ensemble of writers (including Winter, Howard Korder, Steve Kornacki, and Christine Chambers) handled a daunting ensemble, who from the leads to the day players were one of the most impeccable casts on TV. It wasn’t always a smooth road; many of the series’ women petered out after strong introductions, sidelined or ground under the story wheels, and this season in particular has often felt as if loose threads were getting caught in the breeze thanks to a time jump, a shortened season order, and the flashbacks that never quite paid their rent. But perhaps it’s best to leave a show with things left unsaid. The grief of life is inevitable; some of it can wait.
In its characterization and dialogue, in its shots of the lonely shore or a smoky nightclub, in the moments of dry humor or unexpected tenderness, Boardwalk Empire was an often-fascinating portrait of an age. It came and went quietly (ad campaign to the contrary), but at its best, it told one hell of a story.
Don’t think life plain sailing;
There’s danger of failing,
Though bright seem the future to be;
But honor and labor,
And truth to your neighbor,
Will bear you safe over life’s sea.
Then up and be doing,
Right only pursuing,
And take your fair part in the strife.
Be honest and true, boys,
Whatever you do, boys,
Let this be your motto through life!
- The first image of the final hour of Boardwalk Empire is the tide coming in, a callback to the series’ credit sequence as well as a tidy visual metaphor of man striving against a force far bigger than he is. The last image of Boardwalk Empire, ever, is a callback to the opening of this season, with young Nucky alone and happy under the water, grasping the coin at last.
- “What do you think it says on Cornelius Vanderbilt’s headstone?” “Something in Latin?”
- It was oddly satisfying to finally hear Nucky call money and some pat advice “the best [answer] I’ve got.”
- Almost as satisfying: “The first time I got a nickel I thought, the world is a marvelous place, but then I thought—a dime, a dime would be better.”
- The glimpse of television in this episode plays like a Lynchian dream sequence, the oncoming future as equal parts enticing and alien.
- It might be too little too late from a show that’s so often dropped the ball on promising women characters, but still, I’ll take a feminist thesis statement. “Three things are difficult to understand: The work of the bees, the movements of the tide, and the mind of a woman.” Margaret, unflappable: “Here’s an experiment for you. Think about the things you want in life, and then picture yourself in a dress.”
- I’ve enjoyed this show for five seasons now. It was a pleasure following along with Noel Murray’s recaps of the first three, and it’s been wonderful having a chance to write about it for its final two. Thanks so much to everyone for reading.