“Mrs. Thompson said you want to be good, but you don’t know how.”
So we reach the end of the tale of Nucky Thompson’s rise and fall, as the criminally under-watched and underrated Boardwalk Empire closes shop on its fifth and final season. In my review of the season five opener I predicted an overarching theme of “making an honest living for oneself in a dishonest world”, but perhaps the theme proved to be making a honest person of oneself in a world which you helped to make dishonest.
*Spoilers for season five of Boardwalk Empire incoming*
Season five took a leap forward in events of seven years to 1931, which ultimately became key to developments as the season progressed, syncing the show’s finale with key points in crime history, and allowing characters somewhat of a clean slate. We picked up with Nucky (Steve Buscemi) in Havana looking to break a deal to legally distribute Bacardi in America upon the rumoured legalisation of alcohol. Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Mayer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) meanwhile are hatching a plan to move up the ranks of the crime world, whilst Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is already there at the top.
At the other end of the scale Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) is at the centre of a tussle with the wife of the late Arnold Rothstein, Chalky (Michael K. Williams) is imprisoned in a chain gang, and Eli and Nelson (Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon) are reduced to being henchmen to Capone.
Intertwined with the events in 1931 are flashbacks to Nucky’s youth between 1884 and 1897, filling in the gaps in his past and shedding a new light on events which have already been revealed in the previous seasons. Young Nucky is played firstly by Nolan Lyons, and then secondly – portraying the more crucial aspects of Nucky’s youth – by the outstanding Marc Pickering, whose version of the character made famous by Steve Buscemi is quite uncanny. Furthermore, John Ellison Conlee as the younger version of the Commodore and Madeleine Rose Yen as the child version of Gillian both hit the proverbial nail on the head with their portrayals of already established characters in the flashback scenes, creating a great sense of continuity between the two timelines.
Continuing the proud tradition set by previous seasons of Boardwalk Empire, the costume and set design in season five are both impeccable, recreating the period wonderfully. The early form of the Boardwalk in Atlantic City with its wooden hotels contrasts with the garish clubs and extravagant buildings lining the Boardwalk in the 30’s. Typically (as is now expected of Boardwalk) the season is also beautifully and boldly shot. If there is one thing the Boardwalk Empire has done right over the years it’s its magnificent realisation of the time period, and season five is no exception to this rule.
No one goes quietly.
As seems to be customary for drama shows now, the final season of Boardwalk saw an increasingly high body count as the finale moved closer. Whilst previous deaths of lead characters in Boardwalk Empire have provided some of the more shocking moments of the series (Jimmy Darmody, anyone?), the limited length of the final season combined with the addition of the flashbacks meant that some of the ensemble left the scene slightly more abruptly – and as a result less poignantly – than we’ve has come expect from a show as meticulous in its character development as Boardwalk Empire.
Patricia Arquette’s Sally met her end as early as the midpoint of the season, gunned down by a soldier in Havana, opening the door for a potential reconciliation between Nucky and Margaret, and helping in part to set in motion Nucky’s downward spiral into reminiscence and regret.
Chalky was next to go, gunned down by Narcisse’s men having sacrificed himself for his love, Daughter. By this point Chalky unfortunately felt on the periphery, with very little screen time being set aside for his escape from imprisonment and search for Daughter, this being reflected in the fact that he didn’t make it to the grand finale. It’s a shame as Michael Kenneth Williams’ work on the show was fantastic over the years. Chalky’s story essentially ran parallel to Nucky’s over the course of the season, only meeting briefly and perhaps signifying that his character had become expendable in the long run.
As for Nelson, his well established short fuse led him to a sticky end upon his attempted murder of Al Capone. After playing a key role in the first season of Boardwalk, Nelson had been utilised less and less, and sadly he neither reached the heights of his relevance in the early days of the show, nor circled back round to Nucky. His final meltdown was certainly entertaining though – after bumbling from bad situation to bad situation he reached the end of the road at the hands of an undercover federal agent, having previously been a staunch enforcer of the law himself.
The most touching goodbye was reserved for Stephen Graham’s Al Capone, who destined to be sent down for tax evasion bids farewell to his son in a deeply moving scene. Graham’s performance as Capone has been a revelation, and his final goodbye to his son harking back to moments between the pair in previous seasons is a tear jerker.
And then there is Nucky….
Struggling to live with the choices he has made in life Nucky finds himself in a reminiscent mood, looking back on key points of his youth and crucially on his relationship with the Commodore and Gillian Darmody.
“The first time I got a nickel tip, I thought the world is great. . . . But a dime would be better. Then I wanted a quarter.”
Having been raised in poverty by an abusive father, Nucky strived to better himself, determined to provide for his family and make his mark on the world. But as young Gillian put it in the the final series of flashbacks, he just does’t know how to be good. In a move to further his own career, he uses his power and the the trust Gillian has put in him to convince her to meet with the Commodore, setting in motion a chain of events which would lead to his downfall.
This is Nucky’s single most despicable act, and although we know the events are already set in stone, the scene between Nucky and Gillian in which he makes his decision to chase money over what is right is excruciating to watch. In one fell swoop, he dooms three generations of a family, and eventually himself. Thirteen year old Gillian births the Commodore’s child Jimmy, who is killed by Nucky, sending Gillian spiralling into madness. Gillian is hauled to the “madhouse”, leaving Jimmy’s son Tommy with no family. Seven years on, Tommy confronts Nucky on the Boardwalk and kills him in cold blood.
“I heard Mee-Maw talk about you, and I couldn’t tell if it was with love or with hate.”
Under the guise of Joe Harper, Tommy had worked his was into Nucky’s employ, patiently observing and judging him. What he found was a repentant Nucky, but someone who all the same put the value of the dollar over that of true kindness. Joe/Tommy was the most clever deceit to come out of the seven year jump forward in time, providing a genuinely surprising, and fitting end to Nucky’s tale. Nucky’s demise was deserved, but bittersweet.
Though there was a great deal to like about the final season of Boardwalk Empire, it was not without its flaws – namely an over eagerness to kill off a long list of characters, and issues with pacing. The jump forward to 1931 meant that precious time had to be spent reacquainting with the large cast of characters in their new surroundings, leaving the juggling act of wrapping up numerous plot threads left to a handful of episodes, meaning the methodical pacing of the first four seasons was somewhat lost. Where the initial half of the season lacked urgency, the latter half picked up dramatically as the the events of each episode built towards the climax – with the penultimate episode being the season’s highlight (R.I.P. Mickey – you should have kept your mouth closed).
In amongst the bloodshed, there was suggestion of happy(ish) endings for a handful of the main characters, in Margaret who found herself a partner to play the markets with (if anyone was coming out alive it was sure to be her), and Eli, who despite having lost most everything is free to step out of the long shadow his elder brother cast, with Nucky providing him with the tools to do so. The happiest ending of all of is reserved for the antagonistic duo of Lucky Luciano and Mayer Lansky who triumphed over Nucky (and everyone else) to rise to the top of the their new empire, The Commission.
At the close, the season and show came full circle, ending on a shot of Nucky as a child reaching for a coin, just as the season began and just as we saw Nucky do in spite of what is right throughout his adult life. “My circumstances have changed. There are things I won’t do anymore. You understand that don’t you?” asked Nucky of Margaret. In the end he may have learnt his lessons, but it proved to be too little too late.
All empires end.
Poignant, bittersweet, and moving, the end of Nucky Thompson’s empire provided a fitting finale for one of HBO’s finest creations.
Rating (out of 5):