After five seasons and eleven years of history, it's probably appropriate the Nucky Thompson's empire on the boardwalk vanishes as quickly as it does, but that doesn't make it any more satisfying. Hardly any talk of behind the scenes power struggles preceded this final season, but this truncated conclusion (this run is 8 episodes instead of the usual 12) still feels like a compromise. It's a shame, because what makes it to the screen is as strong as anything Boardwalk Empire has shown us before; cinematic, sad, and just the tiniest bit wistful for a brief, odd period in our past. But more than that, it marshalls its numerous storylines and characters back around to where we first began, suggesting that a show that was frequently accused of being little more than an opportunity to hang out in TV's most beautiful dollhouse actually knew what it was doing all this time.
The year is 1933, and it's 1884. Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is preparing for the end of Prohibition in Cuba, and he's first learning how to work the Boardwalk. The sweet taste of graft has grown bitter to him, and it has just intoxicated him for the first time. The series' allusions to The Godfather have never been subtle, but the final season of Boardwalk evokes Part II in full, juxtaposing the past and future of a criminal enterprise. It is a largely successful device that sees a young Nucky fighting with his father, looking out for his brother Eli, and coming under the wing of the Commodore, the man who would build Atlantic City into a Sodom by the sea. We have, of course, seen the multitude of ethical disasters that connect these two figures, but seeing them together helps to remind us that Thompson does have some sort of human center, and that when he starts mouthing platitudes about leaving the game behind, he actually has some idea of what he's searching for.
But, as is to be expected, the world has other ideas. By jumping six years into the future, Empire skips over several important events (the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the death of Arnold Rothstein), but it brings us to a very natural conclusion: the end of Prohibition and the rise of the Mafia, an organization whose power and capacity for violence makes Thompson's appear pitiful in comparison. The example of the clean-living Joseph P. Kennedy (when placed next to Thompson, at least) and the reappearance of Margaret provide ample reason for him to want to go legitimate, but escaping the wrath of Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel more than seals the deal.
Factor in the curtain calls for Chalky (Michael K. Williams), Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), and Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), and this is easily more ground than Boardwalk has ever covered in a single season, in fewer episodes than it's ever had in a season before. In many instances, the accelerated pace works in the show's favor, forcing it to reach climaxes more aggressively and to pare down some of the indulgences that its massive budget have afforded it. But at the same time, important events are glossed over (particularly in the last few episodes, where the major show downs take place) or omitted entirely (those of you who remember what ultimately happened to his wife will be waiting for a shoe that never drops). It is a consistently engaging series that never quite congeals into a fully satisfying narrative.
Which, in a way, describes the whole of the show. Back when Boardwalk Empire premiered, it had a pedigree that all but promised to make it the most ambitious series ever produced for television (and the money behind it to back that claim). Over time, as more and more programs credibly vied for the crown that seemed Scorsese's to lose, that luster started to fade, but the show continued to deliver enough star power to justify sticking with it. Whether the scope was simply too big (as the jump in chronology would seem to suggest), or Buscemi's Thompson wasn't the gravitational force that people expected him to be, the show never truly settled on a hook, or even a grand theme (though it cycled through a number of them over the years). Four seasons in, the possibilities still seemed endless, but largely because there was still precious little structure to fence it in.
To some extent, this final stretch seems to recognize that, and does what it can to refocus the series on the weird, broken family formed by the Thompsons and the Darmodys, and how strong the bond between them is (regardless of how many of them kill each other). Gillian has always been one of Boardwalk's strongest characters, and her background with Nucky provided a solid, if revolting, origin story that neither Thompson nor the show could ever put in the past. What happens in the climax feels like confirmation that, for everything else that was going on, this has always been a show primarily about familial bonds, and how they both strengthen and doom you against a predatory world. Everyone who's ever walked this boardwalk is in someone's crosshairs; most of them are just lucky if their brothers and sisters get them first, in the hope that their death might mean something.
Boardwalk Empire was never going to be The Sopranos, and it was probably foolish to ever want it to be. It was always darker, weirder, and more ornate; its world was alien where Sopranos was familiar. Taken in sum totality, it feels as if Terrence Winter was exploring it just as we were, hesitant to come to any drastic conclusions about what he saw before it was absolutely necessary. This made it always exciting, but somewhat lacking in nourishment. It was the only great show about which you could say mostly bad things. It was, seemingly a constant war for the soul between the eccentrics (Van Alden, Harrow, the Darmody clan) and the real-life gangsters (Rothstein, Luciano, Capone). It was hard to pick a favorite, but that final lip service is given to the weirdos suggests a much more bizarre series that never really could have been, but is intriguing nonetheless.
As comprehensive mob history, Boardwalk sets the gold standard, though could be bested. As a portrait of the Prohibition era, it is without equal (at least on television). As dramatic television, it was among the best of the past few years. It succeeded at most of the things it gamed at, but its near fatal flaw was that it tried just so many things that it couldn't possibly succeed at all of them. In the future, someone will likely pick up where it left off and finish the work that it started, but until then, Boardwalk Empire will stand as a monument to possibilities imagined rather than ones realized.
There are audio commentaries for the episodes "Golden Days for Boys and Girls", "Cuanto", "Friendless Child", and "Eldorado", as well as eight location scouting documentaries.
"Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season" is on sale January 13, 2015 and is not rated. Crime. Directed by Allen Coulter, Ed Bianchi, Jake Paltrow, Jeremy Podeswa, Tim Van Patten. Written by Howard Korder, Terrence Winter, Christine Chambers, Steve Kornacki, Riccardo DiLoreto. Starring Anatol Yusef, Ben Rosenfeld, Boris Mcgiver, Domenick Lombardozzi, Greg Antonacci, Gretchen Mol, Ivo Nandi, Jeffrey Wright, John Ellison Conlee, Kelly MacDonald, Marc Pickering, Matt Letscher, Michael K Williams, Michael Shannon, Michael Zegen, Nolan Lyons, Oakes Fegley, Patricia Arquette, Paul Calderon, Paul Sparks, Shea Whigham, Stephen Graham, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Piazza.