After four years and five seasons, HBO’s 1920s-1930s drama Boardwalk Empire is coming to an end on Sunday. The show, which followed Atlantic City Treasurer Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) as he navigated the underground politics of prohibition, has been a staple of HBO programming since it premiered in 2010. Created by Terence Winter and featuring episodes directed by Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk had everything you would expect from an HBO hit: violence, sex and period fashion that could make anyone drool. But now it’s time to say good-bye to Nucky, his enemies and his associates, as the curtain closes on Boardwalk Empire.
This season—the fifth for the series—has asked one big question: Can Nucky get out of the game before the dirty business of bootlegging does him in? The show has managed to drag every character down to Hell, whether through a violent death on a road in Cuba or extortion at the hands of a dead crime boss’s widow. Characters have been killed, fortunes have been turned to ill, and all of it has been laced with flashbacks to Nucky’s deeply depressing childhood. With the final episode before us, that one big question remains unanswered. Will Nucky be another fatality of a cruel and cutthroat world, or will our anti-hero be let go by the machine? If we’re being honest, I’m not sure which is more likely.
There is a lot viewers will miss about Boardwalk, but perhaps nothing has me more preemptively nostalgic than losing Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, a character based on real-life Atlantic City politician Enoch Johnson. The role was a vast departure from Buscemi’s former supporting roles in films like “The Big Lebowski” and various Adam Sandler smut. As the complicated and authoritative Thompson, Buscemi went from “that one guy” to a leading man, carrying the show through rough patches with perfect timing and gravity. By turns humorous and jarringly terrifying, Buscemi’s Thompson was a strong backbone for the rest of the cast.
Speaking of the cast, Boardwalk Empire mastered the art of weaving historical icons and fictional characters together into a cohesive picture of dramatized history. Big names like Al Capone (Stephen Graham), first introduced as a young man at the bottom of the power pyramid, and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) gave the story an air of legitimacy, while placing them firmly in Nucky’s story. Chalky “I Ain’t Building No Bookcase” White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Margaret “Is That Irish For Bitch” Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) brought race, women and immigrant subplots into the story without feeling heavy-handed, giving a small window into issues that would have been difficult to explore given Nucky’s being a wealthy, white man.
That’s not to say the show was flawless when it came to how it handled history. Women in the show are largely defined by their relationship to men, be it as entertainment or romantic interests. Margaret, who is introduced as a meek and abused wife and mother, gains some agency but only after marrying Nucky. Gillian Darmody, played by Gretchen Mol, was raped and gave birth as a teen, and through her son remains a small part of the Atlantic City power structure. Had she not given birth to a son, it’s impossible to imagine she would have had any claim to power. Meanwhile, race was largely seen only through Chalky, and while topics like the KKK are lightly covered, the Atlantic City where Boardwalk takes place seems to be almost free of widespread ingrained societal racism.
Yes, there were seasons that fell flat. Season Four struggled to compete with the frenetic and climactic Season Three, which featured the terrifyingly psychotic Gyp Rosetti and an all-out war in the streets of Atlantic City. Season Four made clear that it was time Boardwalk wrap it up, and the decision to jump forward for Season Five was a great way to infuse some vitality into the show. There’s only so many times you can watch Nucky cutting deals with shady dudes in back rooms before it gets old. And the puzzle-like quality to the season, which slowly puts together the story of where everyone has been in the interim years, definitely drew the viewer in.
The style, music, and random moments of humor in an otherwise dark landscape of grotesque murder and drunken sexism was on point throughout. The show brought Prohibition to life vividly, with a cast of memorable characters. Eddie, the beloved and loyal German butler/driver/personal assistant. Richard Harrow, the war veteran turned assassin. Lucy, the ex-lover turned single mother turned random runaway who may or may not have made it in New York City. Nelson van Alden, the once-religious fanatic Bureau agent who went to a life of crime after his Swedish nanny straight up murdered a dude in their kitchen. All of them made my Sundays a little brighter … or, rather darker depending on whether or not van Alden was murdering people with irons.
Boardwalk, you will be missed immensely. And a word to the show that will soon be taking the autumn Sunday night timeslot, you have some serious booze soaked shoes to fill.
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