I am watching in horrified astonishment and disappointment as the final season of HBO’s multi-award-winning historical crime drama Boardwalk Empire flails in the deepest end of the ocean. Originally the story of a New Jersey politician, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) attempting to keep his businesses afloat during Prohibition by becoming a rum-runner, the show has become detached from its original moorings and is sinking faster than the Titanic. I fear it will leave no survivors.
The first two seasons concentrated on the relationship between Nucky and his protegé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), whom the former considered as a son. Alas, Jimmy considered Nucky as competition and wanted to be just like him. It was a marvelous concept that pitted local Atlantic City rum-runners and wannabe ganstas against the Cosa Nostra, complete with Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). It was riveting writing, brilliant acting, and the show deserved every award it won.
In addition to the illegal activity of smuggling alcohol into his nightclubs and casinos, and making it available to his “clients”, Nucky had several relationships, with many very attractive women. Some were showgirls as well as Nucky’s girlfriends, like Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), who really put on a show, and one of those showgirls was Jimmy Darmody’s mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Some were ladies, like Jimmy’s wife Angela (Alleska Palladino), and Irish immigrant widow Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), whom Nucky eventually married. All were important to the story and were much more than window-dressing, as evidenced by their own nominations and wins for their performances.
And then, at the end of season 2, I believe, Nucky killed his belovèd protegé-son Jimmy for betraying him. The next season, Boardwalk Empire began to drift aimlessly and to collapse under its own ponderous weight.
Prohibition agents became gangsters, the women in the show disappeared for so many episodes that they were forgotten, previously minor characters had their stories expanded to the point that Nucky — the protagonist of the series — was often only in an episode for a few minutes at a time. Characters simply vanished without explanation (beyond the obvious one that the actors wanted to work on other projects). It was confusing and sad. A once excellent show sagged, cracked, began to take on water.
Still, I watched. I kept hoping that it would return to its former brilliance.
Then, this summer, the ads began appearing announcing that this would be the final season of Boardwalk Empire. The final season’s official trailer made it seem exciting, dangerous, and thrilling — like the early seasons had been. Its catch-phrase: No One Goes Quietly.
I expected that Nucky’s illegal activities, betrayals, and “sleeping with the gangsters” would leave him “sleeping with the fishes” as the historical gangsters, mentioned above, took over all the illegal action in the show: booze, drugs, gambling, prostitution.
Imagine my horror and confusion, then, when I couldn’t understand anything that was happening in the final season’s premiere. The scenes cut so quickly — sometimes only a minute or two apart — and included so many people, locales, and different time periods that I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the show. Someone in the show mentioned that six years had supposedly passed — since the end of the last season and the start of this — but why six years had passed was not made clear. Nor was it apparent what had happened to the characters during those years.
When the premiere episode was over, my boyfriend looked over at me and said, “Did you understand any of that?” No, no, I did not. And I still don’t.
Boardwalk Empire, once one of the most innovative and daring series on television, has become a hodge-podge collection of characters you thought you knew but don’t recognize any longer, doing things for no apparent reason whatsoever. The historical characters are so jumbled around with their nefarious comings and goings that I’m not sure what nefarious activities they’re performing any longer (except for when Lucky Luciano killed one Capo and later pledged allegiance to another, who’s never been in the show before). Rothstein got killed during the summer break, or just died — I don’t know which; Torrio retired rather than be killed by Capone; Luciano and Lansky are planning something against Nucky, but I’m not sure why, or even what it is besides murder; and Al Capone has been reduced to dancing around in his undershorts while supposedly being fitted for a suit.
Two female characters who basically departed the show a couple seasons ago — Nucky’s wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), and his once-formidable nemesis Gillian (Gretchen Mol), Darmody’s mother, who’s in a mental institution for murder — have returned, though I have no idea why. I don’t think anyone else does either, including the actors and the characters themselves. Black mobster and friend of Nucky’s, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) is on a chain-gang for some reason and does nothing but scowl through every scene, his lower lip pushed out like he’s an unhappy 5-year-old.
The majority of the show during this final season is devoted to — of all things — Nucky’s childhood.
Why on earth would I want to see extended scenes of Nucky’s childhood during the final episode of an historical crime drama? Especially when they don’t make any sense whatsoever and are boring in the extreme.
And if Nucky is “remembering” his childhood in preparation for his demise at the end of the season — a metaphorical “life passing before his eyes” sort of thing — that is certainly not being made clear.
Nothing seems connected. Characters ramble and roam aimlessly. They talk about things that make no sense. They kill other characters we don’t recognize and for no apparent reason. Nucky’s trying to make deals to legally sell liquor in anticipation of the day when Prohibition is repealed, but is still dealing with bootleggers, especially a new-money Bostoner named Kennedy.
And Joseph Kennedy, infamous bootlegger, is being presented as Saint Joe, who doesn’t even want to look at showgirls’ legs, let alone drink. And he’s constantly spouting his beliefs that “one should be doing all this investing for one’s family and heritage.” (Is one of the Kennedy family members an intern on the writing staff this season?)
I don’t know if Boardwalk Empire got cancelled, if Buscemi wanted out, if the writers all retired or walked out en masse and gave their notes in hieroglyphics to HBO staffers, or if the show just slammed into an iceberg, cracked in two, and everyone is hopelessly drowning because the mobsters stole all the lifeboats already.
No one is going quietly, that is certainly true.
But this once fine show is now a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying absolutely nothing.
Except that Boardwalk Empire’s was not really in Atlantic City but on Atlantis or booked on the Titanic, and everybody’s head is already deep underwater.