It’s been an amazing ride these last five years on HBOs Boardwalk Empire, especially seeing Steve Buscemi, playing the main character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the biggest gangster in Atlantic City during Prohibition, get the chance to show off his acting abilities and range. The five years have been pretty uneven, however, despite being produced by two major talents in the industry: Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg. Though many reviewers and bloggers felt that the series had a “pitch-perfect finale” (Caitlin Moore, The Washington Post), others felt the final season “was a bit of a mess” (Allen St. John, Forbes). I have to say that I think it was so out of tune, off-pitch, and messily handled that it was a most supreme disappointment. And that was for the times when I could actually figure out what was going on.
Steve Buscemi (above) has been great as Nucky Thompson, but I gotta say that the writers didn’t give him much to do this final season except yell idle threats at gangsters, full of sound and fury but ultimately signifying nothing since he was threatening to kill gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, none of whom died during this time period. The result? No conflict. That wasn’t Buscemi’s fault: he was acting what the writers gave him. But no conflict?
Rule number one to all writers, whether writers of the books or of the big-screen movies or of the little-screen mini-series: There must be conflict. Otherwise, the readers/viewers will not care about what happens.
Nucky’s Repetitive Childhood
Apparently, head writer Terrence Winter thought it was a great idea to include, in the final season, everything he could think of about Nucky’s childhood. I guess he wanted us to figure out how Nucky ended up as ruthless yet successful as he was. Here’s the only problem with doing that in the final season: we didn’t learn anything that we didn’t know in the first place.
We always knew that Nucky’s career got started through his work as deputy then sheriff for the Commodore, a pedophile who had the sheriff pimping for him; we always knew Nucky’s father was abusive because — in case the writers forgot — Ethan Thompson (Tom Aldredge) was alive in season 1, at the very least, and we got to see him actually be continually abusive to Nucky. Ethan was so abusive that after his death, Nucky blew up his father’s remodeled house out of anger at his father, rather than sell it.
Showing us scenes about things we already knew added nothing to the final season. In fact, they detracted from it because they bored any viewer with half a memory.
Nucky’s Repetitive Young Adulthood
As if retelling the things we already knew about his childhood weren’t enough, this season showed viewers everything we already knew about his young adulthood. It wasn’t much — his promotion from deputy to sheriff, his marriage, his lost child (though some details were completely changed), his work for the Commodore. We knew all that, too.
Showing it didn’t make it any more interesting and did not add anything to the season. It was, instead, a lot of wasted writing, filming, and non-character development.
Forgetting Its Own Past
During the final season, the writers of Boardwalk Empire literally forgot what they’d written in earlier seasons, and I guess it’s not the actors’ place to remind them that they completely changed the characters’ history. The most blatant incident of this was with Nucky and his first wife Mabel (played by Maya Kazan, also in Season 1 of Cinemax’s The Knick, who got a chance to play two women deranged by the loss of their child). The only problem with it in Boardwalk Empire is that season 1 showed Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), who became Nucky’s mistress then his second wife, looking at the tombstone of Nucky’s first wife and child, and then getting Nucky to tell her the story of his dead wife and lost child.
The baby boy, also named Enoch, died when he was about a month old, as I recall, and the mother committed suicide shortly afterward. Nucky told Margaret that he’d been so busy working that he was rarely home, and that one day when he returned, he found his wife lovingly caring for a baby that had been dead for several days. In the final season, their history was completely changed: they made Nucky’s wife Mabel have a miscarriage — never mentioned before.
In interviews, head writer Winter now claims that Nucky and Mabel probably tried several times to have children, kept having miscarriages, and that she committed suicide after the death of the first live child. Serious backtracking, Mr. Winter, but it rings false. If it wasn’t in the story, you can’t add it in interviews after viewers ask you about the discrepancy.
As an aside, the dates on the tombstone of wife and son would have made her about 12 when she committed suicide, making her a more likely candidate for the Commodore’s interest than for Nucky’s.
(Also, speaking of children: what happened to Margaret’s? I think Nucky asked about his adopted children once this year, and his estranged wife said they were doing fine, but the last time we actually saw them in the series, little Emily had polio and would never walk again, and her brother was turning into a firebug, having witnessed Nucky blow up his own father’s house. So, what happened to them?)
Messing with Chronology
This show is not science fiction. It does not involve time travel or alternate universes. Or does it?
In early episodes, Gillian (Gretchen Mol) was a dance-hall girl who’d been raped by the Commodore (Dabney Coleman in early seasons, by John Ellison Conley in the final season) at age 12 or 13. Her son was Jimmy Darmody (executed at the end of season two by Nucky for Jimmy’s attempts to take over Nucky’s business). Though Nucky treated Jimmy (Michael Pitt) like a son, and wanted him to go to college, Jimmy Darmody went to the Great War, coming home wounded and psychologically scarred, to his wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino), and his son, Tommy, who seemed to be 4 or 5 during season one.
After Jimmy and Angela were both killed — by different gangsters — and the Commodore poisoned and killed by his housekeeper, Gillian lived in the Commodore’s house with Tommy. Sometimes, before his death, Jimmy lived there, too.
After his death, Jimmy’s war-friend Richard (Jack Huston), a scarred sniper with about half a face, “raided” Gillian’s brothel in the Commodore’s house, “kidnapped” Tommy (Brady Noon, Connor Noon), and took the boy to live with Richard’s girlfriend, so the boy (about 5-6 by this time) would not grow up in the bad environment of a brothel.
Okay, let’s do the math: season 1 has Tommy aged 4-5 at the most but not in Kindergarten, season 2 means he’d be 5-6, though he still wasn’t in school and I began to wonder why not, seasons 3 + 4 would make him 6-8, at the most. We were told that 6 years had passed between seasons 4 and 5, the final season. That would make Tommy, at the most, 14 years old in the season finale when he shoots Nucky in the head because “Mee-Maw” (Gillian) said Nucky was bad. Seriously? The kid’s driving a car, holding a grudge against a guy that Mee-Maw — whom Tommy hasn’t seen in about 8 years — said was “bad,” and shooting him dead?
Messing with chronology or messing with the viewers’ heads? You decide.
In reality, “Nobody goes quietly” unless you’re an historical character and viewers know that you didn’t die during the time period covered by Boardwalk Empire. Like Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Al Capone (Stephen Graham, pictured above), John Torrio (Greg Antonacci), or Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), infamous for fixing the World Series, died some time between series 4 & 5. Otherwise, you can pretty much count on a blood-bath for the rest of the characters. Because, after all, HBO told us with the final season’s slogan Nobody Goes Quietly, or, for those of us less symbolic-minded: Nobody Gets Out Alive.
I knew Nucky would get killed: I just wasn’t sure who’d do it (though several bloggers and tweeters mentioned that Nucky’s newest employee, who turned out to be Tommy, looked enough like Jimmy Darmody to make them wonder, in writing, if he was Tommy Darmody, which he was). Tommy had the honors.
I thought Margaret (center, above) might be a casualty of Nucky’s execution since she was back in the show for a couple of episodes after having been missing for years, but she survived (and became a stock-market genius in the interim, flirting with the Joseph Kennedy while helping to make his fortune. Who knew?).
I assumed Nucky’s brother Eli (Shea Wigham) might get himself killed since he’s been pretty reckless with both drink and his temper throughout the series, but he just lost his wife because of his ongoing infidelity with the wife of Special Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who got his head blown off by a fellow undercover agent.
I supposed Gillian (right, above) would die since she hasn’t been in the show for years, but she just appeared in a couple episodes, in a mental institution for murder, and I guess she had to come back for the final year so everyone would think there was this connection between her and the boy who killed Nucky, and who was supposed to be her grandson, even though, chronologically, none of that made any sense.
I figured Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams, on left above), Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, on right above), and Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) would get killed. I guessed that Sally (Patricia Arquette, on left in picture of women, above) would get killed because the writers had already “emotionally detached” her from Nucky by giving her an unseen lover. Unfortunately, the only one whose death “distressed” me was that of Mickey, just because he was goofy enough and competent enough to be an interesting character.
Most of the other fictional characters were killed in earlier seasons: Nucky’s protegé Jimmy, his bi-sexual wife Angela, his war-friend Richard, his biological father the Commodore, Nucky’s valet Eddie (Anthony Laciura), Nucky’s driver & Margaret’s lover Owen (Charlie Cox).
I was terribly disappointed to hear that this was going to be the final season of Boardwalk Empire, though I thought its quality had deteriorated greatly during the last two seasons. Still, Nucky seemed a formidable enough gangster, and it was interesting to see his interactions, though fictional, with historical gangsters. After watching the entire final season, however, and being confused, bothered, and bewildered by what was supposed to be going on, I have to say that Allen St. John’s calling the final season “a bit of a mess” was actually a compliment.
The final season was like digging through a land-fill, not knowing what you’re looking for, or what to do with the pieces you find since, while they seem to be valuable, you quickly discover that they’re not.
RIP Boardwalk Empire