26
Apr
15

Boardwalk Empire is Over

Boardwalk Empire quietly aired on HBO for the last five years, and the final season recently wrapped up. This was an interesting series because it had the pedigree of an all-out hit. It had Steve Buscemi in the lead with lavish productions values, a fantastic period setting, and a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese. Strangely, it never reached commercial mass appeal. It seemed to always be overshadowed by other series like Game of Thrones or whatever else HBO happened to be airing. Boardwalk Empire was always the bridesmaid on the progamming block. That was too bad, because it deserved better. It was a great series.

The story was about prohibition-era gangsters, their battle for control of the bootleg liquor industry, and the rise of organized crime in the United States. While it is ostensibly fiction, there are a lot of historical characters populating the series like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and many others. Buscemi’s character, Nucky Thompson, was based on real-life gangster Enoch Johnson. They chose to fictionalize him so they could do whatever they wanted with his storyline, and not have to stick too rigidly to historical fact.

The numerous characters wove a fantastic tapestry of stories stretching over the course of the roaring 20s. The characters all effected one another, not always directly, but each player had a part that could influence events in everyone’s lives. It doesn’t quite get to The Wire’s level of interconnectedness, but it certainly does a good job, anyway. The characters are absolutely fascinating, from the lead played by Buscemi, to Michael Shannon’s rage-proned prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, to Kelly MacDonald as Nucky’s wife, to Michael William’s Chalky White, to disfigured Richard Harrow, played by John Huston. There are many more characters than this, and they all electrify the screen.

The writing of the first four seasons was great. There was a natural progression of the storyline. Season one showed Nucky’s entrance into the liquor business, and subsequent seasons showed him wrestling to maintain power amidst violent competitors. It was amazing to watch him deal, bribe, and kill his way through myriad dangers, and remain at the top of his empire in Atlantic City. You never really quite knew what was going to happen next, and that is always a sign of great writing.

The fifth season was a big stumbling block for the series. It’s unfortunate, too, because it was the final season, and had no sixth season to recover. The last season was only eight episodes in length. The abridged format meant that the story was already going to be compressed. It was strange then, to watch it, and realize that not much was happening throughout those eight episodes. It was more or less a tying of loose ends, of resolving characters’ fates, than of telling a conclusion to a long-form narrative.

Interestingly, the fifth season takes place in two time periods (or three if you want to get technical). There is the main timeline with Buscemi’s final days, and the past timeline, with Buscemi remembering his life as a boy and a young adult. The youth storyline was actually a lot more engaging than the main storyline. It showed Nucky’s entrance into the world of crime. He was basically a good kid in bad circumstances, and was looking for any way out. Once he got a taste of the good life, he wanted more, and eventually had to reconcile his beliefs, a personal tragedy, and his desire for power. The flashback scenes were fascinating.

The main storyline, however, was a major letdown. The writers were clearly bored with their show at this point. Nucky had fought tooth and nail to hold onto his criminal empire. And suddenly, when faced with odds that were lower stake than previously, he just gives up his empire to the bad guys. It was completely out of character for him. It was weak as shit writing.

The writers decided the best way to resolve everyone’s storyline was to simply kill every character. Pretty much every single person dies at the end of the season. Capone and Luciano make it out alive only because the writers couldn’t kill them and maintain a shred of “historical” credibility. But everyone else, Harrow, Chalky, Van Alden, Micky Doyle, Nucky, almost everyone of importance ends up dead at the end.

Killing off main characters is amateurish bullshit. It’s the easy way out. Instead of crafting deserving or ironic fates, killing characters is shorthand for, “Eh, we don’t give a fuck, let’s just move on.”

Nucky’s death was the most egregious of all. A new character is introduced this season, who’s a soft-spoken little brat, and completely unimportant. In the final episode, he reveals he is Jimmy Darmody’s son, and he kills Nucky for revenge. This makes no sense. He didn’t know Nucky killed Jimmy. In fact, nobody knew. That was the whole point of Jimmy’s mom killing a look-alike (I know it sounds dumb, but it worked in the context of the show’s earlier seasons), so everyone would think he died in the tub instead of being shot in the face. There was no evidence tying Nucky to Jimmy’s death. More importantly, Richard Harrow saved this kid several years early. He saved him from a life of crime, literally rescuing him from the clutches of gangsters in the bullet-riddled season 3 finale. So, it turns out that Harrow’s actions were ultimately pointless. The kid has no reason to kill Nucky. It comes completely out of left field. It was meant to be a surprising “twist” ending, but was total and complete bullshit. You can’t have twist endings without giving some sort of setup before hand. Otherwise, they are just a deus-ex machina.

A better ending would have been this: in real life, Enoch Johnson was arrested, spent years in jail, and was eventually released. When he got out, his criminal empire was gone, and he was a sad, broken man for the rest of his days. They should have mirrored reality. That would have been a far better ending for Nucky. A lifelong punishment where he is bereft of power. He spent his whole life clinging to power, and what better way for him to reach his final days, then with no power at all? That was the one place the writers should have stuck to history, and they didn’t. They ruined it, just so they could kill Nucky along with everyone else.

Overall, Boardwalk Empire was a great show. The first four seasons featured some of the best writing, acting, and directing on TV. It was on par with shows like Breaking Bad and Justified. Sadly, the final season was major letdown. As I said before, writing endings is hard. And it’s too bad that the bored writers of this once great series chose to end it in the laziest way imaginable.

Verdicts:

Season 1: Good

Season 2: Awesome

Season 3: Awesome

Season 4: Good

Season 5: Average

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2 Responses to “Boardwalk Empire is Over”


  1. 1 Radochna
    May 5, 2015 at 3:55 am

    I’m absolutely positive that HBO simply decided to wrap up that project and none of the makers intended it to end this way. I’m angry, because it’s a grand show and it should have several more seasons, but at least they ordered that final season, it’s better then with Borgias which had just one season left to the end, but they cancelled it anyway. Eh, 2014 was a year that was very frustrating when it comes to TV Series.

    • May 7, 2015 at 5:26 pm

      I agree 100%. The Borgias was great fun and really needed a final season. Boardwalk Empire needed 2 more seasons to wrap up its story in a satisfying way.


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