Season 4 of Boardwalk Empire was both its most satisfying and gloomiest season to date. A host of new characters and plotlines were introduced, allowing the show to avoid the pattern of having each new season revolve around a different foe for Nucky to tangle with and defeat. Still, going into last year’s finale, it seemed as though Nucky, trapped from all sides, would have to hatch another violent plan to extricate both himself and Chalky White from trouble, while bringing western-style justice to those who deserved it.
Only this time, the plan went off track. Yes, there was violence, but unlike previous seasons, there was nothing triumphant about it. Nucky’s foes were not vanquished, justice was not meted out, and two of the good guys (in a murderous psychopathic-kind-of-way) were dealt cruel fates. Richard Harrow died under the boardwalk, dreaming of the domestic life he would never have, while Chalky watched as his daughter was gunned down, a victim of his own transgressions. Toss in poor Willie’s freshman roommate at Temple being jailed for a murder he didn’t commit and Gillian’s tragic storyline (making Gillian a sympathetic character is one of Winter’s greatest achievements) and Season 4 was a serious bummer. Did I say bummer? What I meant to say was a soul-crushing kick to the stomach.
So with that backdrop, I suppose it is only fitting that the premiere of Season 5, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” jumps ahead seven years to 1931 and the Great Depression. The name of the episode is taken from a newspaper for children that was also a special treat for young Nucky to read.
Though there is a lot of talk about the Depression in “Golden Days,” the feel of the episode—apart from a jarring scene in Margaret’s Wall Street office—is much the same as previous seasons. The reason for this familiar atmosphere is that most of the action takes place in Cuba, where it seems the party has never stopped. Nucky, never to one to unwind though, is visiting the island on business. Smelling the end of Prohibition, he is angling to be first in line to distribute Bacardi Rum to the U.S. When Meyer Lansky appears, ostensibly vacationing with his “wife,” we get the sense, later confirmed, that Nucky is not the only one thinking about the post-Prohibition world.
While Nucky plans for the future, he spends a lot of the episode consumed with the past. Nucky bristles at multiple references to his criminal background, sometimes sensing a slight when none was intended. He tells Sally, who has opened a bar in Havana, that once he becomes a legitimate businessman, “whatever anyone thinks, whatever they claim I’ve done, I’m clean.” Whether this desire to expunge his past comes from a place of vanity or guilt, we aren’t sure yet, but given the elegiac tone of the series, I’m guessing it’s the latter.
Nucky’s obsession with the past is not limited to just his criminal life. Through flashbacks, we see Nucky’s childhood: his abusive father, his dying sister, his loving mother, and his introduction to the Commodore. For the first time, we directly see the forces that shaped Nucky into the man he’s become. Given the struggle early in the series to pin down Nucky’s psychology, as well his reluctance to become a full-on gangster, I wish we’d seen these flashbacks in the first season. At the very least, it would have quieted critics who view Nucky’s character as the Achilles heel of the show. This criticism never bothered me much. Instead, all it proved was how far television has come along. That a show that is always beautifully shot, incredibly acted, with original characters, smart dialogue, and a distinct point-of-view could be considered anything but great is baffling.
But, I digress. The Chicago crew, which continues to grow, most recently with the addition of Eli, does not make an appearance in “Golden Days.” Others not shown in this episode include Dr. Narcisse and Gillian Darmody. We do, however, get a healthy slug of Lucky Luciano, who is no longer young and hotheaded, but has grown, older, wiser, and more ambitious (though still a touch on the hotheaded side). I fear his rise, along with the presence of Meyer in Cuba, does not bode well for Nucky.
One gangster who hasn’t thrived during the last seven years is Chalky White. When we first meet him, the familiar scowl is in place, but the fancy suits and hats have been replaced by prison stripes. Chalky doesn’t say what he’s in for, only that he is guilty of “getting caught.” Unable to bear the inhumane treatment of being a “stripey,” Chalky talks back to a guard. Just when a beating from the guard seems inevitable, an insurrection of the chain gang erupts, allowing to Chalky’s escape with a fellow prisoner.
Judging by the premier, Nucky’s story, which took a backseat for most of Season 4, will be back in the spotlight. This focus only makes sense, as this is the final season in a series that is still about the rise (and fall?) of Nucky Thompson. As is often the case when a series knows its end date, there was an increased confidence and focus to “Golden Days.” It’s clear the creators know the story they want to tell, and with only eight episodes in this final season, there is a lot to be wrapped up. But tying everything together, even if it is often done in the most startling, depressing manner possible, is a problem that Boardwalk Empire has never had.
Predictions, questions, erratum:
I have a feeling things will not end well for Chalky’s fellow escapee. He talks too much to be trusted . . . Margaret again surprises, quickly deducing the importance of the missing file cabinet key. I don’t think Margaret is ending the series in the poorhouse . . . Given that Winters has stated that Nucky’s moral descent began when he introduced the 13 year-old Gillian to the Commodore, I think this is a scene we will be seeing in a flashback, and I’m already dreading it . . . If it does wind up that Nucky will face off against Luciano and/or Lansky (which is no sure thing), it will be the first time that history will spoil the plot of the show, because we know that neither Luciano or Lansky died in 1931 . . . Finally, R.I.P. Arnold Rothstein. You will be missed.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.