The final season of Boardwalk Empire had been on two distinct tracks: one focused on Nucky’s professional struggles and the other on his personal demons. Until last week, it appeared that these two trains were on a collision course and that Nucky would pay for his personal transgressions, but at the professional hand of Luciano or some other mobster. Then Nucky surprised everyone, even himself, and surrendered. Just like that, the mortal peril he’d been in disappeared. Nucky had defied the odds and gotten out alive.
I don’t think any of us really bought into that ending, though. The elegiac tone of the entire final season, as well as the DNA of the entire series was not going to allow a conventionally happy conclusion. Doing so would also have pulled out the rug of the moral structure creator Terrence Winter had spent all season building with the flashback scenes. These flashbacks were nothing if not a justification for the eventual killing of Nucky. And so, as we suspected all along, Nucky dies. The only surprise in “Eldorado” is that his death doesn’t come from the hand of another mobster; it comes from someone who actually had the moral right to pull the trigger, Tommy Darmody.
And so Boardwalk ended in a cohesive, logical and justifiable manner, just like Terrence Winter said it would (he’d stated in interviews that Boardwalk would not end ambiguously like the other famous show he’d written for, The Sopranos). All the loose ends were tied up, no business was left unfinished.
So why did it all seem so unsatisfying?
Because, I think, Winter went too far in the opposite direction of The Sopranos. Instead of leaving viewers confused, Winter decided to spell everything out in capital letters. The finale was too perfect, too tidy, too symmetrical. This seems like an unfair criticism to levy on a show that had a clear vision and stuck to it (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). But to paraphrase the Commodore’s advice to Nucky, you don’t get credit for trying.
Boardwalk has been rightly praised for previous season finales, finales that wrapped the season tight yet still caught the viewer off-guard. They were big, messy finales. In contrast, there was nothing untidy about “Eldorado.” Even the name of the episode was too on the nose. Ostensibly the New York City apartment building Nucky was moving to, El Dorado is a mythological city of riches that was never found, just as Nucky’s life was a meaningless swim, trying to go from a nickel, to a dime, to a quarter, to $2,364,120.
In keeping with the all-too-orderly nature of the episode, Nucky is allowed to go on a farewell tour to say his proper goodbyes to Margaret (they actually have a “last dance” together after executing, of course, a perfect stock scheme) and Eli, with whom he shares a hug, some walk-around money, and some final advice.
It’s not just Nucky who gets to exit with some dignity. Even Capone is given a grace note in a touching goodbye scene with his son. Capone also displays some much needed self-awareness about all the mugging and clowning that has too often defined his character. While Stephen Graham’s performance was always entertaining, these final scenes highlighted what we might have missed out on if Capone had been given more opportunity to show his depth.
It should be pointed out that most of the scenes in “Eldorado” were affective on their own. The show is too well-crafted for them not to be. None more so than Nucky’s goodbye to Gillian. Nucky, visibly shaken by Gillian’s condition, arranges for her to be taken care of both in and out the asylum, but he tells her that he can’t spring her completely. When she doesn’t respond, he asks if she wants him to beg for forgiveness. Yet Nucky can’t do it. He can’t bring himself to fully apologize to her. To do so would be to admit the enormity of his sin, something he is unprepared to do. As Margaret tells him earlier in the episode, saying sorry just isn’t in his nature.
So Winter has spelled out for us, again, the severe consequences of Nucky’s betrayal of Gillian. Which brings us to the weakest part of the episode, the use of Tommy Darmody as Nucky’s executioner. I think by this point we were all aware of Nucky’s offense. In case we weren’t, Winter even cross-cut the exact moment of Nucky’s corruption—literally taking Gillian to the Commodore in exchange for the Sherriff’s job—with the shooting. But did it really have to be Tommy Darmody who shot him? There had been speculation online that Joe Harper was Jimmy’s son. Why else introduce a new character so prominently this late in the series? But in addition to fudging his age a little (Tommy would have been 14 in real life), it just seemed too contrived to insert him at the club and have Nucky take him under his wing. It also raised troubling questions like, why was Tommy so loyal to Nucky to begin with? And why did he turn on him later? Having Tommy shoot Nucky was gilding the symbolic lily just a bit for me. It was as if Winter didn’t trust the audience to connect the moral dots if Nucky had been shot by someone else. This mistrust resulted in an ending that was heavy handed at best, condescending of the viewers at worst.
As time passes, I think my disappointment in the finale will fade and I’ll remember the final season as what Winter intended: a fleshing out of Nucky’s psychology. For some critics who found Nucky’s character undeveloped, this focus was probably a little too late. But Boardwalk, more than any other show, has taken a novelistic approach to its storytelling. At times, this structure frustrated some people, who found the pacing too slow and meandering. But like a good novel, patience was always rewarded at the end of each season. If we give Winter the benefit of the doubt, and view the whole series—not just individual seasons—as a novel, then waiting until the final chapters to reveal the extent of Nucky’s corruption was the right decision. It unlocked a door to understanding Nucky’s motivation and actions, not to mention his perpetual guilt and melancholy.
I suspect that this wasn’t Winter’s intention, though. Asking viewers to watch five seasons of any television show before answering a central question about the protagonist is asking for an inordinate amount of patience from anyone. My bet is that Winter realized the criticism of Nucky was a legitimate one and smartly set out to rectify it in Season 5. By that measure (and by many, many others), this season was a success.
I continue to think that Boardwalk will age well. Given its pedigree (created by a Sopranos’ writer, produced and directed by Martin Scorsese, with a budget unheard of at the time) it arrived with enormous expectations. While the first season was good, under those circumstances, good was a disappointment. But Boardwalk improved every season as the canvass widened both within Atlantic City and outside of it. The ensemble cast was uniformly excellent, the direction first-rate, the pacing quickened, and the writing sharpened. I’d put Season 4 of Boardwalk Empire up with the best seasons of any show. And while Boardwalk might never have hit the highs of other great series, it never had a season that was a clunker, either (ahem, Season 5 of The Sopranos—aka Johnny Cakes. I’m also looking at you Season 5 of The Wire). Judged by the Commodore’s standard that, “It’s what you leave behind. That’s the only thing anyone is ever gonna know about you,” Boardwalk’s legacy as inspired television is secure.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.