Boardwalk Empire is a show that’s always been haunted by the past. The show itself is a glitzy, gritty time capsule, a vision of early-20th-century, American excess and corruption crystallized in amber – or, considering the show’s love for all things alcoholic, amber ale – filled with characters plagued by ghosts and demons they’re unable to shake off.
But the show is also haunted by the landmark HBO shows — specifically, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire — that came before it. Just like those forever-worshipped programs, Boardwalk shared a love for novelistic storytelling and complex, morally ambiguous characters. Unfortunately, as much as creator (and former Sopranos writer) Terence Winter wanted to land a spot on the HBO-showrunner Mount Rushmore alongside the three Davids — Chase, Milch, and Simon – by helming a show that was equally worthy, a pristine, prestige drama both Mark Wahlberg and Martin Scorsese would be proud to be associated with, Boardwalk would always be in the shadow of those shows. No matter how much of a stoic, charismatic, ultimately tormented anti-hero Enoch “Nucky” Thompson would become, he would always have the ghosts of superior badasses Tony Soprano (Is he dead? Is he alive? Who cares?), Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty looming over him, reminding him (and the audience) he will always walk a few feet behind them.
Because of this, Boardwalk often seemed to be overcompensating during its first three seasons, proving its mettle by being more sophisticated, more cinematic, more violent, more tawdry, and more — pardon the pun — harrowing than those other shows. This made the drama give off a desperate vibe that even its loyal fans had no choice but to recognize. So, it was quite the welcome surprise to find the show finally coming into its own in season four, abandoning its urge to prove itself and coming up with a implosive, ultimately sorrowful season of episodes.
What was great about season four was how Boardwalk relished in showing how much the party was over for Nucky and many of its characters. Steve Buscemi did his best work on the show last season as Thompson, who walked around his own city like a ghost himself, a living, breathing embodiment of the Atlantic City that once was. (Having him take residence in an abandoned hotel, like a spooky apparition who doesn’t realize he’s dead, was a nice touch.) He was still the powerful, confident fixer (watching him get his nephew out of that whole accidentally-killing-his-college-rival thing was a riveting joy to behold), but no longer did he have that mischievous, menacing gleam in his eye. All those years of fighting battles and losing things more precious than his life have humbled him and made him solemn.
In fitting Boardwalk fashion, the opening episode of the show’s last season (titled “Golden Days for Boys and Girls”) doesn’t attempt to follow up on or even address all the very bad things that happened in the season-four finale, from Eli Thompson missing in action after beating sociopathic Federal Agent Knox/Tolliver to death to Gillian Darmody getting thrown in the clink for admitting to killing Roger McAllister to Roy Phillips (her lover was really working for a detective agency) and losing custody of grandson Tommy after Jimmy Darmody’s body was found. As the show quantum-leaps in time, from 1924 to 1931, Winter and company (mostly Howard Korder, who wrote this ep, and Tim Van Patten, who directed it) once again reminds audiences that Boardwalk moves at its own pace – glacial as it may be – moving on with things whether you’re caught up or not.
Nucky is in Havana, Cuba, just as he said he would be in the finale. Along with him is Sally Wheet, his partner/savior from Florida. They team up to forge ties with Bacardi Rum in hopes of Prohibition’s repeal in the U.S., joining forces with a U.S. Senator. As much as Nucky tries his best to look legit (he tells the Senator the closest he’s had to criminal offenses is getting convicted of stealing a bottle of Old Grand-Dad once), trouble still comes his way. In a scene that morphs from being suspenseful to just plain grisly, Nucky dodges an attack from a machete-wielding thug in a crowded street. Thankfully, his new, silent valet is there to save him, planting that blade in the thug’s dome and, in an excessive bit of nastiness, cutting off his ear and stuffing it in his inside jacket pocket. (This must’ve made fans of Buscemi, especially those grew up watching him as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, which had a notorious ear-slicing scene of its own, quite happy.) While a cop informs him that this may be a random attack from someone looking to jack a rich American, Nucky has his suspicions, especially after running into Meyer Lansky earlier. Lansky claims to be there on vacation with his wife, which learns not to be the case when Nucky sees Lansky’s “wife” again and the native woman propositions him.
Things aren’t going so well for others back in the U.S. His former ally Chalky White is first seen in the ep in a chain gang. When we last saw him in the finale, he was sitting on the porch of his old, now-deceased mentor Oscar Boneau, damn near catatonic after losing his daughter to a sniper’s bullet (shot by former associate Richard Harrow, now deceased), which was intended for Chalky’s nemesis Valentin Narcisse. We never find out in this ep just what he did to earn his spot in the gang. (Did he turn himself in? Was he eventually caught?) But I’m sure we’ll find out in due time, especially since he and other members of the gang overtake the chain gang guards and escape.
As for Nucky’s estranged wife Margaret, who was practically nonexistent last season, only appearing in a handful of episodes (actress Kelly Macdonald was having a baby), she has a horrifying moment when her boss shoots himself in the head, in front of the employees at the Wall Street brokerage firm where she works, after a weird, rousing speech. When his boss inquires to Margaret about the whereabouts to his file cabinet key, she says she doesn’t have it. Of course, she does, which she uses to get a file labeled “Redstone, A.” If you’ll remember, Redstone was the name of Arnold Rothstein, who was last seen in the finale welcoming Margaret into her new, rent-free apartment after she helped him out with a bit of insider trading. (Since Boardwalk is now in the 1930s and the actual Rothstein died in 1928 – Nucky and Lansky casually mention that they last saw each other at Rothstein’s funeral – this means this may be the last we’ve seen of the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg on the show, unless we see him in flashbacks.)
Also, somewhere in New York, Lucky Luciano ends ties with power-mad Joe Masseria by, you know, killing him. The ep sticks to the gangland legend of Masseria getting gunned down in a Coney Island restaurant, with Luciano excusing himself to go to the bathroom (unfortunately, not to get a gun — sorry Godfather fans!) as Luciano’s boys did the rest, putting an end to the Castellammarese War that went on between Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Considering this leads to Luciano getting accepted into Maranzano’s camp – he takes blood oaths with them and everything – setting the stage for Luciano’s legendary rise to power, we will see more of Luciano in these final episodes.
As the show flash-forwards in time, it also goes back even further to 1884, to when Nucky was a lad trying to get money from Atlantic City’s wealthy, charitable denizens. (The episode begins with a young Nucky and other street urchins swimming for coins in the ocean, as people, including a middle-aged version of the Commodore, throw them off the pier.) We all know that, thanks to his abusive father -- who gives him a smack in this ep when he learns his son doesn’t get any money from that dip -- Nucky didn’t have the most positive of childhoods. Hell, dude practically burned the down the house he grew up in all the way back in the first season. It was a home not only filled with violent memories but devastating ones, as we discover when we see Nucky’s dying, bedridden sister.
But these flashbacks also hint to how the Nucky we’re all familiar with came to be. When he retrieves a hat from a guy after it blows in the wind, a hat not unlike the ones he would wear as an adult, he holds on to it. He later gives it back to the guy, even with the $50 dollar bill that was tucked inside. When the guy gives the bill to Nucky, he refuses, saying it’s too much. This doesn’t impress the guy, nor the Commodore, who later informs the kid, “You thought you were gonna get something for being honest? What have you got?” Eventually, the Commodore gives him a job sweeping his porch, setting the stage for Nucky’s rise to power.
With Nucky tripping back to his childhood, Margaret trying to cover her tracks, Lucky ready to start his own empire and Chalky perhaps ready to start a war, Boardwalk Empire looks like it’s going to remind us in its final eight episodes how the past always comes back around, either repeating itself, returning to haunt somebody or just ready to bite somebody in the ass. Personally, I can’t think of a better way for the show to go out.