Showrunner Terence Winter on Why He Chose to End Boardwalk Empire That Way

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Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the series finale of Boardwalk Empire.

No Sopranos-style ambiguity here: Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) didn't survive Boardwalk Empire's series finale. The disgraced Atlantic City mob boss was gunned down by Tommy Darmody, son of Jimmy (Michael Pitt), whom Nucky had shot dead, and grandson of Gillian (Gretchen Mol), whom Nucky betrayed decades earlier — as depicted in flashbacks throughout the fifth and final season. Creator Terence Winter breaks down the decision to whack Nucky.

How long ago did you know how you wanted the show to end?
We knew definitively somewhere in the middle of season four that Nucky would die. We ran the different versions of how it might end. We had talked about him going off to a life of obscurity after he gave everything up. In some ways, that felt like a punishment, too — not that we were necessarily trying to punish him. But this felt like a more powerful and dramatic ending.

When did you tell Steve Buscemi how it was going to end?
Not until deep into season five. Traditionally, he didn’t want to know what was coming. A lot of our actors didn't. They were more interested in being in the moment and not necessarily knowing what was going to come. It was funny, over the course of the years, I've been the one to make the calls to tell an actor when they were going to go. When I called Steve, I said, "God, this is the weirdest one of these I've ever done." He said, "Yeah, I've heard about these phone calls." It was very odd to tell the star of your show that it's over. But at least he made it 'til the last episode.

What was it like shooting his final scene?
We shot the scene with Margaret and Nucky dancing at the Eldorado last. It was very emotional. The whole crew came down, and we shot it on Stage 5 of Steiner Studios, which had been our stage for five years. Everybody came down late at night, and we watched them dance. It was very poignant. It was a very special moment. We had a small party afterward in the parking lot that went on for hours. I don't know that I could have picked a better final scene to shoot for the series.

Why did you decide to go with this flashback structure for the final season?
We had talked about what the backstory between Nucky and Gillian was, but we felt it was really important to have the emotional weight and resonance it deserved, that we needed to see it. It gives you so much more insight into who Nucky was and why he became what he became. Seeing him as a little boy and as a young man, and seeing that act of betrayal play out in front of you was so much more powerful. The challenge was to find actors to play young versions of these characters, and thank God for our brilliant casting director, Meredith Tucker. She brought us incredible actors who could not have been better. She absolutely nailed every one.

Do you agree with how Gillian says Nucky's wife Mabel described him: "He wants to be good but doesn't know how"?
Yeah, in some ways. Nucky's a product of what he's read and what he's told. It's a lot of mixed messages. It's Horatio Alger mixed up with the Commodore, who is the antithesis of that stuff. Nucky's a product of the world he lived in. He grew up in an abusive household and then at the heels of somebody like the Commodore. He learned by watching those around him. There are aspects of him that are good, but he learned to make his own rules. Ultimately in his desperation to get ahead and make something of himself, he crossed a huge line and then betrayed this young girl. You can trace his downfall from that one act of betrayal. It not only destroyed his life, but her life and two further generations of her family.

Why did you go without opening credits in this episode?
Because it was the finale, we wanted to do something different — to come into it and say, "This is not your average episode." This is it. The scene of Nucky going out to the water, starting with his shoes on the beach, was reminiscent of the opening credits, and also it was eerie. You weren't really sure if he was swimming out and not coming back. And he tells Eli later on he considered that.

Why did you call the episode "Eldorado"? That's the name of the Manhattan apartment building where Nucky and Margaret dance — is it symbolic of a future he'll never have?
Yeah, El Dorado is the lost city of gold. That's what he always wanted. The building on the Upper West Side was the cutting-edge Art Deco building of its time. It speaks of a future he won't ever have, and in another way, it's the mythological city of gold, so it worked both ways.

When we last see Gillian, is she crazy or crazy like a fox?
I wouldn't say crazy. It's a little ambiguous how much she's actually hearing and how much she's not. She's certainly a broken woman. She'll never be herself again. It's not quite a mental breakdown, but it's something probably very close to that. I like the idea that you're not entirely sure what she's thinking.

Did the Sopranos finale influence you in any way in terms of giving Boardwalk Empire a definitive ending?
No, I didn't decree that we had to have a definitive ending. This was the ending we felt was the most powerful. It happened to be pretty clear what happened, of course. There are aspects of the finale that are open-ended. We don’t really know if Eli goes back to his family. We don't know what becomes of Margaret. So I didn't avoid ambiguity. This was just the best version of what we thought the ending should be.

How do you feel now that the show is over? How do you look back on it?
I'm enormously proud of the series. I was blessed to work with some dear friends who are incredibly talented — Tim Van Patten, Howard Korder, Allen Coulter, that amazing cast. To get to work with my idol, Martin Scorsese, has just been lovely — the highlight of my career. I've had a career that's had many incredible moments, The Sopranos first and foremost. It was just an amazing run that I'll always look back on fondly. It's really bittersweet to be moving ahead. I'm really busy, so I don't have a lot of time to reflect on it, but maybe in a year or so, I'll look back on it and raise a glass. I'll toast to the end of something that was really special to me.