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The Last 10 Minutes of Boardwalk Empire’s Finale Were a Knockout

This article discusses events in the Boardwalk Empire series finale. Read our recap of that episode here.

Most shows end long after they’ve worn out their welcomes. Boardwalk Empire goes on a short list of shows that ended just as they finally jelled.

Seasons one through three of Terence Winter’s Prohibition potboiler were brilliantly cast, production-designed, and costumed to a fare-thee-well, but the pissing contests, sadism, and gore grew repetitive, and too many episodes were disorganized and undercooked: There were so many characters, locations, and subplots that what happened onscreen sometimes felt like an uncommonly decadent and voluptuous version of narrative housekeeping: What’s Nucky Thompson up to? How about Lucky Luciano? Now let’s check in on Al Capone, then watch Gillian suffer, then watch the villain of the season prepare to be bested by Nucky — and hey, look at the time.

Then came season four, a masterpiece of rueful sadness that was all the more effective for being stripped down and slowed down. Its finale was a string of catastrophes, ending on a mournful note that turned the show’s usual parade of whackings (a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of supporting players) into the stuff of tragedy, or at least a blues song. This final season didn’t reach the same heights — the truncated eight-episode order, coupled with the story’s seven-year leap forward in time, made the whole thing feel rushed, at times forced — but it did put a contextual frame of morality, even old-fashioned moralism, around everything that came before.

The finale’s last ten minutes — leading to a cross-cut sequence that justified the all those Young Nucky flashbacks — were a knockout, a near-Expressionist nightmare of guilt and punishment. Its construction was concise and precise, and powerful: a series of rhyming scenes and shots, braiding past and present like strands in a hangman’s noose. Young Nucky turns to look at Young Gillian in 1897, just as Older Nucky circa 1931 looks with sincere concern at the young man who’s about to kill him: Joe, subsequently revealed as (no huge shock) Tommy Darmody, grandson of Gillian Darmody, whom Nucky delivered into the arms of her rapist patriarch, the Commodore, in 1897, thus spawning Jimmy, the surrogate son Nucky murdered at the end of season two. Young Nucky, cowed by the Commodore’s bluster and doing his bidding as payment for his shiny new sheriff’s badge, reaches out towards Young Gillian — a gesture that reads as “let me help you” but that condemns Gillian to a degraded life. Young Gillian reaches out in return, trusting Nucky; we flinch recalling grown-up Gillian’s nearly blank expression in the asylum a few scenes earlier, as Nucky, visiting in response to a desperate letter, listed all the things he couldn’t do for her (such as kneel, a penitent pose), each one volunteered without prompting, each one confirming his guilty conscience. Gillian is the innocent he could’ve saved but helped despoil instead. Tommy, with his gun, is Nucky’s long-deferred punishment for that profound failure: a young man who responds to Nucky’s own reached-out hand (first filled with cash, then empty, open) with a closed fist that holds the pistol that will shoot Nucky three times, twice in the torso and once in the face.

Nucky’s death felt in some ways like a literalist’s answer to the European art-cinema-style ending of The Sopranos, which Winter once worked on. People may argue about what, exactly, Winter was getting at with certain fleeting touches, such as the cajoling Lady Liberty that shows Nucky a TV in a tent (the first public demonstration of cathode-ray tube reception and transmission was in 1931 — but in Berlin, not Atlantic City). But nobody will debate what happened to Nucky. It’s a classic “Top of the World, Ma!”/ “He used to be a big shot”/ “Hey, remember me, Benny Blanco from the Bronx?” ending, the chickens coming home to roost. It’s the Sopranos ending that a lot of fans desperately craved: no ambiguity, nothing to master, nothing to “prove.” It’s also the sharpest divergence from fact in the entire run of Boardwalk: The real Nucky Thompson died in 1968 in a convalescent home. A writer doesn’t create a universe strongly rooted in the historical record and throw it out the window when devising his main character’s fate unless he really, really, really, really needs to see that character punished.

As classical gangster-movie endings go, though, this is one of the best I’ve seen — and it’s not without gutbucket poetry. The closing shot of Boy Nucky snatching a coin underwater connects all the moments in which Nucky tries to buy his way out of personal hell with cash, as if enacting an Atlantic City version of plenary indulgence. (“Answer to everything,” Tommy Darmody told him, after he’d sprung the young man from jail, then offered him money to replace the money he’d spent. Cut to the Commodore’s walrus-mustached henchman telling Young Nucky, “You understand this is an act of charity,” referring to the order to deliver 13-year-old Gillian to the Commodore.)

The universe seemed to have checked every major character’s moral ledgers and gone door-to-door to balance the books. The finale’s title was “Eldorado,” a nod to the nonexistent city of gold that drove Spanish genocide in the Americas, and the name of a luxury tower on the Upper West Side where Nucky contemplated buying an apartment in the sky (and where he might have reunited with his estranged wife, Margaret, had he lived).  As written by series creator Winter and co-executive producer Howard Korder, and directed by master bloodletter Tim Van Patten (who has helmed every finale), it drove home how beholden Boardwalk is (was?) to pre-Godfather, pre-Scorsese gangster pictures — films whose attraction-repulsion formula allowed viewers to wallow in fantasies of sadism, lust, power-tripping, and conspicuous consumption, then absolve themselves of guilt by association by watching the gangster die or go to jail.

Chalky White was murdered in an alleyway by Valentin Narcisse’s triggermen, after trading himself to gain freedom for his great love, the nightclub singer Daughter Matiland. Narcisse bought it courtesy of two assassins sent by Lucky Luciano, who’d just formalized the first governing body of the American Mafia. Nelson Van Alden was shot dead while helping an undercover G-man (an Irishman!) steal accounting books from Al Capone that would send the Chicago boss away for tax evasion. Eli Thompson, a brutal fixer and disgruntled side-switcher, survived the Van Alden killing, as well as a hit on Salvatore “Boss of All Bosses” Maranzano but ended the show broken and neutered and cut off from his family — just a goon living alone in a seaside tenement. (I love that Nucky’s bag o’ cash contains a razor and a shaving brush: Even at his most generous, he can’t resist making an editorial comment about his brother’s grooming.) Lucky Luciano couldn’t die or otherwise be punished in this episode — he lived until 1962 and, like Capone, he was such a famous, real personality that the show couldn’t take drastic liberties with his biography — so we had to be content (if, indeed, we were looking for that sort of contentment) with the knowledge that he had gained the world but would spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. (The close-ups of Luciano in “Eldorado” make him look like a malevolent statue.)

Throughout, there were moments that hinted at a potential for good and right behavior that, for whatever reason, the characters couldn’t or wouldn’t embrace. And in case we didn’t get the hints, the episode elbowed us in the ribs, as when Nucky tells Gillian, “You’re not the only one who doesn’t like where she’s come from,” and Young Gillian tells Nucky, “Mrs. Thompson said you want to be good, but you don’t know how.” In light of the show’s fifth-season turn towards the quasi-theological, it seems no accident that Van Alden’s last few seconds on Earth were spent proclaiming himself an agent of the law (even though he’d spent two entire seasons as a meathead ronin serving various gangster-lords). Capone got a lovely scene with his deaf son that would have been lovelier if the show hadn’t all but forgotten said son after season two. Margaret spent seasons one through three being a party to evil without (for the most part) actively committing it: She shared Nucky’s bed and accepted the life of luxury he gave her, but she was never guilty of anything more than hypocrisy and a desire to experience a soft life after years of hardscrabble suffering; accordingly, the show allowed her to mature a bit and learn the ins and outs of investment well enough to participate in a stock-shorting maneuver that earned millions for Nucky (and a 30-grand nest-egg for herself, and an undisclosed amount for Papa Joe Kennedy, who was so impressed that he asked her out). Poor Gillian never seemed entirely in charge of her own choices (oh, sure, she drowned a man, but only because he reminded her of her murdered son/lover); the world of Boardwalk Empire drove her mad, so it makes sense that she’d end the show locked in a mental institution. Considering that Margaret and Gillian are the only major female characters to appear in all five seasons, it would’ve been nice if they’d been given less victim-y stories and defined apart from the men they were sleeping with, or not sleeping with — but hey, look at the time.

Nevertheless, there was much to like in this final season. It was colder and more methodical than season four, but just as elegantly designed: an eight-paneled jigsaw puzzle. At first it felt like a regression into glum Godfather II pastiche: set partly in Havana, and flashback-driven to such a degree that it threatened to kill the show’s momentum. But it soon resolved itself into what might be the ultimate example of Boardwalk’s patented slow-burn storytelling. Every major plotline in this season — indeed, every season — came down to junctures in individual lives where a character made the wrong choice (due to greed, vengeance, lust, or some other deadly sin) and embarked down a road to karmic ruin.

“The past is past,” Nucky tells Gillian as she studies a ladybug in the asylum. “Nothing can change it.” That’s self-knowledge talking. Nucky seems to be on a sort of farewell tour in this final hour. He’s retired not by choice, but circumstance — in the preceding episode, he traded his empire for the life of his nephew — but the humiliation of losing power seems to have sparked a round of genuine soul-searching and contrition. Each encounter with a significant person in Nucky’s life makes “Eldorado” feel more like an account of an addict making the rounds of wrong loved ones in order to apologize and ask forgiveness. Nucky’s too macho and emotionally constipated to come right out and use those exact terms, but that’s what’s going on.

Does he know he’s doomed? It seems that way. Nucky seems sad and resigned, and strangely at peace with his sudden impotence as a mob figure. (This is one of star Steve Buscemi’s greatest hours; in the first couple of seasons, I thought he was miscast, but now it’s impossible to imagine Nucky without picturing Buscemi’s huge eyes and slender frame — and Marc Pickering as Young Nucky might be the best flashback casting in a gangster tale since Robert De Niro in Godfather II.) The closest thing to a mission statement for the season occurs in this episode, in the scene where Nucky visits Eli and delivers a monologue explaining that opening image (which replaces the traditional opening credits, interestingly) of his swim into the ocean. He tells Eli he went out past the surf line for the first time in 45 years. “Keep going, I thought, keep going until you can’t turn back. That’s where there isn’t any choice … and you don’t know where that is. You can’t know until you pass it. And then it’s too late.”

Then again, maybe it was over for Nucky, and Chalky, and Van Alden, and Gillian, and everybody else long before that. “It’s all a dream to begin with,” Chalky tells Narcisse in the alley. “Ain’t nobody ever been free.”

Boardwalk Empire Ended Just As It Finally Jelled