Boardwalk Empire Series Finale Recap: Thompson’s Way

Boardwalk Empire

Season 5 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Boardwalk Empire

Season 5 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Christopher T. Saunders/HBO

As indicated by the headline above, this is a recap of the Boardwalk Empire series finale, so it addresses all the events from that episode. (Read our interview with showrunner Terence Winter.)

It was just several weeks ago when I wrote that baby-faced vagrant Joel Harper, with his ever-earnest mug and penchant for refusing cash, could possibly be Tommy Darmody, all grown up. And I also wrote that, if that’s true, Harper/Darmody will most likely serve a substantial role in Nucky Thompson’s demise, perhaps popping a cap in Thompson the same way Al Pacino went out in Carlito’s Way, just about ready to hop on a train to freedom until John Leguizamo’s grudge-carrying hood comes out of nowhere and takes it away from him with three bullets to the chest.

Well, that’s kind of what happened with Nucky. As he takes one final, nighttime walk on the Atlantic City boardwalk, trying to dodge both drunk college boys and mysterious men in suits, a particularly surly Harper (who Nucky just picked up from the Ritz after being detained for failing to rob a lady) comes up from behind to reveal himself and puts a few fatal slugs in him. At the same time, we trip back to Nucky’s younger, deputy sheriff days, as he officially goes from moral, upstanding family man to the Nucky Thompson he turned out to be when he takes young Gillian’s hand during a boardwalk parade and gives her over to the Commodore.

So, technically, Nucky Thompson died on the boardwalk twice.

I know some savvier viewers out there immediately picked up on the possibility of Harper being little Tommy ever since Mickey Doyle picked him up from that bum-ridden yard and put him to work at the club. Not to mention that the convenient time-jump made sure that Tommy was at a manlier age when he could show up and take revenge on the man who is basically responsible for everything bad that’s happened to his family. (Hell, Nucky even got Tommy’s surrogate dad, Richard Harrow, killed!)

So we all saw it coming, and maybe Nucky saw it coming as well. As fun as it was seeing Nucky (and Buscemi) back in snarling mode once Luciano and company began bringing the noise on him and his outfit in the last couple of episodes, Nucky slipped back into that reflective, regretful malaise that has made him such a mesmerizing character to watch these past two seasons. Losing everything to Luciano last week was basically a wake-up call to Nucky, who spent most of the finale fully aware the end was inevitable, and there was nothing he could do about it. He said good-bye to his brother and his ex-wife, the only loved ones he has left, got that long-ago postcard from his beloved Mabel, and was ready to go, almost content (or, at least, okay) in the knowledge that no matter how he left — either by plane, train, or handgun — he knew it was time for him to leave.

As far as series finales go, “Eldorado” carried such an air of morose, melancholic finality, even most of the characters acted as though each moment was their last. After years of this show beginning every episode with that Brian Jonestown Massacre–scored credit sequence of Nucky looking out at the ocean and imagining bottles washing up ashore, the episode was sans credit sequence, opening with an unclothed Nucky practically purifying himself in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. For a minute there, I thought dude was going out like Bruce Dern in Coming Home, taking one last, long swim — and the rest of the episode was going to be a long flashback leading up to that. But, as he revealed to Eli midway through the episode, he just decided to take a swim, something he hasn’t really done since he was a kid, which we saw him do in the season premiere (and at the end of the finale).

As for Luciano, the man who beat him, that celebrating he started last week with Lansky and Siegel was short-lived. Now that he was sliding into his reign as the new head of a unified crime syndicate, that cocksure gleam in his open eye wasn’t there. Downing booze like a Nucky-in-training, he began worrying about what he’d say to the bosses at the meeting and putting out preemptive hits on smack-talking “friends” like Narcisse (damn — where’s J. Edgar Hoover when you need him?!) in a desperate attempt to show there’s a new sheriff in town. Hey, even little pissants like Luciano can feel the pressure.

Luciano wasn’t the only arrogant gangster who was showing signs of vulnerability. After a season of acting like a constipated, coke-snorting psycho, Al Capone turned it down several notches, trying to keep a cool head for his family when the feds get him for tax evasion. (That scene with Capone and his deaf, now-teenage son was a heartbreaker, reminding viewers of the strong yet sorrowful layers Graham brought to his performance.) But even as he’s walking up the courthouse steps, he still keeps a brave, bombastic face, even rocking a white suit like Frank Nitti in The Untouchables. (Man, there are a lot of De Palma references in this episode!)

It wasn’t all gangsters heading into an uncertain, perhaps tragic future. Margaret figured prominently in the finale, showing off how shrewd a businesswoman she has become (didja notice how ol’ girl had her own office when we first see her?) when Joe Kennedy pops up and pops off, mad about the stock-shorting she and “her client” Nucky have been doing with shares from his Mayflower Grain Corporation. But once she hips Joe to short-selling along with her client in a plan to show how repeal is not possible as well as take away some cash for all three of them (Nucky wins big on this one, snatching up $2 million), she eventually wins Kennedy over with her money-flipping moxie. (She also cleverly rebuffed him when he tried to push up on her — God, I’m gonna miss her!)

I don’t know about you, but I always knew Margaret was going to be okay. While this show has had a knack for showing how helpless women were in a time when they most definitely were, Margaret’s has always been a beacon of feminine, independent light. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out well for Gillian Darmody, the show’s other, female character. But, then again, did it ever? Nucky finally pays her a visit at the asylum, telling her she’s got her own room, and a trust fund is ready for her if she ever leaves the place. Sadly, Nucky showed up too late — Dr. Cotton already took a scalpel to her midsection, alleviating her of the insanity she probably didn’t have to begin with.

Buscemi and Mol were both mesmerizing in their scene together, as Nucky, almost on the verge of tears, could barely look at Gillian, who wasn’t looking at him at all. Just as he was trying to convince her there’s nothing else he can do for her, he was trying to convince himself he’s not responsible for how she’s turned out — even though he completely is. Sure, we saw how young Nucky briefly grappled with turning over young Gillian to the Commodore. But, as Gillian reminded him back then, he has a family to support (or what’s left of it). And since the Commodore, that passive-aggressive prick, was dangling the sheriff badge over his head, he took the immoral initiative, an initiative that would eventually bite him in the ass decades down the line.

I recently talked with our TV-reviewing lord and savior Matt Zoller Seitz about the finale, and he brought up how Boardwalk was really a moralistic show. Dude’s got a point there. As much as it glammed up the gangster life, these sinners heavily paid the price for their misdeeds, while the people who had at least some sense of what’s right and wrong (Margaret being a prime example of that) went on to live another day. This season alone was all about these complicated bad guys — Chalky, Van Alden, Capone, Nucky — paying for their badness, in one way or another.

And there you have it, people. As hit-or-miss as Boardwalk Empire was during its five-season run, you can’t say it didn’t have a tale worth telling, full of characters both real and semi-fictional, living their lives until they know damn well they couldn’t anymore.

Here are a couple of final, stray thoughts:

  • Seriously, what the hell was up with future girl? Leave it to creator/finale co-writer Terence Winter, that former Sopranos scribe, to throw a surreal, head-scratching curveball in the final ep. (It certainly seemed like a dream sequence the way director Tim Van Patten sized up Buscemi and the girl in those panoramic, medium close-up shots.) Seitz and I went back and forth on this, with Seitz pondering if the girl was just young Gillian all dolled up. I said it couldn’t be — the girl looks older than young Gillian. At the moment, I’m thinking she’s just someone there to introduce Nucky to the future of television, since he goes in that tent and sees the girl sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a visual contraption. Perhaps this is Winter’s meta way of telling audiences how television continues to show us the future of entertainment just as it did nearly a century ago. But don’t quote me on this — I’m just throwing stuff out there. I’ve been wrong on here before!    
  • I just wanted to say although it was bumpy in the beginning, I had a blast recapping the final season of Boardwalk Empire. I hope you enjoyed reading the recaps, and if you didn’t, stop complaining and take your ass over to What’s Alan Watching? Good-bye, Boardwalk Empire, godspeed, and ON TO THE NEWSROOM!

Let’s Talk About Boardwalk Empire’s Finale