An underwhelming ending to an unfortunately underwhelming final season. “Boardwalk Empire” concluded exactly as many thought it would —I predicted who administered the final death hammer stroke a few episodes ago myself— but inevitable or not, the finale was lacking a resonant emotional center. And like the entire season, it was an episode of inevitability tipped off early on, coupled with slow goodbyes, as most of the characters either closed the book entirely or started to look towards their future.
It’s a wrap for Al Capone (Stephen Graham). In Chicago. The mobster puts on a brave face, but knows there is no escaping the IRS. Capone feigns a few moves, tell his brother Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi) to bribe who he can, but this is a federal case, not something within the jurisdiction of the Windy City, and it soon dawns upon Capone that the end is near. In one of the few touching moments to come from the Chi-town narratives of “Boardwalk Empire,” Capone says a heartfelt goodbye to his young deaf son. He then slowly marches up the steps and turns himself in to the police, while mugging for the camera. But a flash of fear crosses his face when he looks up the steps at the Feds, led by Mike D’Angelo (Louis Cancelmi). His goose is cooked.
Back in New York, the war is over and it’s been won by Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), and Bugsy Siegel (Michael Zegen). Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is out of the picture. Atlantic City is now theirs, and it’s a small matter of controlling all of New York. “What about our friend?” Siegel asks, and Luciano orders a in public execution to send a clear message. We know he isn’t talking about Nucky Thompson, though the show keeps you in the dark for a while. Luciano is referring to his last remaining competitor, the African-American gangster Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). And sure enough, just after giving a sermon in church, the good doctor is gunned down in cold blood, just as his parish is singing his praises. There’s talk of getting everyone out of the way that’s not on board and Siegel insists this should include Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) who’s “dead weight” in his estimation. Spoiler-phobes should know (here’s your cue to exit) that Torrio died of natural causes, so it appears that the young gangsters let the old man be. They meet with the other four main mob bosses and toast a new future, which won’t include Capone, Thompson, or Narcisse for that matter. It’s a new age for gangsterdom in America.
Ultimately, “Boardwalk Empire” concerns the fictional character Enoch Thompson and how his bootlegging and racketeering fit into the era of prohibition. And there’s an exhausted and melancholy air to Nucky, because he knows he’s at the end of the line— though he does have one last trick up his sleeve. He told Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) in her downtown investment job to short the Mayflower grain stock to the tune of 50,000 shares in the last episode. It’s a message that rattles Joseph Kennedy (Matt Letscher) who had seemingly dismissed Nucky in episode five. And this is where Nucky shows how shrewd he is, even when he’s down and out, The idea is to get all the other investors to panic and sell their stock so Nucky can buy it up for nothing, turn the stock around and get rich. And it works. Kennedy (a member of the Mayflower board) even barges into Margaret’s office, demanding to know what’s going on and she lets him in on the plan, which saves Kennedy’s finances. Nucky’s Atlantic City is gone, and yet he’s $2 million dollars richer from the Mayfair shorting scheme. Frankly, this subplot is convoluted, but its purpose is for Nucky to show up Kennedy and to prove he’s got lots of spark even when the chips are down and to get rich, all of which are accomplished.
But Nucky is obviously saying farewell and leaving New York permanently. He meets his brother Eli (Shea Wigham) and says this is where they should part for good, but their childhood dynamic is still in place. “How come you got to be the wise one?” Eli says both sadly and resentfully during their heart to heart. “Because you needed me to be,” Nucky replies. He says his final goodbyes to his brother, but gives him the means for a new start: a big, big chunk of cash, and a razor and shaving brush to clean off the shadow of defeat Eli’s been wearing for several years now.
Nucky even says a final goodbye to Margaret Thompson. She’s the one that informs him that he’s rich; living by a thread with this go-for-broke plan, Nucky didn’t even pay attention to Wall Street that day. They reminisce, get nostalgic and even have a dreamy romantic moment as they dance and gently sway to some music. “We danced once,” Nucky says perhaps half-heartedly suggested they could do so again. And when she embraces him tenderly, it seems like she too could be willing to go down that road once again. But their sentimental bubble is burst by a broker showing other clients the same Manhattan apartment Nucky is semi-interested in renting.
And then of course there are the flashbacks of 1897. And this is where, if we can digress for a moment to Damon Lindelof’s “There is no suspense in inevitability” proverb about prequels, rings absolutely true. We’ve known Nucky Thompson’s backstory all along, or at least the salient parts about the death of his wife and how he went to go work for the Commodore (John Ellison Conlee). And it even became super clear a few episodes ago that Nucky’s point of no return would be handing over the young Gillian Darmody over to the Commodore, a lecherous pederast. But there is indeed no suspense or power or emotional weight in that inevitability.
And yes, in this final episode, Nucky’s wife Mabel (Maya Kazan), miscarries and we know how that ends. So what has been the point of these flashbacks? Well, mainly to show that to get the success, wealth and privilege Nucky so desperately wanted, he had to make a deal with the devil via his transaction with the Commodore. We had to see him morally and spiritually compromise himself in ways we already assumed he had all along, and he wouldn’t have arrived at this point if he hadn’t. And of course, now Nucky has to finally pay the prices all these years later —conveniently as all these flashbacks are finally being revealed. And the flashbacks were the critical misjudgment of this final season. At best, they’ve been elegant and occasionally moving, but mostly they’ve robbed the slow-paced show of its narrative momentum and sidetracked the main emotional resonance of the present by living too deeply in the past.
In the end it seemed like a long tail device to tie the tragedy that befell Gillian to the death of Nucky Thompson; one long fateful act of comeuppance for his original sin. So of course, present day Nucky visits Gillian (Gretchen Mol) in her psychiatric ward to atone in his own way. She’s asked for his help one last time. But Nucky doesn’t have the same clout he once had and he’s come to tell her as much. More to the point, it’s too late. Gillian’s had some kind of surgery and she’s no longer herself. He arranges to get her a private room and a trust fund for whenever she gets out, which is all he can do now. “The past is the past, nothing can change it. What do you expect of me?” he says, almost through tears. “There’s still graciousness in the world,” she says vacantly as she bids him farewell.
At this point, the show really becomes predictable. There’s one last problem at Nucky’s Ritz Hotel and he’s called in to take care of it. It’s none other than Joel Harper (Travis Tope), the boy with the unmistakable resemblance to Jimmy Darmody (Gillian’s son! See where this is headed?). Nucky bails him out of trouble once again, tries to help out the boy and Harper essentially spits in Nucky’s face with pride, even tearing up the money he’s been given (remember that shot from last episode folks, it’s coming).
And so yes, Joel Harper is the gunman on the trigger who takes Nucky Thompson down. What’s worse, as the Internet had already suspected, he’s actually the young Tommy Darmody, all grown up and he’s been plotting all along to get bad ol’ Nucky for the bind he put his grandmother Gillian in. Yes, this final punishment is a little too much. Predictability aside, it holds no emotional power and is completely empty. To underscore the moment even further, the show completely misjudges and crosscuts this section with the past, with Nucky holding out his hand to the young Gillian saying, “I promise I’ll always look after you.” The betrayal of Gillian, and even his own personal betrayal of his ideals is complete. And so it’s a fait accompli, as much as his death is seconds later. Gee, subtle much?
What’s meant to be a classic, tragic, but also a fitting final penance is just far too overt and clunky in its attempt to hammer over theme and allegory. Everything’s come full circle, blatantly so.
It’s a disappointing end to a uneven final season. It turns out in Nucky’s final moments, the IRS was on his tail —even if he had survived, the tax men would have put the lights out just as he was starting his new future. Just in case you missed it all, because restraint has apparently been forsaken. The final shot is of Nucky, blood trickling down his face from the hole in his cheek —the same place where he shot and killed Jimmy Darmody.