Instead, over the past four seasons, it’s quietly murdered its way through dozens of tertiary cast members while blending real mafiosos with composite characters. As the show’s path is mostly dictated by historical events, its most memorable moments tend to bounce between the shocking deaths you’d expect from a HBO drama and intimate moments of character — ensuring that your investment in the series is driven entirely by how much you empathize with its core cast. (Richard Harrow, you will be missed.)
This is what leads to one of the things that proves most fascinating about “Boardwalk Empire”: The fact that one of its greatest strengths — its large, compelling ensemble of actors — is also one of its primary weaknesses. It’s not that “Boardwalk” isn’t ruthless when it comes to killing off people — every episode seems to contain at least two or three surprising moments of bloodletting, often via unexpected murder weapons or secretly stashed guns.
But since the surprise death of Jimmy (Michael Pitt) in Season 2, the show has kept on characters for far longer than essential, to the point where, in this final season, characters are scattered far and wide across the Eastern United States (and Cuba!), with few clues as to how some of them will ever reconnect. Seriously, in the fifth season, Michael Shannon, Michael Kenneth Williams and Kelly MacDonald occupy storylines separated so far apart, geographically and narratively, that it makes “Game of Thrones” look like a workplace sitcom.
Which is a shame, because it was specifically the interplay between kingpin Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) and those three which drove much of the show’s earlier seasons. However, here in Season 5 “Boardwalk” seems interested in shifting from an ensemble focus to more about Nucky, as flashbacks depicting his early days as a kid learning the racket that is Atlantic City stretch out beyond the season premiere.
“True Blood” just tried a similiar tactic with its final season, padding episodes with flashbacks to Vampire Bill’s pre-vampire past, in an effort to deepen his humanity (arguably without much success). But the Nucky flashbacks are less about garnering sympathy for a character in need of rehabilitiation, and more about clarifying his origins, and how his rise to power in Atlantic City has been a longer journey than we know.
Nucky stands out as a gangster very much of a post-“Sopranos” model; thanks to both some perfectly-written moments and the incredible talents of Buscemi, the character is one of television’s more human anti-heroes. Compared to, say, the teeth-baring rage of Walter White, Nucky is actually what so many of these fellows claim to be — a businessman, through and through, and a businessman whose business is about to change dramatically (imagine what he’d make of Atlantic City’s current financial predicament).
The fifth season dawns as the end of Prohibition looms, and Nucky has plans to go legit with the liquor business — helping him to that end is the returning Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette), smoothing things over in a Cuba still decades away from Communism. (While Arquette’s commitment to a fast-talkin’ dame patter feels less period-authentic and more like Arquette has seen a lot of Rosalind Russell movies, it quickly becomes a guilty pleasure.)
In general, the 1920s and 30s are such an underexplored period in television that all of the historical and cultural touches scattered throughout give the show a patina of freshness. The uniqueness of its setting was always a big part in making up for the lack of uniqueness in its subject matter — the intersection of sex, drugs, money and murder feels like it’s been the engine driving 90 percent of adult drama over the last decade, and perhaps it’s been those tropes which keep “Boardwalk” from feeling like a bit of a footnote to HBO’s more attention-grabbing series.
But when it digs into its characters, and lets them breathe, the show is more than compelling. As things draw to a close, the odds of the great characters developed over the last four years reuniting grow, which can only lead to great things. A less scattered “Boardwalk” is one that will likely end in triumph.