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Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Series Finale, ‘Eldorado,’ Can’t Avoid the Past Forever

Review: 'Boardwalk Empire' Series Finale, 'Eldorado,' Can't Avoid the Past Forever

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

“The war’s over, the other side won.” The final installment in the five-year run of “Boardwalk Empire” was an episode of farewells; genuinely and subtly, Nucky knew he had to say goodbye. The episode is titled “Eldorado” after the upscale apartment building, a staple of the Central Park West skyline, that Nucky thinks of moving into, but Eldorado means something else: a city of gold, a place rich with opportunity. For young Enoch Thompson, that was Atlantic City. But after losing one of his few friends Mickey Doyle and all of his business in “Friendless Child” he is leaving for New York. Already the home of Luciano and company, and Margaret and the children, New York is his new land of opportunity. 

Margaret made it there, and yet again “Boardwalk Empire” dedicates time to showing us and Nucky how far she has come. This time, confronted by Joe Kennedy, she boldly takes on the stock game to everyone’s benefit. “I haven’t your appetite for danger,” she tells Nucky, but she’s lying. This girl has pointed a gun at her brother-in-law and twisted the arm of Arnold Rothstein. She makes Kennedy writhe while she instructs his broker to wait and wait and wait for the right moment. She’s really a natural. When she tells Nucky the good news, without directly asking, she implies she’d like help paying for a new place. Bold as always. 

In “Eldorado,” America’s organized crime network became just that, a network, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Capone, betrayed by D’Angelo who was in truth an undercover federal agent, is going to jail. For the first time in several seasons, the show took a moment to give a little humanity to its most famous character, and his emotional goodbye to his deaf son was a reminder of where he came from. Remember the scene when the Capone’s learned the boy was deaf, Jimmy Darmody snapping right next to his unflinching ear? Jimmy had a kid, too.

What We Learn About Nucky this Week

Nucky did a lot of waxing philosophical this week, so a lot of what we learned about him came from his own lips. “The first time I was tipped a nickle,” he says, “I thought, ‘the world is a marvelous place; but a dime, a dime would be better.'” Nucky has always wanted more. As sheriff, he controlled Atlantic City; as treasurer, Atlantic County. At the dawn of Prohibition and the beginning of “Boardwalk Empire,” he occupied a floor of the Ritz and had all of the politics of the state of New Jersey under his thumb. And he wanted more.

This is evident in the episode’s first return to the 1897 storyline, where Nucky is begging for more responsibility. The Commodore scolds him for his feeling of entitlement. Nucky didn’t only want more, he also thought he deserved it.

The Most Shocking Moment of Violence

What made Nucky’s violent end so shocking was not that it happened, but how and why and when it happened. There had to be a reason that Winter and his writers included Joel Harper, the baby-faced do-gooder who only wanted to get ahead. The finale’s big reveal is that Harper was not Harper at all, just another character who — like Rothstein and Nucky and Kennedy when dealing with stocks, Margaret and Van Alden when trying to start over, or even D’Angelo when penetrating Capone’s crew — discovers how useful it can be to do business under a fake name. When we last saw Tommy Darmody, he was still a little boy, left by Richard in the trusted hands of Juila Sagorsky in 1924. In 1931, talking to Nucky on the boardwalk he says that his grandma used to talk about Nucky. This brings us back to what I said last week was what “Boardwalk Empire” was really all about: a man having to constantly fend off the consequences of the difficult decisions he has made in the past.

He makes sure with Richard in Season 3 that Richard will not avenge Jimmy’s death, and with that he felt in the clear. As Tommy blasted a few lethal shots and Nucky lay dying on the boardwalk, he reflects on his assassin’s grandparents, the little girl who trusted him on that very boardwalk years before, and the man who wanted her.

READ MORE: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Season 5 Episode 7 ‘Friendless Child’ Brought Nucky to his Knees

Most Flagrant Flouting of the Law

Nothing scoffs at the law quite like making plans under the assumption that the police will just go away. Kennedy and his Mayflower Grain Corp. are shown early in the episode debating whether to act on their possible Bacardi partnership in the hopes that Prohibition is repealed. That the board members are pessimistic about those prospects serves the plot in that it forces them to sell their holdings and makes Kennedy and Nucky very, very rich. Damn shame only one of them really benefited from that. 

Most Memorable Dialogue

“In the end, we do what we have the nerve for, or we disappear.” So the Commodore tells Nucky near the beginning of “Eldorado,” when the young deputy sheriff comes asking for a promotion.  What does Nucky have the nerve for? At this point, his nerve has hardly been tested. This taunt instructs Nucky’s actions. He won’t get anywhere by working hard, he’ll get there if he has the nerve. 

Nucky’s responses to the Commodore’s condescension are consistent with the quick wit he has always shown in his adult years. When asked if he is trying to threaten the Commodore, he replies, “I’m telling you that I’m loyal, and ready to be of use.” Being “of use” is hardly how we have come to know Nucky, a powerful and independent chameleon who has always been able to change to take advantage of his surroundings. Of course, this exchange sticks in the viewers’ minds because we know for what he will be used, but also that in one way or another it will haunt him. “I’m not a boy anymore,” he says. Well, neither is Tommy.

Where Story Meets History

It finally happened. When it was announced that “Boardwalk Empire’s” fifth season would be set in 1931, the first thing that went through my mind was this was the year when Luciano and Lanksy built the Commission, the governing body of the American Cosa Nostra to regulate how business is done, and more importantly, monopolize power to the Italians. Every week, I noted in this section that the Commission was coming and all of the signs: the Masseria hit, Lucky’s visit to Chicago, the Maranzano hit, Torrio arranging a meeting of the bosses and so on. Well, it came, just as promised.

Prior to this meeting that the episode depicts, Luciano had used his influence to divide New York City into five territories and designated each to a different crime family. The Commission originally had seven members which included Capone’s Chicago outfit, the Buffalo outfit lead by Stefano Magaddino, as well as seats for the Five New York Families: Vincente Mangano, head of the Gambino Family; Tommy Gagliano, head of the Lucchese Family; Joseph Bonanno, head of the Bonanno Family; Joe Profaci, head of the Colombo Family; and yes, Charlie Lucciano who headed what would become the Genovese Family.

Lucky was elected as the first Chairman of the Commission in spite of advocating the eliminate the position “Boss of All Bosses.” Lanksy and Seigel, both Jewish, could not be part of the Cosa Nostra, but remained influential in organized crime. Lansky became known as the “Mob’s Accountant,” working closely with Lucciano and overseeing much of the Five Families’ money-laundering. Bugsy became the face of what the press named Murder, Incorporated, organizing hired assassins for the mafia until he was killed himself in 1947. 

On a less serious note, Al Capone asks his brother Ralph in this episode is he thinks Marlene Dietrich is a lesbian. She was, or at least bisexual. Now you know. I bet that was killing Al during his upcoming 11 years in prison, some of which was served in Alcatraz. 

Best Musical Interlude

The last time Nucky and Margaret would ever see each other was at a prospective apartment in the Eldorado. After doing what Nucky does best — talking business and turning it into a moment of personal reflection — he remarks to his wife, “We danced, once.” And just like that, after his heartfelt apology, they completed the goodbye by swinging briefly to “It Must Be True” by Bing Crosby.

The Biggest Flopperoo

The Commodore and Nucky’s deaths have much in common. They were both at the hands of the Commodore’s family, making them both direct results — both because of revenge and because of biology — of the Commodore’s twisted hunger for Gillian Darmody.  He was killed by his own son, Jimmy, right in front of Gillian. The final interaction between the Commodore and Nucky before the arrangement was heated, and the Commodore made the fateful mistake of upsetting and eventually making an enemy of Nucky. His intent was to motivate Nucky with fear, the idea that because Nucky felt like the Commodore could cast him aside very easily he would be more willing to do the Commodore’s dirty work. This succeeded in the short term. Nucky conceeded to bringing him Gillian and he didn’t even have to point, just a nod in the right direction did the trick. He got what he wanted. But as an enemy of Nucky’s he would lose control of the city he built, and that’s what mattered to both of them most. The war between these two was the first of the series, it was the end of the Commodore and lead to Nucky killing Jimmy, for which he eventually had to pay.

The Best, Most Killer-Diller Moment

The two final episodes of “Boardwalk Empire” focused on the emergence and ultimate conclusion of the relationship between Nucky Thompson and Gillian Darmody. Gillian’s letter clearly caught Nucky’s attention, influencing his omnipresently apologetic tone throughout the episode. His visit to Gillian at the institution was not the climactic redemption many had hoped for it to be, but it was appropriate punctuation to end their relationship. 

“Let’s just get something straight,” he begins, “Whatever you want, whatever you think I’ll do, that won’t be possible.” He compliments her but in a subversive way. “You were very clever, you made a bargain to save your own neck.” On the surface, he is commenting on the fact that she isn’t in prison for murder, and that she found a way to get in contact with him. But he is also justifying their history. Who knows what would have happened to Nucky if he hadn’t served the Commodore, and who knows what would have happened to Gillian had she resisted? Nucky took the Commodore’s bargain, and it still eats away at him. The best answer he has is to throw money at a problem until the problem goes away, but that answer just isn’t good enough anymore.

Grade: B

READ MORE: “Boardwalk Empire” is Great, But What Keeps it From Breaking Out?

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