Though the specific reasons these two HBO dramas are great are complete opposites — “The Sopranos'” depiction of family life and the day-to-day, as opposed to “Boardwalk Empire’s” sweeping coverage of real-life gangsters — they are unmistakably cut from the same cloth. In large part, that is because of Terence Winter.
The staff writer and executive producer on “The Sopranos” created and served as showrunner for all of “Boardwalk Empire,” bringing with him more than just geography. Actors like Greg Antonacci, Dominic Chianese and literally dozens of guest stars leaped from “Sopranos” to “Boardwalk.” (Oh, and Steve Buscemi.) And both shows were willing to make every episode exciting with the ever-present threat of a lead getting whacked — Big Pussy and Jimmy Darmody died in the same episode even. So even though they took their respective tales of the New Jersey criminal underworld in vastly different directions, it isn’t surprising that in many ways they wound up in the same place.
The show’s 2007 finale, or at least the final handful of shots in David Chase’s masterpiece “The Sopranos,” can already be labeled as iconic. The hotly debated meaning of that shocking ending is still a mystery (even though Chase caused a bit of a ruckus only a few weeks ago), and probably will be forever. Even non-“Sopranos” fans know how it went: The Sopranos, having some needed family time, go out to dinner, creepy guy walks into the bathroom, Meadow heads into the restaurant, Tony looks up, cut to black.
There is no such ambiguity embedded in the demise of Nucky Thompson, lying on the boardwalk of his one-time empire while Tommy Darmody avenges his father by putting a bullet in Nucky’s cheek, exactly mirroring Jimmy’s season 2 death. Still, the similarities are peppered throughout the final walks of the two dons of Jersey.
Let’s start not with the finales, but in the episodes immediately before. The empires Tony and Nucky built were crumbling, if not completely gone, amidst wars with their New York counterparts. But the connection between the ends of the two shows that first struck me was the deaths of Mickey Doyle and Chalky White on “Boardwalk Empire.” Two of Nucky’s longest partners, Chalky had repeatedly proved a useful ally, and Mickey shocked everybody by how well he rose through the ranks. Mickey, who had just come to own the club, went first, then the episode ended with Chalky’s wonderfully choreographed sacrifice.
In the second-to-last installment of “The Sopranos,” Tony’s two closest allies also bite the dust: “We’re gonna cut off the head” was the war plan of the New York gang, so they removed Tony’s brother-in-law Bobby and Consigliere Silvio — incidentally, the owner of their strip club who had been with Tony for all six seasons. Just before he died, Jimmy warned Nucky, “Now all you can do is wait until you run out of booze, and out of company.” Winter and Chase made it so their heroes had to go into their final battle all alone.
Then in their respective finales, the last thing Tony does before heading to the famous diner and the last thing Nucky does before going to collect his things at the boardwalk are direct parallels. For Tony, it is a last visit to Uncle Junior, his mentor who once tried to have him assassinated and once pulled the trigger himself. An elderly man, Junior is locked up at an institution for mentally disabled criminals. He has gone senile, which climaxed with his accidental shooting of Tony. On this visit, he doesn’t remember his nephew, or his niece or long-time caretaker Bobby, whom Tony mentions. Many have suggested that this scene puts Tony in a world in between the living and the dead, where Junior’s body is still alive but his mind has departed.
Meanwhile, in “Eldorado,” Nucky’s final stop en route to his own death was also an asylum for the criminally insane. Gillian, while lacking the scars of a lobotomy, is clearly not herself — a devastating contrast to the clever and elegant businesswoman she once was. She also fails to recognize her visitor, and even if she does, she has no interest in what he has to say.
And now to Nucky’s climactic final walk down the boardwalk. The last scene in “The Sopranos” has been studied ad nauseam, probably moreso than any other sequence in the history of scripted television. Noteworthy is the apparent familiarity of the other patrons at the diner, nods to specters from Tony’s past: An older man in a baseball cap who looks like a former associate who flipped and Tony had killed, two young black men dressed eerily like the ones who tried to assassinate Tony years ago, and so on. Then, in walks the Man in “Members Only” Jacket.
Nucky’s ending is cut with flashbacks embodying the specters of his past, but also an encounter similar to “The Sopranos.” Nuck stumbles upon, or more accurately he is stumbled into by, drunk kids in Princeton sweaters. Like the odd doppelgangers from Tony’s crooked past, this serves as a reminder of a young, uncorrupted Jimmy Darmody. There’s the poster of a red-headed showgirl, which is what became of the girl he once betrayed on the same boardwalk. Then, like Members Only guy, there is the out-of-place-looking man, eyeing Nucky.
We know that he was not Nucky’s assassin, so why was he there? Assuming everything is for a reason, this is Winter’s ultimate respecting tip of the hat to the former show. He is a red herring. Nucky and the audience alike, as the tension builds, become aware of the potential danger. Like “The Sopranos'” possible nod to “The Godfather” — going into the bathroom to retrieve the murder weapon — “Boardwalk Empire” nods to “The Sopranos.” That anonymous man did not kill Nucky, instead he was a distraction from the real danger. Maybe Members Only guy is too. If anyone on the planet might know, it would be Terence Winter.
We’ll probably never know what happened to Tony Soprano, but we do know what happened to Nucky Thompson. It may not be as chilling as the famous cut-to-black, but the final images of “Boardwalk” were moving: The point of view of a dying man as the sound fades out, reflections of a life filled with constantly reaching for money.
Even the names of the two finales bear a resemblance. “Made in America,” the final chapter of “The Sopranos,” reflects the exceptionalist optimism of the American people, especially descendants of Italian immigrants like Tony and Carmela. Their son A.J. says in the episode, “It’s like America, this is still where people come to make it. It’s a beautiful idea.” Sounds like he’s describing Eldorado, the city of gold, the land of endless opportunity.