Season premiere review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Golden Days for Boys and Girls’

“Boardwalk Empire” is back for its final season. I interviewed Terence Winter about the decision to end the show (and to move the action forward to 1931), and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I sail away on a turtle…

“They're not so special. All they have is money. Ways to find that, I reckon.” -Nucky

Winter told me he wanted to bring the story of both Nucky and the series full circle, and “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” begins that process in more ways than one. Not only do we leap forward to 1931 to see Nucky preparing for the potential end of Prohibition (just as the series began in the hours leading up to the implementation of the Volstead Act), but we jump back in time to 1884, to the beginning of Nucky's apprenticeship with the Commodore.

Now, the issue with “Boardwalk” has always been that Nucky is among the show's less compelling characters. When he has a strong co-lead (Jimmy in seasons 1 and 2, Chalky last year), he can work very well as the more reserved and thoughtful counterpart to that man. On his own – and Nucky is very much on his own at this point, even though he and Sally are getting along just fine – he becomes too inwardly-focused for a show with so many outsized characters, both real and fictional. So in pairing Nucky's attempt to end his criminal career with flashbacks to its very start, Winter, Howard Korder and company are doubling down on a guy many viewers would rather see hanging in the background in favor of Chalky, Narcisse, Lansky, or the motley bunch in Chicago.

That said, I found myself liking the flashbacks – and not just for the novelty of John Ellison Conlee sounding eerily like Dabney Coleman at times as the young Commodore. Nucky and Eli have talked a lot about their awful childhood, but seeing it adds new depth and shading to their difficult upbringing. In particular, I like Ian Hart a lot as the young Ethan Thompson. We met the crotchety senior citizen version of Ethan in the show's first few seasons, and we've heard Nucky talk about what a monster the old man was, but Hart's performance and the writing manage to find both the man within the monster and vice versa. He's not just a cartoonish abuser who comes in yelling and smacking everyone in sight. He lets young Enoch tell the whole story of the ceremony at the pier and the coins he failed to secure, seems even tender for a moment, and then goes in for the brutal smack, knowing that Nucky will simply take it as part of the lesson, that his wife (caring for their dying daughter, and clearly afraid of Ethan) won't say anything, etc. We'll see if these flashbacks ultimately make us care more about Nucky, but it's a promising start, and it's good to have a functioning boardwalk set again after the show lost its lease on the original set after season 2.

In any era, and any location, Tim Van Patten continues to shoot the hell out of this show, and I liked seeing the transitions not only from present to past, but from the bright opulence of Nucky's decadent Havana lifestyle and the grim, grey world that Chalky has descended into over the past seven years. We get no explanation for how he wound up in prison (whether for the business with Narcisse or something later), and he says very little over the course of the hour, but exposition is unnecessary. Michael Kenneth Williams' face says all we need to know about how far Chalky has fallen and how much he hates himself for the mistakes that led to this point.

By jumping ahead to 1931, we lose the organized crime convention that the real Nucky Johnson set up in 1929 (assuming Winter ever had plans to dramatize it, given how far the stories of the two Nuckys have diverged), but we land in a major year for the stories of the wiseguys and of the illegal liquor trade. Nucky knows Prohibition is on the way out, and is trying to buy an influential senator's vote as part of his retirement plan. Lucky Luciano, meanwhile, finally gets out from under the unyielding thumb of Joe Masseria(*), though for the moment he seems to have simply traded one godfather for another by jumping over to work with Salvatore Maranzano. And even in a more reputable business – even if it's just as rotten as bootlegging – like the brokerage house where Margaret still works, the Great Depression has taken a heavy toll, and one that drives her boss to a very public suicide.

(*) Luciano actually being at the restaurant when Bugsy Siegel and others assassinate Masseria seems to be a case of “Boardwalk Empire” printing the legend rather than the fact. (Most historical accounts dispute the tall tales about Lucano being present.) But for dramatic purposes, it's necessary to have him there, given how conflicted he's been about the relationship with Masseria for much of the run of the series.

As always happens at the start of a “Boardwalk” season, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” is almost entirely set-up, albeit with a few memorable pieces of action like Chalky's escape from the chain gang, Masseria's murder and the failed hit on Nucky in Havana. Given that Nucky, love him or hate him, is our central character, the most pivotal event of the hour takes place back in 1884, when he gives the $50 bill back to the rich man and only gets a job sweeping sand out of it. You can look at that as a big bet that fails, or as Nucky – like “Boardwalk Empire” itself – playing the long game. That's an enormous amount of money (over $1200 in today's dollars) for a poverty-stricken kid like Nucky to give up. But he knows – even if the Commodore refuses to acknowledge it – that there's much more money to be made over the long haul from becoming part of the Commodore's machine than there was in that hat. And we know from where we found Nucky at the start of the series that the gamble paid off enormously, even if Nucky's bottomless need for more kept bringing him frequent physical and financial peril.

Will the various stories introduced here pay off as well for us in the audience as Nucky's gamble did? We'll see, especially with a shorter season to play with. But after the previous four seasons all ended so well – and almost always made the slow early parts of those years feel rewarding in hindsight – I've learned not to bet against this show.

Some other thoughts:

* It's good to still have Patricia Arquette around as Sally, and to see that the nature of her relationship with Nucky hasn't changed much in seven years. They still enjoy each other's company and are good business partners, but neither has any illusions that this is some great romance.

* The flashbacks introduce us to several familiar HBO actors, including Ian Hart (one of the degenerate gamblers from “Luck”) as Nucky's father Ethan, and Boris McGiver (the odious Lt. Marimow from “The Wire”) as the sheriff. Meanwhile, that's Nolan Lyons as young Nucky.

* Character actor Paul Calderon makes an early impression as the quiet bodyguard who foils the attack on Nucky and takes an ear as a trophy. With Jimmy, Owen and Richard Harrow long dead, the show could use some interesting muscle, and Calderon seems to fit the bill nicely.

* By far the biggest downside to the time jump: we lose Arnold Rothstein, who was murdered in 1928 (allegedly over a poker debt). Though Margaret's business arrangement with “Mr. Redstone” has been over for three years, it's clear she has a reason to try to access the Redstone file before her bosses can do it.

* Absent this week: Narcisse, Gillian, Mickey Doyle and the show's Chicago contingent. Always a juggling act with an ensemble this big and widespread.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at