Series finale review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Eldorado’

“Boardwalk Empire” came to an end tonight. I spoke at length with creator Terence Winter, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I think about the things I want in life, then imagine myself in a dress…

“What are you in the end, anyway?”
“I'm what I need to be.”
“How's that make you anything at all?
-The Commodore & Nucky

And so “Boardwalk Empire” died as it lived: with a tightly-plotted installment that paid off many storylines from both the final season and the entire series, and one where the most memorable, powerful scene involved someone other than Nucky Thompson.

Although the Nucky material was pretty damn powerful and satisfying in its own right.

The most powerful scene in question: Al Capone telling his son about his impending prison sentence, and the boy not only offering to help his dad, but putting up his dukes as a reminder of the boxing lesson his dad tried to give him all those years before (in season 3's “Blue Bell Boy”). It's a perfect example of the patience and sense of its own history that “Boardwalk Empire” displayed throughout its run, and another heartbreaking moment from Stephen Graham, who has consistently managed to find the vulnerability beneath Al's monstrous, homicidal bluster. Capone has more than earned his fate – legally, he's getting off lightly, as tax evasion was the only charge the government could easily prove – but we've also gotten to know the man behind the scarface over these years, and seeing his private human side as he prepares for the end of his public reign of terror was incredibly moving.

The challenge with “Boardwalk Empire” was always in trying to make the show's fictional criminals as vivid and compelling as the real ones. Often, the show succeeded, as we saw at various points with Jimmy, Chalky, Richard and Narcisse. Other prominent characters like Owen came and went without leaving a huge impression. And always there was Nucky Thompson: the still, mysterious center of the series, who at times deserved his first-among-equals position and at others made one wish we could just get back to Cicero or Manhattan or the north side of Atlantic City.

The Nucky we've known all these years is actually absent for a good chunk of the finale, which opens with a visual wink at the title sequence: instead of a fully-dressed Nucky watching the surf pound against the shore, we see Nucky's clothes piled atop the sand as the man swims out to sea, going so far that it's unclear if he might ever come back.

But this season has given us more than one Nucky to follow, as part of an attempt to help us better understand the show's main character before we learned his final fate. And the flashbacks have done their job, particularly once we shifted to 1897 and got to watch Marc Pickering's remarkable Steve Buscemi impression (along with striking young versions of the Commodore and Gillian). Nucky has told us about his history before, but the showing has been vastly more potent than the telling, never more than when we got to meet young Gillian and  see the bright, promising young girl she was before Nucky delivered her to the Commodore. We've only known the emotionally damaged schemer that Gretchen Mol has been playing, and while it's easy to feel sympathy for her in the abstract, in practice we've just seen the ruinous effect she had on Jimmy, and potentially on Tommy. (And much more on him in a bit.) Getting that visceral sense of what Nucky did to Gillian, and how that original sin reverberated through generations of the Darmody family, made clear why Nucky's story was likely going to end up the way that it did, and the flashbacks as a whole gave us a much richer sense of who Nucky was before the Commodore manipulated him into becoming his new pimp.

When Nucky asks Gillian to trust him in the flashback – a scene devastatingly intercut with the final moments of Nucky's life, and one that had me yelling at the TV in hopes that the characters' history could be rewritten at this late date – we realize that both their lives were irrevocably damaged the moment their hands touched.

There's a brief moment earlier in the hour, when Nucky and Margaret enjoy a slow dance in the famous apartment building that gives the episode its title, where it seems like he may, in fact, get to live happily ever after with the woman he loves, and who seems willing to take him back and accept that they both did wrong in their time together (even if his wrongs were more numerous and greater than hers). But the moment's ruined by the arrival of another pair of potential renters, and then family obligations bring Nucky back to Atlantic City – just as those obligations kept him in the town he hated for so very long – and once there, the obligation he feels for “Joe,” and the many sins he committed against the Darmody family(*) are returned in kind. As many of you had predicted (and as I was starting to believe until last week), Joe is, indeed, a teenage Tommy Darmody, come to meet the man his meemaw told him so many stories about before he was taken away from her, and though he doesn't know all the details of his father's murder, he winds up shooting Nucky in the same spot under the eye where the fatal bullet hit Jimmy all those years ago.

(*) We can see in the way young Nucky bridles at the favoritism the Commodore shows to Neary and others the same frustration that started Jimmy on the path against Nucky back in season 1.

Though Terence Winter came out of “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire” was its own kind of show: neat and tidy where its predecessor was defiantly messy, and cathartic where “Sopranos” proudly avoided closure. The series occasionally dabbled in dream sequences and other elliptical storytelling devices favored by HBO's previous Jersey mob drama, but for the most part it was a precision engine, confidently moving towards the finish line of each seasonal race, and the closer it got to that finish line, the less time there usually was for anything that wasn't strictly about wrapping up the plot and the character arcs.

But “Eldorado” put the story on pause for the marvelously strange interlude where a boardwalk barker – who claims to be “from the future” – leads Nucky into her tent. This is not the set-up for his murder, but a chance for Nucky to get a glimpse of the actual future(**), in the form of a primitive television set that shows the future woman singing “Twinkle Twinkle.”

(**) I thought it was a nice touch that the score in that scene evoked the opening notes of the original “Star Trek” theme. UPDATE: Several of our more cultured commenters pointed out that it's the opening of Mahler's 1st symphony, which would mean that “Star Trek” is evocative of it, and not the other way around. 

This is all Nucky will ever see of what's to come, however. He has a date with a bullet from Tommy's gun, and the future will belong to Luciano and Lansky in the criminal world, and Joe Kennedy in the more legitimate world. Margaret and a few other people might remember Nucky, but he'll be forgotten by almost everyone else – a footnote at best in a biography of Lucky or Al.

When the Commodore fires Nucky – a brilliant, cruel setup for the moment when Whitlock will then offer a new badge to the desperate Nucky in exchange for Gillian – he wonders, as many of us have at different points of the series, exactly who and what our inscrutable main character is. This final season has done more than the previous four combined to help us understand this man we've been watching mingle with history – and made his ultimate fate much more potent than it would have been had he remained Sphinx-like. The answer to the Commodore's question is a fairly simple one: Nucky Thompson was a good man born into a bad circumstance, who decided he would do anything to escape it and build a life that would put his father's to shame. But his own family situation never works out for long (at various points he loses biological children, adopted ones and surrogate ones), and the empire he built is simply absorbed into Luciano's far greater one. He has a chance to start over with Margaret and the fortune they made on the Mayflower deal, but Nucky made too many mistakes along the way to get a happily ever after.

The woman on the boardwalk claims to have traveled from the future that Nucky won't get to see, while Tommy Darmody – who never resembled his old man more than in this episode – is a time traveler from Nucky's past, here to remind him of where he came from and all the people he hurt and destroyed to get to this moment. It's a definitive end to Nucky's story(***), and an effective one.

(***) As Jimmy and Richard did before him, Nucky disappears not into eternity, but into a dream of the thing he wanted most. For Jimmy, it was to be back in the trenches with the boys, while Richard wanted a peaceful life with Julia and Tommy. Nucky? Nucky's that little boy again, finally grabbing hold of the gold coin he couldn't quite get to in life – a representative for all of the things (family and respectability chief among them) that always remained just beyond his reach.

“Boardwalk Empire” had its flaws and rough edges, and this compressed final season was at times rougher than most. But when this show clicked (as in many of the moments embedded below), it was extraordinary. And “Eldorado” was a fine, appropriate capper to the series – one last example of how well Winter, Howard Korder, Tim Van Patten and company knew how to bring stories to a satisfying close.

Some other thoughts:

* Nucky's meeting with Gillian in 1931 isn't quite as brutal as the concluding sequence with the Gillian of 1897, but the realization that she has become another guinea pig of Dr. Cotton, and that she'll remain in that hospital, was pretty crushing in its own right. (It reminded me of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”; Gillian has more reason for being in a mental hospital than McMurphy did, but in both cases, what seemed like it would be a good alternative to a prison stretch instead became an ongoing horror show.) With Tommy apparently being dragged off by feds (who, per Winter, were trailing Nucky in hopes of duplicating the success of the Capone operation), Nucky has helped destroy three generations of this family.

* Of all our fictional characters, Margaret comes out of the series in the best shape, having made a good amount of money on the Mayflower deal, and having impressed Joe Kennedy enough to become his new broker. Also, I appreciated that in the Elodrado scene, Margaret didn't try to absolve herself of responsibility for her time with Nucky, since she gladly took all the things he offered, even knowing the sins that produced them.

* Lucky and Meyer's triumph was as absolute as depicted here, as they would transform the structure of organized crime in America, and rule it for several decades, even after Luciano went to jail and was later deported to Italy. (If you want a laugh, watch “Mobsters,” the awful 1991 movie starring Christian Slater as Luciano, Patrick Dempsey as Lansky, Richard Grieco as Bugsy Siegel and Costas Mandylor as Frank Costello (never featured on “Boardwalk”), a misguided attempt to do “Young Guns” with wiseguys.) Though Lucky was around for the entire run of the series – at one point in the finale, he recalls the meeting with Nucky and Big Jim that took place in the pilot episode – I don't know that the show ever gave us the opportunity to get to know him as a man in the way we did Capone. He and Meyer and Benny climbed the ladder, slowly but surely, and Vincent Piazza was convincing as the boss of all bosses by the end, but he's a character who surely would have benefited from a longer final season.

* Capone's story basically ends with him turning himself into the authorities, as he would spend most of the '30s in prison, then spend years suffering from dementia and other long-term effects of syphillis, before dying in 1947.

* Chalky doesn't live to see it, but Luciano's goons take out Dr. Narcisse, who pridefully tries to get to his feet after the initial attack and takes some more bullets for his trouble. Not the grandest of ends for one of the show's best villains – in some ways, I'd have been fine with our last glimpse of Narcisse being him in the alley with Chalky – but another sign of Luciano trying to clean up loose ends. (Speaking of which, Winter and I discuss why the final season didn't touch on Narcisse's arrangement with the FBI.)

* Given that Mabel's headstone, seen earlier in the series, put her suicide in 1913, some of you wondered if the show was changing up the timeline to make her pregnant in 1897. Instead, this pregnancy ends in a “mishap,” and the idea was that they continued struggling to conceive for years, until the death of the one child she successfully carried to term pushed Mabel over the edge. That said, Winter admitted that the 1885 birthdate on that tombstone was a mistake, given that it would make her 12 years old in these flashbacks.

* Fun with inflation calculators: in today's dollars, Nucky would have made nearly $36 million on the Mayflower stock deal, while Margaret would have made $440,000.

* We don't get a sense of what life will be like for Eli, other than that he has a sack full of cash from his big brother, along with a razor to try to make himself look presentable. As we saw with Van Alden, it was easier to craft a new identity for yourself in this era than it would be today, but I doubt June would want to go along with him once she factors in the Sigrid affair along with the downsides of life with a fugitive.

That's it for “Boardwalk Empire,” folks, though many of the creative people involved have now moved on to the '70s music series Winter, Scorsese and company are making. HBO hasn't officially ordered it to series yet, but I'm guessing that's only a matter of time.

So go read the Winter interview and then tell me: what did everybody else think? Did you like the finale? And does it change your opinion, positively or negatively, about the series as a whole?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at