Note: This article contains spoilers for the show. If you are a newcomer to the series, refrain from reading.
“Boardwalk Empire’s” finale Sunday night capped off an intense final season, which featured many character deaths and a plethora of plotlines, with a compelling dose of closure and visual poetry. Its captivating use of parallels, tight writing and outstanding performances made it one of the show’s finest episodes.
“Boardwalk Empire,” as premier TV critic Alan Sepinwall and many others have noted, was always a show that was on the cusp of the TV “golden age.” Its crime drama premise and the involvement of legendary director Martin Scorsese made sure that it received a great deal of hype and anticipation at its onset. In short, it was thought of as being potentially a successor in the line of the two great HBO dramas —“The Wire” and “The Sopranos.”
But while it was lauded and developed something of a following, it never quite got the acclaim or the audience of either of those two shows. And admittedly, as much as I enjoyed the show, it never reached the peaks of the other great TV dramas. Its lush production, historical drama and quality ensemble were always strong points, but it didn’t make “Boardwalk” a top time great.
Sunday night’s finale — in keeping with the tradition of excellent “Boardwalk” season closers — was excellent, however. Longtime HBO director Tim Van Patten made sure that it was a visually stunning episode. He interspersed flashbacks (which have been recurring during the final season) with the modern-day aspects of the show in a smooth and haunting fashion. The episode’s wonderful, introductory shot of Nucky (Steve Buscemi) swimming as the waves crashed down on him was clearly intended to evoke a theme of redemption.
And his direction indeed worked perfectly with the other themes that showrunner and screenwriter Terence Winter intended it to feature. The last season has depicted the fall of Nucky’s criminal empire and the fall of all of his criminal peers that the show has also followed. So by the time the viewer sees Nucky being approached by a woman advertising a nickelodeon (an early iteration of movies) as he is walking down the boardwalk during the last episode (clothed in black), they see him as something of a Dickensian ghost.
As I mentioned earlier, the show — much as “The Wire” did in its final season — depicted the parallel rise and fall of criminal empires. The death of the enigmatic Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and the words that preceded it captured this theme. Just prior to his death, the drug-dealing pastor quotes Ecclesiastes, saying that “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” His words are encapsulated as the viewer sees his death (which follows the death of the great Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White), Nucky’s death and Al Capone’s (Stephen Graham) arrest at the same time as they see Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) forming the cabal of gangsters.
The performances should be singled out here. Buscemi’s performance as Nucky has earned him two Emmy nominations, but it’s never been mentioned in the same breath as, say, Bryan Cranston or Jon Hamm on AMC’s two hit dramas “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” It’s not quite Cranston, but his understated performance in this episode was excellent. British actor Graham knocked it out of the park as Al Capone. He’s only been a regular on TV, but after seeing him (as Capone) return to the relationship the show only touched on between Capone and his deaf son, one has to wonder why he’s not more well-known. The scene between Capone and his son was touching, and it reminded me of Walter White’s fatal conceit in “Breaking Bad” when Capone tells him that “Everything was for you.”
The main theme of the episode — and of the season — was the concept of original sin. Moreover, it wanted to trace the viewer back to where Nucky went wrong. It depicts him as a man of humble beginnings, who had to stand up to his father, and as someone who truly wanted to make his way up honestly. During the flashbacks this season, he’s always telling his manipulative boss in the city — the corrupt power broker known as “The Commodore” — of his hard work and of how he deserves a greater role as the sheriff.
So when the viewer hears Thompson asking Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) in the present-day “What do you expect me to do?” it comes as no surprise. His original sin was in betraying the young Darmody to the Commodore, and it was a heartbreaking moment to see him offer his hand to her and tell her that he promises to always look after her.
The show tied this up with a sense of dramatic karma. I’ll leave the last moment out of this review, but I will only say that it was deeply satisfying and gorgeous.
Well done, “Boardwalk Empire.” After Sunday’s episode, it’s easy to see that you had a great run.
Correction: A prior version of this article stated that the character of Al Capone (portrayed by Stephen Graham) in “Boardwalk Empire” died. In fact, he was arrested.