Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead!! Do not read if you haven’t finished the series!
With the end of the fifth and final season, we finally close the book on BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and, unsurprisingly, HBO let the series go out with a bang. The season opener seemed kind of weak, what with the massive time shift and lack of many prominent supporting characters, but after that slow introduction the show develops something of a break neck pace as Nucky Thompson scrambles to save his fortune and his life while the show scrambles to bring to a close the storylines of Nelson Van Alden, Eli Thompson, Chalky White, Margaret Thompson, and various other supporting players who had wandered to, or away from, Atlantic City over the years.
The primary writers for this season, Howard Korder (LAKEVIEW TERRACE) and Terence Winter (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) did a fantastic job of tying up the many storylines that had developed over the last four seasons, which was a treat as so many shows close out with no resolution. However, what made the season so brilliant is how fast and hard the eventual conclusions came; the first half of the season was very typical of BOARDWALK EMPIRE, with lots of schemes and counter schemes going on between rival criminal and political enterprises, but once the season hit the midway point, all bets were off and the bodies started to fall hard and fast, making for a terrific white knuckle conclusion to the series. The only umbrage I had with the final season was that they ended it by killing Nucky, which I felt was a mistake. The historical figure Nucky was based on, Nucky Johnson, wasn’t killed by gang violence, his criminal career ended with prison and he became a seemingly ordinary citizen upon his release. I’m not saying that that is what had to happen here, but I felt that killing Nucky off was just the routine of using the idiotic Hollywood ending of evil men reaping what they sow, which is overly done, unrealistic, and a huge let down. I’m not saying that I wanted to see Thompson go out on top, but it would have been nice to see the show end some other way then him going out on his back.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE has always boasted some impressive production values, and it was interesting to see how the show switched visual tones in the fifth season. The previous four seasons had all taken place during prohibition and the roaring twenties, but this season jumps forward to 1931 and the early days of the great depression, and the production team did a great job of impressing that change on the audience. Everything in the final season from the run down club that Nucky bases his operations out of, to the lackeys trying to survive under Capone’s worsening insanity, the trading office where Margaret works, and right down to Luciano’s rising criminal empire, every location and operation, even the successful ones, has a miasma of desperation surrounding it. Beyond the pervasive feeling of desperation, the show also adjusts wardrobes and sets to match the new times. Clothes are far less gaudy, and many characters now have a far more simplistic, and sometimes down right disheveled, look to them. The sets are all toned down and excess is nowhere to be seen; light is more stark as electricity use is clearly being cut, and places that once looked dazzling, like the boardwalk of Atlantic City, now look average and reserved, as if the mere concept of advertising or being enticing is now a foreign concept. The wonderful way this tonal shift was handled is a testament to everyone who worked on the show, because they seamlessly transitioned between two of the most distinct time periods in American history, and they did it without missing a beat.
I have always been severely impressed by the cast of BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and while I am sad to see them go, they certainly ended the series with some great performances. Nucky Thompson may be the greatest role Steve Buscemi (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY) has ever done in his long career. Buscemi’s mastery of Nucky’s foibles and flaws, as well as his commanding presence and charm, make him one of the most memorable and impressive screen characters of the last decade. Kelly Macdonald (BRAVE) has truly demonstrated her impressive range and acting prowess in the role of Margaret Schroeder. She has been meek, authoritative, loving, scheming, heartbroken and just about anything else you can think of, and she has been flawless every step of the way. I truly hope that her recent successes blossom into a more expansive career, because I would love to see more of her. While Michael Shannon (MAN OF STEEL) has been acting for over two decades, his star has really risen since he started portraying probation officer turned criminal Nelson Van Alden. Shannon’s intensity is like nothing I have ever seen, and the way he combines it with his amazing facial expressions and commanding voice make him a favorite of mine. It was great to see him regain his anger this season and while his story may not have the most glorious end, it certainly fits his character perfectly. It’s hard to know how many great actors are working today because many of them never land a role that can really showcase what they are capable of, thankfully Michael Kenneth Williams (ROBOCOP) was cast as Chalky White and we’ve been treated to five seasons of great delivery and characterization from a master actor. Williams’ character has had more ups and downs than most of the others, and through it all he gave a tremendous portrayal of a man who was too smart for the disadvantages he was born into, and how that was both his triumph and his curse. I hope his career continues to expand, because I will be terribly disappointed if I don’t see him back on the screen very soon. Lastly, I want to mention three actors who played characters that I feel were less complex on the show, but no less entertaining: Shea Whigham (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) as Eli Thompson, Stephen Graham (HYENA) as Al Capone, and Vincent Piazza (JERSEY BOYS) as Lucky Luciano. These men never failed to be spot on with their performances and I feel they are a large part of the show’s success, because even though their roles where smaller and more peripheral, their performances weren’t, and that helped raise the tone of the show to a higher level.
I am sad to see BOARDWALK EMPIRE go, but I am oh so happy that they went out in such splendid style. The final season had great performances, amazing production, and some of the most engrossing storytelling of the entire series, and even though I may have been disappointed with some of their choices for the ending, I can’t deny the massive achievement of not only this season, but of the entire series. HBO has raised the bar once again for what a can be done on TV, and I hope whatever they do next will be half as good as BOARDWALK EMPIRE.
Final Score: 9 out of 10