The beginning of the end for ‘Boardwalk Empire’

By Eli Fine

(HBO)
(Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Boardwalk Empire” is back for its fifth and final season. I have been a fan of “Boardwalk” since the beginning, but I’m glad that the show is ending its run before it starts to lose steam. Last season was terrific, and if this season can manage to tie everything together as well as it has in the past, it will secure its legacy as one of the great television dramas of its time.

Back in season one, the writers introduced us to Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) as he profited from the start of the Prohibition. This season starts with a time jump to 1931, completing the saga of Prohibition, and we find Nucky dealing with the legalization of alcohol. When the season begins, Nucky is in Cuba trying to close a liquor distribution deal. He finds this to be problematic because alcohol is no longer as valuable as it was in the midst of Prohibition.

Throughout the first few episodes of the season, we check in with every living member of the ensemble. Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Eli Thompson are now debt collectors for Al Capone, who has become something of a celebrity. Gillian Darmody is in a mental institution, Lucky Luciano betrays Joe Masseria and butts heads with Dr. Narcisse, and Chalky White is in prison. Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) deals with the aftermath of Arnold Rothstein’s death as her business relationship with Rothstein begins to resurface.

Unfortunately, the real Arnold Rothstein died in 1928, murdered over a poker debt. By jumping to 1931, the show had no choice but to lose Rothstein, thereby losing Michael Stuhlbarg, who gave the show one of its best performances. This loss of Stuhlbarg is magnified by the coinciding loss of Richard Harrow, perhaps the best character in the show’s history. Nonetheless, there remain many great performances on this show. In a shortened season like this one, it may be worth having fewer characters since it will allow “Boardwalk” to spend more time with the surviving characters than would otherwise be possible.

We flashback to Nucky’s childhood in 1884, as he is beaten by his father, watches his sister die and begins to develop a relationship with the Commodore. Although the flashbacks are entertaining, these flashbacks don’t provide any new insight into the man Nucky is today. Additionally, the inclusion of these flashback segments in every episode further limits the amount of screen time given to other key members of the ensemble. As a result, many primary characters do not appear in every episode.

The characters that do get a decent amount of screen time, however, all have fascinating storylines. Capone delights in bullying Eli and Van Alden and gives interviews to Variety in his spare time. Chalky is at the center of an excellent episode in which he is confronted with memories of his late daughter. Lansky and Luciano plan something new and big, and become increasingly nervous that the older gangsters in town will get in their way.

Margaret returns after being almost entirely absent last season, and she reluctantly turns to Nucky for help in dealing with a threat to her family. This is an interesting development – the couple didn’t exactly split up on the best of terms. It’s exciting to have them in the same room for the first time in a long time, as their dynamic was one of the best parts of the show in its early days. However, what distinguished Margaret from other anti-heroine wives on cable dramas, like Carmela Soprano and Skyler White, was the fact that she realized very quickly that she wasn’t able to come to terms with what Nucky does for a living, and she left him.  I hope that the show isn’t building up to Margaret taking him back, as that would make the character less unique and ultimately less interesting.

The beginning of any “Boardwalk Empire” season is going to be a bit disjointed, with some seemingly arbitrary subplots. Any show with an ensemble this large is going to have to face the problem of how to service all of their characters satisfactorily. “Boardwalk” in particular struggles with juggling its huge cast at the start of each season. However, the creative team behind the show, led by creator and showrunner Terence Winter, always manages to bring the various storylines to satisfying conclusions at the end of the season. “Boardwalk” has earned the benefit of the doubt, and I have faith that by the end of season five, all of the stories will come to a close in a dramatic and gratifying way.

Eli Fine can be reached at [email protected]