Shot Glass Half Empty?: On Boardwalk Empire’s Troubled Legacy

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I was a bit hesitant to start watching the series finale for Boardwalk Empire. I didn’t even have it in me to watch it until a few days after it aired. Why was I so hesitant? Probably for a number of reasons. A part of me wasn’t ready to say goodbye to a series I held dear despite the disappointment of its last two seasons. A part of me waited out of fear of watching the show deflate right before my eyes in its final hour. A part of me just didn’t feel it was “must-watch” television anymore; there wasn’t any urgency to watch it. Let’s just say this, I came ready to be underwhelmed. Warning: There are spoilers ahead for those who haven’t finished the show.

I didn’t always have this feeling towards Boardwalk Empire. When the show first premiered, it was positioned as the next great TV show. Created by Terrence Winter and courting an all-star cast including Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael K. Williams, Michael Shannon, and a dozen other extremely talented people, the biggest draw was Martin Scorsese’s direction of the pilot, bringing an exhilarating sense of energy to the first hour. And for its first three seasons, it mostly delivered on that promise (it had to stand next to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to be fair). It boasted an incredibly captivating protagonist in Nucky Thompson: Half gangster, half politician, all bootlegger. What was always so impressive about this show was how it immersed viewers in its time period and location of Atlantic City and what made it so great in its first three seasons is, in one word, tension. This show knew how to build a plot involving all its characters that led to an explosive climax that had the audience on the edge of their couch. That’s not as easy as I’ve just made it sound.

When season four came around, there were still good and interesting things happening on the show, but it sorely lacked an adversarial force backing Nucky into a corner. The first three seasons rode on a wave of the audience wondering how the hell Nucky was going to get out of each conflict, with the third season centering on one of my favorite TV villains, Bobby Cannavale’s unhinged Gyp Rosetti. (Sidenote: Season three stands as one of the best seasons of television I’ve seen.) While season four gave a fitting sendoff for Jack Huston’s silent assassin Richard Harrow and it was nice to see Chalky step into a more of a leading presence and face off against Jeffrey Wright’s deliciously evil Dr. Narcisse, Nucky had nothing to do and gone with his prominence was the same level of exhiliration and tension from previous seasons. The season was directionless and filled with unnecessary sideplots, notably Gillian Darmody’s. When we last saw her in season three, Gillian was all but confirmed by a paramedic as dead, having overdosed on heroin. When that happened, it felt like a fitting and bold move for the show. It felt ill-advised to bring her back, but even more so to bring her back for an arc that didn’t have much consequence to the overall plot.

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This played into the final season as well, where we spent half our time in flashbacks watching a young Nucky rise to power as well as intersect with a young Gillian, culminating in an event we already knew about – him giving her to the Commodore. While there’s something enjoyable in watching them recreate young Steve Buscemi, all these flashbacks are scenes easily skipped without the audience missing anything, because we have spent the previous four seasons learning all about what happened before the series began. There are no surprises, and it ends up making for unengaging storytelling this late in the game.

I’m a big believer in the redeeming powers of a series finale. Take Rescue Me for example. That show wandered pretty aimlessly for a good three seasons before washing away all the preceding mediocrity by delivering one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen. So going into this last hour, I was hoping for a Hail Mary to save the game. Perhaps that was asking a bit much, but surely I could expect more than the television equivalent of giving up and taking a knee at the snap?

In the end, this show was always going to be bound to historical accuracy, and this meant tying up everything that didn’t actually happen. While the killings of Nelson Van Alden, Dr. Narcisse, and Chalky White felt fitting, they also felt like checkmarks on a list. To quote from our own Mike Worby’s review of the finale, “That Nucky went like he did was one of the finale’s only real surprises unfortunately, as with so many spinning plates to account for, the end did have a bit of a ‘checking the boxes’ feel to it. … It was a predictable hour in a lot of ways, especially for anyone well-versed in history, but, hey, at least they made good on the Kennedy subplot.” I always figured Nucky wouldn’t make it out alive, but I have to give props to Winter for surprising me in how it went down. Joe Harper being Tommy Darmody all along was a twist that I’m angry I didn’t see coming, but at the same time I was very glad it surprised me. However with that revelation comes the feeling that we missed out on an incredible story arc with Tommy, one that the show should have focused on rather than telling us Nucky’s already-known backstory.

It’s unlikely we’ll get another show like Boardwalk Empire, and that’s both a compliment and critique to its legacy. Few series in recent years have risen to such climaxes as this one, but few have become as disappointing as well. Despite the issues I’ve lamented, this is a show I will always hold dear. Much like it’s protagonist, it began a king only to eventually give up the crown.

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