For an episode that was so concerned about detailing the beginnings and motivations of one Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the character was the least interesting part of Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season premiere. Displaying the impoverished upbringing and introduction into Atlantic City’s influential upper class was an odd move for a show in its final season. This kind of character reflection is usually seen in fledgling series’ trying to create sympathy for a character in their first seasons. At this point in Boardwalk Empire, especially after the particularly dark character developments that Nucky underwent in seasons three and four, the attempt to make Nucky more relatable just seems desperate. One can almost hear the producers saying “people need to care if he’s going to die”.
Death is certainly where the season seems to be heading. The tag line for the season is ‘No One Goes Quietly’ which all but foreshadows that Nucky will go out with a bang. This isn’t much of a surprise. From a writing and industry standpoint, it is fairly commonplace to kill off main characters in their last foray in one final blaze of glory. Within the show, Nucky has come closer and closer each season by becoming involved in wars with other crime lords, such as Arnold Rothstein and Joe Masseria. Sooner or later one of those bullets was bound to catch its target. It’s difficult, however, to see how Nucky is going to go when he’s wining and dining politicians in Cuba and the meat of the action is happening on the mainland.
The machete wielding assassin made a good attempt on Nucky’s life but the latest bodyguard proved his worth by killing the attacker and taking an ear for a reward. Disturbing, true, but the whole scenario felt detached from all the other storylines. Stephen Graham didn’t make an appearance as Al Capone in this episode but we did see Lucky Luciano cement his place as a gangster in New York and Chalky fight his way out of a chain gang. Maybe it is simply that there was more bloodshed in those scenes but overall those characters’ stories were more relevant to the gangster theme of the show.
I get that Nucky was trying to bring Bacardi Rum to Atlantic City but the story just wasn’t very interesting. Slow building writing is good but the slow build itself has to be entertaining. Perhaps it had something to do with the timeskip. The show has tried to keep as many of the same characters around as possible to keep the audience invested despite the chronological jump but there was still a disconnect between last season and this final one. I won’t say that seven years was too much to skip but there is a definite sense that something went missing. Maybe it was Atlantic City itself.
Outside of flashbacks, the happenings of Atlantic City aren’t shown at all. Maybe the place doesn’t have much going on without Nucky around but the show is called Boardwalk Empire. That title is a little pointless if they stop showing the boardwalk. It was probably an intentional decision. Creator Terence Winter has always been very bold in writing the show, such as killing off Jimmy Darmody, Owen Slater and Richard Harrow. But the loss of those charismatic, likable characters has left Atlantic City rather empty. It doesn’t help that other characters like Margaret have moved on to other cities as well. If Winter was trying depict Atlantic City as being gradually left behind in the criminal rat race then he has succeeded. But this isn’t the show I fell in love with back in the first season.
Boardwalk Empire is still a show that you should be watching. Nucky’s significance in the world has dropped but Steve Buscemi’s acting is still a joy to watch. The writing itself isn’t really bad either but as someone who has followed the show since the beginning it felt unfamiliar. The aforementioned time skip and setting change are mostly to blame but the uninitiated viewer might be more engaged by this episode than I was, which is strange to say of television programme’s fifth season premiere. As talented as the people behind the show are, it is disappointing to see Nucky become a footnote in his show. While that is historically accurate (at least of Enoch L. Johnson), this is not a documentary and there are plenty of original characters running around. Why not be really bold? Why not pull a Tarantino and blow up Hitler in a French theatre? At least do a Forrest Gump and just insert him into the sidelines of the interesting, historical parts.
Part of the problem is that Boardwalk Empire has always been centred around prohibition. The legal situation of alcohol has been as much as main character as Nucky is and this final season will see both meet their end. This explains the necessity of the time skip and refocus on other criminal entities whose empires weren’t based on bootlegging liquor. But it may be to its detriment. Prohibition has always informed the story and seasons have skirted along the edges of history but there’s also been a fair amount of artistic license. I never felt that the show owed it to its audience to chronicle the entire span of prohibition. It might have flowed better and engaged lovers of the first four seasons if Winter had chosen to end the show while the party was still going.
This is the era of the Great Depression though. Not that you would know by how these characters throw around money. But there’s a definite stench of desperation in the air; the sense that a lot of these characters are just keeping their heads above water for as long as they can. Maybe the hopelessness of the 30’s is the same hopelessness felt by the writers when HBO chose to cancel the show. I don’t think anyone can deny that Boardwalk Empire has run its course. While it might still be better acted and written than most programming on television, it just isn’t as compelling as it once was. And regardless of what medium you’re in, whether it be TV, movies or literature, when the audience stops caring that is the time to stop.