The seven-year time jump that takes place between the end of Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season and the start of its fifth and final one isn’t that surprising. Think about it: It’s the end of an era—the lavish HBO period drama is coming to a close. So doesn’t it make the most sense to conclude the series with the repeal of Prohibition, the constitutional amendment that turned so many of Boardwalk‘s characters from small-time crooks to the legendary gangsters they are now? It remains to be seen if creator Terence Winter will end the show in December 1933, just like he began it in January of 1920 (when Prohibition went into effect), but even if he doesn’t, by 1931, which is where we reconnect with Steve Buscemi’s professional bootlegger Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, you don’t need a congressional ratification to know Prohibition is on its last legs.
If anything, skipping over the rest of the 1920s merely proves that people don’t change that much—which suggests that Nucky will never be able to really leave his criminal past behind. After all, he wasn’t a stranger to illegal activities before Prohibition. The only startling example of the passage of time comes in the form of the grey stubble on Chalky White’s face.
For a show that has centered the majority of its action in Atlantic City over the past four seasons, the only time spent in America’s one-time Playground throughout the season premiere is during Nucky’s flashbacks to 1884, where he was just a beach urchin getting left behind by the bigger boys, whether it was diving for coins tossed in by the dandies on the pier or earning extra money as a street lackey to hotel-patron swells. There’s little love coming out of the Thompson shack—Nucky’s sister Susan is dying while abusive dad Ethan drinks away the family’s meager income. We see the turning point in Nucky’s life when he is introduced to Commodore Louis Kaestner, played by a dude doing a bad Dabney Coleman impression. Obviously the Commodore didn’t obtain his charisma until after the age of 75.
It’s no spoiler to say that these flashbacks are now a regular part of the abbreviated final season (eight episodes as opposed to 12). All of the 1884 scenes are shot through a sepia-toned filter, which helps us differentiate the time period more easily—because this season is going to cut to the 19th century just as regularly as it does to New York or Chicago without hesitation. It’s Winter’s last chance to help the audience understand that Nucky is just as much a damaged antihero as all the other cable-drama greats.
NEXT: The Dick Whitman Story… again