Boardwalk Empire season premiere recap: 'Golden Days for Boys and Girls'
The nonstop party that was the Roaring Twenties is over on Boardwalk Empire, as the HBO drama surges ahead into the Great Depression.
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.
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Trouble is, we’ve seen it all before—young Nolan Lyons (a.k.a. 1884-era Nucky) could easily step in as a 1930s Dick Whitman if necessary—and it’s too late to try to make Nucky a compelling character after so many false starts over the past four seasons. This is not at all a dig at Buscemi, but our interests and loyalties are with characters like Chalky White, Margaret Thompson, Gillian Darmody, and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, at this point. So for the sake of closure, it’s understandable why Winter decided to take us back to the moment where Nucky went from a good boy to a corrupted one. It’s nice to have that information, but watching him now try to go legit with the repeal of Prohibition looming is just too derivative of The Godfather Part II. And it seems redundant—Luciano already has the Michael Corleone character covered this season: After four seasons of playing a supporting role, Vincent Piazza finally has scenes and story lines to sink his teeth into, as his ascension to Mob boss is an open road following the deaths of Arnold Rothstein and Joe Masseria.
The biggest criticism of the new season has to be the continued use of the slow-burn-narrative route. It works in some ways, most notably it helps the audience come back to Nucky’s corner and see him as a sympathetic character. But, with a shortened season and one-third of each episode being taken up by 19th-century flashbacks, the slow burn drags the rest of the story lines down. We only reconnect with about one-third of the characters in the season premiere, and with seven episodes left, it doesn’t leave much time to give the rest of Boardwalk‘s residents neatly packaged endings.
It’s also hard to be invested in Nucky’s story line this time around because save for the location, his life hasn’t seemed to change much since 1924. For all his talk of the Depression hitting him hard, he’s still living it up in custom-made suits, glad-handing politicians, and jet-setting in Havana with a bodyguard and Tampa speakeasy owner Sally Wheet close at hand. Although, it was plenty fun to see Buscemi and Patricia Arquette partaking in a rhumba, as well as a conga line.
After spending most of Season 4 in little more than a glorified cameo, Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret Thompson has returned as enigmatic as ever, with the kind of juicy plot she should have had back in the early seasons. Her Wall Street boss Mr. Bennett’s dramatic suicide in front of his entire staff was a beautifully orchestrated scene, but it was really just to set the tone for America’s precarious financial state and to illustrate what was becoming a common occurrence among those who played the stock market like a game of Monopoly. In a turn of events that should come as a surprise to no one, the result of Bennett’s death is that Margaret’s affiliation with Arnold Rothstein has finally come back to haunt her, despite his being dead for almost three years. Let’s hope there will be some flashbacks to the 1920s this season, not so much for plot exposition, but just so we can get one last taste of Michael Stuhlbarg’s devilish take on the gambling gangster.
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A lot of the questions at the end of last season were directed toward the future of Michael Kenneth Williams’ Albert “Chalky” White. And in the ultimate tease, we don’t get too many answers in the season premiere. Back in 1924, Chalky’s feud with Marcus Garvey acolyte and Northside interloper Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) resulted in the absolute destruction of the kingdom Chalky had built for himself as boss of Atlantic City’s African-American community. By the end of the stellar season finale he had lost all of his power, his daughter, Maybelle, was dead—the result of a botched assassination attempt on Dr. Narcisse—and his marriage was ostensibly ruined by his dalliance with blues singer/Stockholm Syndrome victim Narcisse’s surrogate child, Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham). Last we saw Chalky, he was hiding out in Maryland at the home of his mentor and wanted for the murders of two Atlantic City police officers.
In 1931, Chalky is in prison stripes and working on a chain gang, his quiet demeanor not allowing for much explanation as to what has transpired over the past seven years, while Williams’ calculated movements and expressions convey sheer bitterness and anger. He could be in for the police killings, or he could be in for a multitude of transgressions. All we know is he landed in jail because he “got [himself] caught.” But as Winter has already stated, Chalky is a survivor, and he’s not going to let something like incarceration get him down. By the end of the episode, he and another inmate have managed an escape, but this partnership has catastrophe written all over it, as Chalky’s key to freedom appears to be in the form of a creepily deranged convict who wants him for his rich-man telephone skills.
–The new season starts in April 1931. Joe Masseria finally sleeps with the fishes as Boardwalk re-creates the Sicilian Mob boss’ murder on April 15, 1931 in Coney Island, with Charlie “Lucky” Luciano supposedly orchestrating the assassination.
–Who here didn’t start singing “Stuck in the Middle With You?” when Nucky’s Punjab-and-the-Asp-esque bodyguard foils a machete-wielding assassin on the streets of Havana by meticulously slicing the man’s ear off right before Steve Buscemi’s eyes?
–The episode’s title, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” is named after the 19th-century kiddie newspaper Mrs. Thompson gives young Nucky.
–British actor Ian Hart, who portrayed John Lennon in two different films, takes on the role of a younger, just-as-abusive Ethan Thompson (Nucky’s dad, previously portrayed by the late Tom Aldredge).