The Prohibition-era HBO series serves its last round.
Like Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire always had trouble fitting in. Despite an impressive Emmy haul for its first season (including a win for executive producer Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot), the series never seemed to find its footing. There were the regular comparisons to Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and ultimately, regardless of Steve Buscemi’s stellar acting work, Nucky just didn’t meet the criteria to gain access to the Don Draper and Walter White-populated Club Antihero.
Too often, Nucky’s protagonist story line was overshadowed by fellow Boardwalk inhabitants Jimmy Darmody (RIP), Chalky White (RIP), Nelson Van Alden (RIP), Richard Harrow (RIP) and Gillian Darmody (still alive!) with much of the audience’s emotional energy spent on the supporting characters’ narratives instead.
And as the seasons progressed, it simply became a matter of time before Nucky realized what we’ve known all along: He wasn’t going to end up in the history books alongside Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, so of course he was going to get iced out by his more well-known colleagues. In order for the audience to re-establish its relationship with Nucky Thompson in time for the series finale, Boardwalk found it necessary to pick off most of the other characters one by one, so that we had no choice but to rededicate our loyalty to the Atlantic City gangster.
But it was just too late once Nucky became the star of his own show again. He had been stripped of everything by his younger, savvier mob rivals, and thanks to this season’s use of flashbacks to the 19th century, it became clear that he couldn’t be redeemed for his despicable past. What else was left except for Nucky Thompson other than to die on the same boardwalk where he had spent his entire life?
It was a predictable finale, yes, but a rather poetic one too. Nucky Thompson was killed in the same spot where, in 1897, as an ambitious young sheriff, he made the decision to pimp out an innocent 13-year-old girl in exchange for job security. His assassin? A wave of fist pumps and exclamations of “I SO called that!” undoubtedly flooded the Boardwalk fan community as soon as Nucky’s latest wannabe apprentice “Joe Harper” revealed his true identity in the episode’s final moments to be the now-teenage Tommy Darmody. It was a good plot twist, having Nucky taken out by not a mob rival or by the feds, but by Gillian’s grandson. Tommy, who obviously picked up some gun-wielding skills from his adoptive father, closed out the series with the honor of exacting vengeance upon the man who single-handedly destroyed the lives of three Darmody generations.
In addition to seeing Nucky put out of his misery, several other threads were tied up once and for all in “El Dorado” (named for the newly opened Upper West Side of Manhattan Art Deco apartment building where Nucky and Margaret have one last dance together), which made it a satisfying finale nonetheless. Considering how many Boardwalk characters have bitten it throughout its five-season run, it seems fitting to spend this recap running down the fortunate few who survived Boardwalk without a bullet to the head, and to pay respects, in the words of Nucky’s protégé, Gillian’s son and Tommy’s father, Jimmy, “To the Lost.“
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ENOCH “NUCKY” THOMPSON: DEAD. You really got the sense throughout the episode that like Jimmy three seasons before, Nucky was well aware that his time left on Earth was limited, even if he wasn’t sure when or how he would go. It showed in way he visited with his few precious loved ones for the last time, insisting that (at least to Eli and Gillian) they wouldn’t ever see him again, while making sound financial arrangements for his brother, his wife, and the woman he wronged 34 years earlier. As Margaret points out, it’s “not in [his] nature” to apologize, so Gillian never receives the repentance she so desperately wanted out of the erstwhile Sheriff Thompson, despite his obvious shame over his role in her downfall: “I’m not someone you should look to for help,” Nucky says during his asylum visit.
He may not have been able to say “I’m sorry,” but his difficulty in getting any words past his throat in this scene belied his so-called indifference. Still, as “Joe Harper” points out during Nucky’s last minutes alive, throwing cash at the situation was always his “answer to everything,” and it could never make up for his lack of love and affection. This is underscored by the game-changing moment in 1897 between the newly minted sheriff Nucky and Gillian, which is intercut between the 1931 boardwalk scenes. Again, while struggling to eke out a coherent sentence, Nucky promises Gillian that “I’ll always look after you,” when in reality he’s about to sell both of their souls to the devil. At that moment, the shot from Tommy’s gun is the sound of sweet relief as it renders Nucky permanently unable to terrorize the Darmodys ever again.
MARGARET THOMPSON: ALIVE. Turns out she didn’t need Nucky’s dirty money to outfit herself in the latest fashions because Margaret became a shrewd businesswoman in her own right. After impressing Joe Kennedy with her mad stock-market skillz—she pretty much staged a 1931 version of this scene from Trading Places, netting herself $29,000 in the process and Nucky over $2 million—Margaret and her Wall Street firm, Connors and Gould, secured the political patriarch’s business, as well as her own future. We last see her in an empty El Dorado apartment, sharing a tender dance with her estranged husband. Whether or not Nucky remained alive, it was clear she didn’t need him, and could get by quite nicely on her own.
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ELI THOMPSON: ALIVE. Nucky visits his down-and-out brother, who is currently camping out at a boardwalk boarding house, and encourages him to seek his wife June’s forgiveness following his infidelity with Sigrid Mueller. “If you don’t try, you’ll always regret it,” is the last bit of advice Nucky leaves his little bro. We don’t know if Eli was able to reconcile with his family, but the large paper bag of money (plus a razor and shaving brush) Nucky leaves him is a good omen that Joe Kennedy’s “safety in numbers” motto will prove to be a blessing to a fellow father of nine children.
AL CAPONE: ALIVE. Capone’s reappearance was a pleasant surprise, given that his story ended two episodes ago with federal double agent Mike D’Angelo (real name, Malone) obtaining the Chicago mobster’s incriminating ledger books. But it was nice to see Stephen Graham—who has turned in a top-notch performance all five seasons as the legendary gangster—give Capone one last hurrah as he soberly confides in his deaf teenage son and puts on one final show for the reporters in his white suit just before turning himself in on tax-evasion charges.
CHARLES “LUCKY” LUCIANO: ALIVE. Having helped to establish a national crime syndicate, Luciano, along with gangsters including Meyer Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Siegel, takes his place in history as one of the most famous Mafiosos, as well as at the syndicate’s Camelot-eque round table.
DR. VALENTIN NARCISSE: DEAD. Narcisse appears in a single scene, where he is gunned down by Luciano’s assassins following one of his lectures. The scene wasn’t necessary, as Narcisse’s story line ended in “Devil You Know,” but for Chalky White fans, seeing the nefarious, immaculate Narcisse lying in a pool of his own blood was the comeuppance we’ve all been waiting for.
WILLIE THOMPSON: ALIVE. Nucky’s nephew, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, does not make an appearance this episode. However, it’s safe to assume that with his uncle’s death, Willie will no longer be forced to make the impossible decision over whether to turn in the man who saved his life, just so he can put criminals behind bars.
GILLIAN DARMODY: ALIVE. She’s a survivor, no doubt, but her dream of Nucky springing her from the loony bin was just that, a fantasy, which is her stock in trade. Unable to fully repent for giving the Commodore the green light to rape her at 13, Nucky pays Gillian a visit where he does what he does best—throws money at the situation. He arranges for her to have a private room and informs her that once she gets herself out of the nuthouse, there will be money in a trust waiting for her. But her difficulty in standing up without assistance suggests a bleak future, regardless of Tommy’s series-ending act of revenge: The shadowy figure that stood over her in last week’s episode has apparently manifested in the brutal removal of an unnamed internal organ—apparently this is how Gillian’s physician, Dr. Cotton sought to cure insanity.
–Yes, Travis Tope (Joe Harper/Tommy Darmody) bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Pitt, but I think the writers were pushing it with the Tommy-coming-back-to-kill-Nucky story line. Tommy was only supposed to be 14 years old by 1931, and Joe didn’t look any younger than 16. This was compounded by the fact that Tope himself is 22. I understand why Terence Winter and his staff wanted to go this narrative route, but it was done at the expense of believability.
–That sure did look like Steve Buscemi (and not a body or stunt double) taking an undoubtedly cold early-morning swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Props if it was!