Beware: Spoilers for this episode and previous episodes are included in this review.
Boardwalk Empire is back for its final season with a strong premiere that jumps the story ahead 7 years into 1931. “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” caught us up with Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald). The episode also dove into Nucky’s history with flashbacks to 1884 and his first encounter with the Commodore (played here by John Ellison Conlee).
Chalky White escaped from prison and it really demonstrated why 7 years is a long time for a show so dense with characters and story to skip. The obvious question is: Why was Chalky in prison? In the chain gang scene he answers it with an ominous “I got caught.” That’s all the information we’re given but, having just rewatched season 4, I’m inclined to believe that Narcisse led Hoover to pin the murder of Knox on Chalky. In Narcisse/Hoover scene at the end of “Farewell Daddy Blues”, Hoover gave Narcisse his fabricated truth about Knox’s death. You can view the scene below.
Chalky spent the episode mostly silent as he worked on the chain gang. If he is in fact in prison for Knox’s murder, it gives me hope for a vengeance-laden arc for him this season. As I said, 7 years is a long time and Chalky White seems to have nothing to lose.
Margaret’s storyline in the premiere provided some shocking atmosphere to the new Great Depression setting of the series. The scene where her boss, Mr. Bennett (Patch Darragh) shares the uplifting story of a Mickey Mouse cartoon he saw before a movie came as a big surprise to me. Boardwalk is no stranger to shocking death scenes but the ebb and flow of this scene leading up to the man killing himself on the spot really stuck with me. The scene helped set this season’s tone apart from the “roaring twenties” aesthetic of the show’s first 4 seasons.
Margaret was also shown trying to get Rothstein’s file from her dead boss’s office. I’m not sure what to make of this scene. When we last saw Margaret, she was moving into an apartment building Rothstein owned after striking a deal with the doomed gambler that would give her free rent in exchange for insider trading. I hope we get more insight into her business dealings with Rothstein. Had the series not jumped ahead, I’m sure their storyline would have been really interesting to watch unfold.
Speaking of Arnold Rothstein, his death is referenced in a scene between Nucky and Meyer in Cuba. Historically speaking, Arnold Rothstein was killed in November 1928 over what is widely believed to be a gambling debt. The scene between Meyer and Nucky in conjunction with events later in the episode, makes me wonder if the writers are going to show us a flashback to Rothstein’s death and tie it to the Lucky/Meyer storyline this season. I hope they do for the sheer fact that Michael Stuhlbarg is a great actor and deserves the chance to give one of the show’s best characters a proper send off.
As I mentioned above, the premiere saw Nucky enjoying the comforts of Cuba with Sally Wheet (Patricia Arquette). He sees the walls of Prohibition crumbling and is hard at work lining up a legitimate distribution business with Bacardi once Prohibition is repealed. It’s a good extension of his arc from season 4. If you read my review of last season, you’ll know I had some issues with Nucky’s overall arc in the series. I still have concerns, but I’m glad to see the writers are sticking to the choices they made last year.
As the tagline of the season says, however, “No One Goes Quietly” and I’m sure after the assassination attempt in Cuba, Nucky is not going to be “going quietly” as the series closes. The attempt on Nucky’s life, coupled with the random appearance of “fake married” Meyer Lansky in Cuba and Luciano’s activities stateside all point to Lansky and Luciano “clearing out” the old crime bosses so they can build their own organization. In a vague way, the storyline echoes the murder of Big Jim Colosimo in the pilot episode of the series.
When it comes to Lucky Luciano, we’re greeted with a more intense version of the man we’ve spent 4 seasons getting to know. Luciano sports a scar and a droopy eye that, historically speaking, is due to an altercation in 1929, where he was forced into a limousine, beaten and stabbed and left for dead.
Luciano’s role in the premiere centers on his meeting with Joe Massaria (Ivo Nandi). The meeting ends in bloodshed as Tonino (Chris Caldovino) and Bugsy Siegel (Michael Zegen) come in and gun down the boss while Luciano is in the bathroom. I love Vincent Piazza’s long, introspective moment in the bathroom as he waits for the hit to go down. The scene later in the episode where he pledges his allegiance to Maranzano (Giampiero Judica) is a great example of the increased intensity that Piazza is bringing to the role in season 5. I’m looking forward to seeing how his arc plays out over the season.
Finally, the episode was structured unlike any other episode in the series. Throughout the premiere, we were treated to flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood spent fighting for the Commodore’s attention. He gains it essentially by returning a hat with money in it. It’s depressing to see Nucky’s never-ending thirst for money has its genesis in Young Nucky (Nolan Lyons) and his struggles at home and on the boardwalk.
In 1884, the Commodore takes Nucky under his wing and the boy begins his journey toward the Nucky we’ve come to know over the last 4 seasons. The episode is book ended by a woman’s voice (who sounds similar to Gretchen Mol) reciting George Birdseye’s “Be Honest and True.” The words weigh heavy on the viewer, as we’ve come to know Nucky’s nefarious lifestyle. We’re given a glimpse of his last days of innocence in a way that really brings the premiere together.
I’ve spent the last several months feeling uneasy about the final season of Boardwalk Empire. I’ve had my doubts about whether or not the show could successfully conclude in only 8 episodes. The fact that Terence Winter and company chose to jump the story to 1931 only made me all the more nervous.
One hour into the final season and I’m still a little on edge, but “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” inspired confidence in me that the show will go out strong. The addition of flashbacks to the storytelling structure (reminiscent of The Godfather Part II) introduces an intriguing element to the narrative. I hope this will bring Nucky’s story to a satisfying conclusion while the writers close the book on the rest of the ensemble’s various arcs.