BEWARE: SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE AND the entire series ARE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW.
After 5 seasons, Boardwalk Empire concluded its run on Sunday with its finale, “Eldorado”. If this is your first time visiting my website, I encourage you to check out the rest of my Boardwalk Empire reviews and podcast episodes, all of which can be found here.
The thing that immediately struck me about this episode is the absence of the opening theme music. I’ve made my peace with the idea that Terence Winter is probably not being 100% truthful when it comes to the circumstances that led to the show ending its run with a shortened 5th season. Maybe I’m paranoid and reading too much into things but I feel like the absence of the opening theme music is indicative of the production trying to get as much screen time out of their hour slot and that maybe HBO wouldn’t let them have an extended series finale.
Or maybe it really is a nod to the show’s opening credits and meant to show us Nucky finally plunging into the water as opposed to standing on the shore.
The finale itself managed to wrap up the show’s remaining storylines well enough. We got to see a lot (perhaps too much) about the Mayflower Grain Corporation’s stock market positioning. Joe Kennedy, backed into a corner, worked with Margaret to sell his shares at the right time. There are three scenes in the finale involving Kennedy and Mayflower and, really, they all served to show us that Margaret and Nucky made a lot of money and that Margaret has grown a lot as a character. Given the central theme of Nucky’s never ending greed and maybe some hints about Joe Kennedy’s future as Chairman of the SEC, I guess the scenes were warranted. But it still felt like a little too much time to give to this subplot.
Of course, the finale gave an ending to Capone’s storyline as well as finishing up the Luciano commission-forming arc of the season. I’ll start with Capone.
Stephen Graham deserves an Emmy for his work this season. He really does. The scene where he tells his son he’s going to have to “go away for a while” is really heartbreaking. The series did such a beautiful job of showing us every facet of Capone’s personality that I almost wish the series was centered on his rise and fall from the beginning. Capone’s final scene, where he walks up the court steps putting on a show for the reporters, is one of my favorites of the season.
Still, though, I kind of wish we could have seen him go mad from syphilis. If you’re unfamiliar with his life as a prisoner and post-prison life, I recommend giving his Wikipedia entry a read. Imagine how well that would have played in a montage in “Eldorado”.
As for the other loose thread of the series, we got to see Luciano form The Commission and the birth of the mafia. Previous to The Commission’s scene we got a scene where it’s teases that he, Lansky and Siegel were planning a hit. It was pretty obvious that they were talking about either Nucky or Narcisse. It ended up being Narcisse. His death scene was handled well enough, I guess. Though it felt like they were just tying up a loose end in the show.
As for the actual formation of The Commission scene, I was pretty underwhelmed. It’s an important scene for the series and an important historical event, but it essentially boiled down to Luciano standing at a table with a group of men and reciting the same stuff he’s been saying all season. It felt dry to me and played out like the writers made it out of obligation to the event’s historical significance.
Of course, the majority of the series finale was devoted to Nucky who, after getting a couple million dollars out of Mayflower Grain’s stock, was looking at the Eldorado, which the realtor assured another prospective buyer is “designed to be the finest apartment residence in the city. The very best that life has to offer.”
Before that, however, the finale opened with Nucky stripped and swimming far into the sea. In a scene between Nucky and Eli, Nucky explains that when he was a kid, he would always swim as far as he could. Even now, he still can never swim far enough. It’s a pretty overt metaphor for his greed and reinforces the dialogue he shared with Margaret about always wanting more. Frankly, the show kind of beat us over the head with Nucky’s greed and thirst for money.
Nucky says goodbye to Eli and gives him money and shaving materials. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Eli is still on the run, I imagine, for killing a federal agent last season. I don’t think him helping D’Angelo with Capone erased that. I wish we could have gotten more closure on Eli. I’m glad he survived, the royal screw up that he is, but that’s the problem. Is there anything in this season that shows us that he’s changed and won’t screw everything up again?
Nucky went to see Gillian and it was haunting. Gillian sat, mostly catatonic, as Nucky explained to her that there’s nothing he can do to get her out. He complimented her on how she avoided prison and told her that he made it so she’ll have her own room and that he’s set up a trust for her, if she were to ever get out.
Gillian won’t be released, though. She doesn’t have much to say and it seems as though her mind is gone. She stares vacantly as she watches a ladybug walk on her hand. When she tries to get out of her seat, she cringes and it’s obvious that Dr. Cotton has already operated on her. I was left with the feeling that Dr. Cotton will continue to operate on her and she will die in the sanitarium.
Finally, before I get to the final moments of the series, the flashbacks in “Eldorado” showed Young Nucky getting relieved of his duty of Deputy by the Commodore. The pair argues and there’s a clear correlation between this scene and Nucky and Jimmy in the pilot episode. Young Nucky’s insistence on getting the job of Sheriff is the same as Jimmy asking Nucky for an opportunity.
There are a couple other scenes in the flashbacks that accentuate the road Nucky is taking by trying to align himself with the Commodore. Nucky comes home to find Mabel in their house with blood stained clothes nearby. She says, in a distant voice, she meant to clean it up. Nucky tells her she needs to see a doctor but she tells him she’s okay. He asks why she didn’t send for him and she tells him she doesn’t know where he goes.
They’re interrupted by Eli and, frankly, the scene ends feeling incomplete and out of place within the rest of the finale. I assume that she had a miscarriage and that, eventually, they conceived Enoch Jr. and that the show’s canon follows the path that Nucky described to Margaret in season one. But I’m uncomfortable with how vague and out of place it felt here in the finale.
Young Nucky goes with Eli to his parents’ house to find his mother with a black eye and his father drunk with a shotgun in the backyard. After a standoff, Nucky’s father tells him he’s mad he wasn’t told he’s going to be a grandfather. They fight and Nucky leaves as his father screams, “Where ever you think you’re running, we’re always going to be right here.” It’s another instance of the show illustrating Nucky’s greed and how it’s made him turn his back on his family.
In the last eleven or so minutes of the finale, the scenes intercut between Nucky in Atlantic City and flashbacks to the moments leading up to Young Nucky handing Gillian to the Commodore. In 1931, Nucky springs Joe out of jail after he was arrested for stealing at the Ritz. Nucky slides into the mentor role and asks Joe what happened to the $1,000 he gave him and why he’s resulting to stealing. Joe shrugs. Nucky hands him $100 and Joe rips it up, saying it’s his “answer for everything.”
In the flashbacks, Gillian tells Young Nucky that Mabel said Nucky “wants to be good, but doesn’t know how” and the Commodore asks him “What are you in the end, anyway?” To which Nucky replies, “I’m what I need to be.”
From here, the scenes cut between 1931 and the flashbacks more quickly. Nucky walks along the boardwalk while his counterpart in the flashbacks is offered the sheriff’s badge in exchange for Gillian. It feels in this moment like the show is in a rush to end its finale.
On the boardwalk, Nucky sees things that remind him of Gillian and Jimmy (the billboard for the yearly event that he gave Gillian away at so long ago, an awkward group of singing Princeton students in front of him). That’s when Joe reveals himself behind Nucky. He tells him that his “Meemaw” used to talk about Nucky all the time and he never knew if it was love or hate. Nucky asks who he is and Joe says “Tommy Darmody” as he takes a gun out of his pocket.
There’s almost a smile on Nucky’s face when he repeats Tommy’s name. Before he can say much, however, Tommy fires two shots into Nucky and then walks up and puts a bullet below Nucky’s eye. The last thing Nucky sees is Tommy screaming as he’s grabbed by people flashing a badge at Nucky. The last thing we see is Young Nucky swimming for a coin; giving us the metaphor that Nucky’s pursuit of money ultimately drowned him.
How did I feel about the finale?
Underwhelmed, at first.
The show did a fine job of illustrating that the lead character was possessed by greed and power. The final shot of Young Nucky swimming for the coin really puts a bow on the series as a whole and the arc of Nucky Thompson. But it still feels slightly hollow.
The show’s very obvious twist that Joe was Tommy and was there to kill Nucky made it really hard to feel as strongly about Nucky’s end as I did about Jimmy’s or Richard’s. There are parallels to Jimmy and even Richard in that scene, but it feels less like a statement and more like a show reaching an end that it so lazily concealed.
Having rewatched the scene a few times now, I can recognize the artistic side of the scene. The music is beautiful and the acting is top notch. Interspersing it with Nucky’s flashback with Gillian makes it beautifully poignant. My issue is simply that the writers didn’t disguise the twist in “Joe’s” identity hardly at all. The result was one of the most predictable endings I’ve seen.
In my review of “The Good Listener” I said: “I think a fitting ending would be [Gillian] telling teenage Tommy Darmody everything and leave him to the act of killing Nucky in the finale as we’re flashed back to the moment Nucky hands 13 year old Gillian to the Commodore.” I went onto say “That may be a little more simplistic than the show is known for, though.”
And that really was how it felt to me. I had my suspicions that this was how they were going to end the series while I was rewatching the series on blu-ray in the lead up to the final season’s premiere. I knew they were jumping ahead 7 years and I knew that Terence Winter was fond of paying homage to The Godfather. So, while rewatching season 2, I thought it would be a fitting way for Nucky’s story to end and pay homage to The Godfather Part II.
But I feel like they fumbled it. I like that Tommy was always resistant to taking Nucky’s money, knowing that it would mean accepting money earned, in a sense, with the blood of his family. It was how Travis Tope was introduced into the show that got it for me. Throughout the season, once Tommy is introduced in episode 3, I’ve talked about how uneasy it makes me that the show was being so obvious about the kid’s identity. He perks up as soon as Mickey says Nucky’s name, when Mickey jokingly refers to Tommy’s father, Tommy gets uneasy and, of course, there was the insanely obvious bit of foreshadowing last week when Mickey hands “Joe” a gun.
I feel like the final season was hampered by the show’s lack of discretion when dealing with Joe/Tommy. Had the character been a part of the organization in the beginning of the season, he could have simply been a new addition to the cast and we wouldn’t have been beaten over the head by it. Nevertheless, the writers fumbled it and, in the end, it cost them their series’ biggest moment. It’s a shame, really.
That’s not to say Travis Tope didn’t deliver. He’s a fantastic young actor who has found his way into (and done well in) movies I’ve recently watched (Men, Women & Children and The Town that Dreaded Sundown). In terms of acting talent, he was a strong addition to Boardwalk Empire’s final season. I just wish the writers took better care of the arc.
Likewise, Marc Pickering was incredible as Deputy Nucky. He captured the energy that Buscemi brings to the Nucky role beautifully and helped make the flashbacks all the more engaging. Nolan Lyons brought a pleasant innocence and curiosity to the Nucky role that played very well.
I don’t know what legacy Boardwalk Empire will leave in its wake. I feel like the show may have existed in the shadow of The Sopranos and was the victim of being the lower rated of two highly expensive HBO series (the other, of course, being Game of Thrones). I have a feeling that’s why, despite Terence Winter’s assurances that it was the writers’ decision; I assume HBO probably cut it short.
I’d like to think that people will discover Boardwalk Empire and that binge watching the series will be more beneficial to the experience of “Eldorado.” While I may be left feeling underwhelmed by the series’ ending, there’s still no denying that it is one of the better television series of the recent golden age of television. Even though it may never have found its audience in the ratings, it was still one of the best shows I’ve watched. As such, I will miss it.
To the lost.