'Boardwalk Empire' Series Finale Recap: The Naked Emperor

Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi and co. serve up the most morally uncompromising finale of TV's New Golden Age

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Boardwalk Empire
Steve Buscemi and Travis Trope in the season finale of 'Boardwalk Empire.' Christopher T. Saunders

Al Capone: Tell 'em why you're here, George.
George Raft: We're doing a crime picture.
Capone: Set in Chicago.
Paul Muni: That's right.
Capone: About?
Muni: Kind of a Shakespearean drama. Man's rise and fall.
Capone: And he gets it in the end, right?
Raft: Ah, that's how they have to do it.
Boardwalk Empire, Season Five, Episode Six, "The Devil You Know"

The emperor has no clothes.

Literally, this is how the final episode of Boardwalk Empire begins. Nucky Thompson, the one-time lord of Atlantic City, stripped to the skin, swimming out into the sea. It's a jarring image, all the more so for the shocking absence of the series' unmistakable opening-credits sequence, in which Nucky strides into the surf fully dressed. Jarring, and fitting. More than any other finished series in television's New Golden Age, Boardwalk Empire used its series finale to strip its antihero protagonist bare. Whether or not he was ever fully comfortable inhabiting the role, Nucky Thompson was a crime lord. The show's final sequence depicted his first, and worst, crime. And as any actor from Hollywood's hyper-regulated Golden Age could tell you, crime does not pay.

Which, as all but the most blinkered of bluenoses recognized even back then, is not to say that crime can't be entertaining. It is, and so was "Eldorado," co-written by series creator Terence Winter and MVP writer Howard Korder, and directed by HBO mainstay Tim Van Patten. Fans of artfully bloody gangland violence and sumptuously set-dressed, bespoke-suited criminality had much to savor here, as they always have with this show. The odious Harlem hypocrite Dr. Valentin Narcisse finally got his, gunned down in the middle of spewing biblical bullshit to the very people whose liberation he was secretly selling out (as an FBI informant against black radicals). Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel achieved their apotheosis, creating an organized-crime commission that at its height would run more efficiently, and lucratively, than Joe Kennedy's Mayflower Grain Corporation's board of directors could even dream. The elder Kennedy teamed up with capable white-collar criminal Margaret Thompson for a nail-biter of a stock swindle, proving that not every heist requires Tommy guns. Al Capone got one last chance to bask in the spotlight before submitting to his ignominious, anticlimactic defeat at the hands of the U.S. Tax Code, tipping his fedora to the Federal who beat him fair and square.

And per usual, the show's detours, flourishes, and filigrees were more essence than ornament. Take Nucky's strange, surreal encounter with a bizarre new invention we know to be television, featuring a provocatively dressed spokeswoman "from the future" — a Lynchian netherworld of a room lined with blue velvet curtains, with a disembodied head singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" using technology that to Nucky might as well have been magic. This single sequence contained so much: a meta reference to the real-world Nucky's "future" as a TV character; an echo of Gillian Darmody's direct address to the camera in the previous episode; and a dreamlike dislocation that prefigured Nucky's eventual fate on that same boardwalk.

Or take Nucky's final dance with Margaret. Have you ever seen a show rely so heavily on cross-cutting between two simple close-ups to say so much? Having abdicated his empire by the sea to Lucky's underlings, Nucky seeks accommodations at the hotel building that gave the episode its title, and an allusion to another famous lost city of splendor. His financial future secured thanks to Margaret's help in his stock-shorting scheme; he's out of the line of fire for the first time since the start of Prohibition. For her part, Margaret has proven she needs no one's help to survive, both honestly and, if circumstances warrant, dishonestly. Secure, safe, comfortable — can the Thompsons reunite? Van Patten cuts back and forth between their alert, wary faces. Then the reserve gives way, and Nucky allows himself to believe it might work…and then a real estate agent shows up with other clients, and you can watch the fires go out in Steve Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald's eyes. Eldorado will remain lost.

Which is the central, pivotal, defining contention of this final episode, and thus of the entire series: It was lost from the start. It was lost on Deputy Sheriff Nucky Thompson's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day — when his wife suffered a devastating miscarriage, when his father beat his mother and nearly shot him, when his mentor and patron the Commodore stripped him of his badge, his job, his dignity. "What are you in the end, anyway?" the older man asks, full of contempt. "I am what I need to be." "How's that make you anything at all?"

And in its final sequence, it takes that protagonist down just as directly. How directly? That requires some spoilers for comparison. The Sopranos, Terence Winter's dramatic alma mater, condemned its New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano to a cut-to-black limbo, a Schrodinger's Goombah scenario meant to evoke both Tony's long-established moral stasis. Breaking Bad, Boardwalk's crime-drama contemporary, gave Walter White the grace of dying on his own terms — his loathsome neo-Nazi enemies machine-gunned, his prodigal protégé freed, his family provided for, his final resting place the lab he loved above everything else.

Then there's Boardwalk Empire. Nucky frees no one in this episode. Even if he were inclined to spring Gillian from her insane asylum, which he made a show of refusing to do, he was too slow to save her from pseudoscientific butchery at the hands of the misogynist medical system. His killer is not a mysterious man in a Members-Only Jacket, nor the crossfire of a machine-gun shootout with skinheads, but Tommy Darmody — whose grandmother Gillian he sold into sexual slavery as a child, whose father Jimmy Darmody he murdered, whose adoptive father (one Richard Harrow) he fatally drafted into one of countless wars for control of the boardwalk. He died not because of some grand revenge plot – Tommy/"Joe Harper" could have killed Nucky countless times if that had been his intention all along – but because he proved incapable of empathy. He attempted to buy the kid off rather than help him out, and thus uncorked a decade of rage and trauma.

And the act that is cross-cut with his death? His original sin – accepting a piece of silver in the form of a sheriff's badge. We watch it happen even as we watch the bullets enter his body and face. Cut to young Nucky, swimming shirtless in the ocean, grasping for a coin tossed by the swells above. He never surfaces – the show cuts to black before he can. The emperor has no clothes, and, finally, no excuses.

Previously: Message in a Bottle

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