History has already shown that the nonstop party of the Roaring Twenties couldn’t go on forever, so neither could Boardwalk Empire. On Thursday, HBO announced that it was shutting down its homage to the Prohibition-era Atlantic City playground, making this fall’s fifth season its last. As someone who has covered Boardwalk for Rolling Stone for the majority of its run, news of this decision was bittersweet. Sure, it’s always difficult to say goodbye to a series in which you’ve invested so much time, energy, love and, let’s be honest, aggravation. But at the same time – and again, let’s be honest – despite its lavish production, stellar performances from Steve Buscemi as protagonist Nucky Thompson, Michael Kenneth Williams as Northside gangster Chalky White and (most recently) Jeffrey Wright as Harlem interloper Dr. Valentin Narcisse, as well as credentials from Hollywood A-lister executive producers Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg, Boardwalk Empire never reached Breaking Bad or Mad Men levels of viewer and critic devotion.
There is no doubt that Boardwalk had plenty of moments of greatness throughout its first four seasons: the graphic depiction of Gillian’s (Gretchen Mol) incestuous relationship with her son, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), in Season Two; Nucky and Jimmy’s rainswept showdown at the end of Season Two, culminating in Nucky killing his protégé and Pitt’s still-mourned exit from the show; Bobby Cannavale’s Emmy-winning turn as the maniacal Gyp Rosetti in Season Three; Jack Huston‘s tortured WWI vet Richard Harrow transcending his bit-player role in Season One to become an integral part of Boardwalk – until his heartbreaking Season Four death (which enabled Huston to enter a heaven playing Jennifer Lawrence’s mobster boyfriend in American Hustle); Chalky’s story lines eclipsing those of Nucky in Season Four, allowing for what I hope will be a long-overdue Emmy nomination for Williams later this year.
Unfortunately, the slow burn that has characterized Boardwalk Empire since its inception may have been what lead to its ultimate defeat. In my recap of the Season Four finale, I said that “Farewell Daddy Blues” was possibly the best episode in the series’ run. Upon further reflection, I would like to remove the word “possibly” from that statement. However, a spectacular second half of Season Four does not make up for the three and a half seasons before it, in which Boardwalk was plagued by an overpopulation of plot and characters (only Julian Fellowes seems to have mastered the art of having 20-plus characters in a series – Downton Abbey – while making us care about all of them).
When I spoke to Boardwalk creator Terence Winter back in November, around the time of the Season Four finale, he was cagey about what to expect in Season Five – which now makes sense considering HBO’s recent decision. But I have a feeling he’ll use these final episodes to his advantage. To quote Winter’s statement from HBO, he and his staff “look forward to bringing [Boardwalk] to a powerful and exciting conclusion.” While in the past, Boardwalk has brought on new characters (ostensibly to replace the substantial quota killed off in the previous season), I think Winter will be able to achieve his goal by maintaining his focus on the series’ current residents as we enter the final season.
With so much left unresolved in “Farewell Daddy Blues,” Winter will certainly have his hands full as he faces the challenge of wrapping up these story lines in 12 episodes without introducing anyone new (except, perhaps, for Marcus Garvey). There’s Eli’s (Shea Whigham) exile to Chicago, where apparently he’s going to fall in with Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham); Gillian’s imprisonment for murder; Dr. Narcisse forcibly turned rat by J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin); Chalky’s Northside kingdom destroyed following his daughter Maybelle’s (Christina Jackson) death; Daughter Maitland’s (Margot Bingham) brief appearance in a seedy juke joint gives me hope that she and Chalky will find a way to reunite in Season Five; and finally, figuring out where the hell Nucky stands in all of this. Nucky Thompson may have lost his way in recent seasons, but he’s the most resilient character on Boardwalk Empire. C’mon, he’s a fan of Horatio Alger novels, for goodness sake! And that’s why Anthony Laciura’s belief that Nucky will come out on top is hardly a far-fetched one. (He played Eddie Kessler, Nucky’s now-deceased, put-upon manservant.) Just as long as the series doesn’t end with Nucky, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) and little Teddy and Emily at a greasy spoon chomping on onion rings while “Sweet Georgia Brown” cuts off mid-chorus.