The Winding Down
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Boardwalk Empire has always been more about its stylized characterizations and the people behind the façade of glamour versus the gangster violence itself. Loads of people who tuned in were expecting to find a badass bloodbath every week, but that is not what this show is about nor does it have to be. I enjoy the occasional gangster on gangster violence being committed in suits (in fiction) as much as the next person, but I don’t expect 24: The Prohibition Era from HBO. Hence the reason I stopped watching True Blood at the end of Season 3 and never felt the urge to bother watching it again. The strength of Empire, even when its pace is languid, are the characters and the actors that portray them with the most ferocious performances. The central tenant of Boardwalk thematically has been greed and how ultimately one is drawn into the circle of that very greed despite one’s best efforts to stay away from it. For three long seasons Enoch Thompson stayed away from the gangster label until the explosion at Babette’s. At that juncture it became impossible for Nucky to deny who he was and the carnation floated away. One’s actions come around to haunt them and simply casting them aside because of a word doesn’t deter them. The consequences have a tricky way of coming right back around.
The final season of the Prohibition drama begins in 1931, seven years after the Season 4 ender Farewell Daddy Blues. It’s an interesting choice for the show to take, especially since it cuts out Rothstein’s and Margaret’s criminal enterprise (Rothstein historically died in 1928). I wanted to see gangster Margaret or someone close to that, but ah well. Margaret working on Wall Street is another exciting choice, considering the world had gone to hell in a couple of hand baskets just two years earlier. While the time jump can be questionable, it is an understandable choice on the other hand to close the show at the fifth season (although why it was shortened to 8 episodes is annoying). The show, even when it focused more on the other characters (like Chalky and Dr. Narcisse last season) has always been tethered to Nucky for better or for worse. As he approached his trip to Cuba, it felt as if Nucky’s story was coming to a close. Would I watch a spin-off with Rothstein and Margaret running a criminal enterprise? Yes, yes I would. But this is largely the story connected to Nucky and it is far preferable to have it end at a respectable five seasons versus limping to the finish line.
Golden Days for Boys and Girls is a good episode that is largely setting up where the characters have arrived since Season 4, even though we haven’t met everyone on the now far-flung map (for both reasons, Game of Thrones’s Season 3 opener, Valar Dohaeris, comes to mind). It’s a solid piece largely centered around Nucky and it earns itself thusly a bit of praise for extra effort since Nucky hasn’t always been the most electric personality character-wise. Nevertheless, the hour does make a decent amount of time for Margaret and Luciano while making sure that we don’t have to suffer through an hour without Chalky’s silent glares. Now that would be tragic.
Luciano is a character who himself has always been hanging about the peripherals. 1931 is the year of his rise and it is no mistake that the season opener of Boardwalk wrestles the question of him getting his hands dieting directly. He wants power and a rise but until he takes it upon himself and has Masseria shot to death, he could not do so. Even then, he went inside instead of shooting Masseria himself. The final shot of Masseria’s bleeding body is telling as the blood pools around from the dozen or so open wounds is telling, but in that same shot there is Luciano walking away. He may have not pulled the trigger himself, but his hands were all over the gun itself. He got his hands dirty and how he stands as the boss. For how long that lasts, however, is anyone’s guess (unless you look it up on Wikipedia).
Flashbacks are tricky, there is no doubt. Sometimes they’re burdensome and unnecessary, adding in filler where there is obviously little dramatic material otherwise. Sometimes, like in the average Man of Steel, they fill in a story that didn’t really need most of them to begin with. The first episode of Boardwalk’s final season is pretty heavy on flashbacks, but they work. They’re integrated seamlessly into the current narrative, forming a picture of Nucky that perhaps should have come earlier in the series. A child living in impoverished conditions, his father is abusive, his mother is kind, and his younger sister sickly. The episode opens with a bunch of children fishing for gold the Commodore threw over the bridge, a sickly sort of spectacle. He finds a hat in the fields with fifty bucks left, but he returns it with the hope it’ll garner him something more. “Honesty?” the Commodore chaffs, taking the hat from the boy and giving him nothing in return. Nucky comes back after a boy takes away a chance at a tip, beating him until the Commodore hands him a golden dollar and a broom. He presents the gold to his sweet mother. Nucky’s beginning.
Margaret, still keeping her job at Wall Street, is listening calmly to her boss, Mr. Bennett. He goes on and on about this Mickey Mouse cartoon he saw before a “fillum” as Margaret pronounces it. He gives the speech below before bringing out a gun slowly and shooting himself in the head. Kudos to Howard Korder for the speech and the team for making the steady suicide so tragic. It’s the reality of post-Depression America told in one extremely unsettling sequence. Margaret is horrified not just by his suicide, but also by the tenuous nature of her job. Afraid of being let go, she is asked about a key to Mr. Bennett’s file, which she finds just as the door opens. Margaret has never been shy about doing things herself for self-preservation. Arguably she has little choice, but her determination remains the most appealing thing about her.
“The cartoon beforehand: Mickey Mouse cast away on a desert island. I just imagine the hijinks…. at one point, Mickey finds a piano…not important. What is important, he doesn’t give up. He makes the best of the situation. He stays cheerful. And in the end what happens… he sails away on a turtle. You see, friends, don’t let the naysayers get you down. The country is strong, the market is strong. Connors & Gould is strong. It is a grand time to make some money.”
Chalky, now called Stripy, allowed himself to be caught by the law but as of now that’s really all we know. A prison riot erupts in the woods as the officers are cut down and Chalky blows his officer’s head off with a gun. We’re not exactly sure what’s going on here, but Chalky is back and that’s pretty much all we know. No Dr. Narcisse, though, but we can all assume he’s coming sooner than later with that smooth and dangerous voice of his.
Visually the show has little competition in its panache. As stylized as any show can get, Boardwalk Empire revels in its period like few other shows. The cuts through the forest and shots of Cuba especially are absolutely breathtaking. Boardwalk regular Tim Van Patten is on full fire and it will be hard to top, even though he might pull it off in the finale. The art direction and color palette is simply superb and sheerly stunning to look at and take in. The best shot of the episode belongs to when Mr. Bennett is standing in the middle of his employees, equally the center of attention and equally isolated from everyone else. Considering his scams, it’s hard to sympathize with him. But the moment he shoots himself and everyone jumps away from him as if he were radioactive is an incredibly telling shot.
The best things about Boardwalk Empire is the acting. No matter the line, the narrative, or dramatic structure, not a single part is miscast. Every single little acting beat is on the spot and that is incredibly impressive. Steve Buscemi embodies Nucky through and through. Patricia Arquette is fantastic and Anatol Yusef still mixes danger and charm impeccably. No one does death glares like Michael Kenneth Williams and it’s great to have him back. Kelly MacDonald has always risen to the occasion and beyond, even when the material given to her wasn’t always worthy of the character. Vincent Piazza gets his meatiest material yet as he takes the blood oaths in Italian and he sells the transformation without batting an eye. Mark Pickering and Nolan Lyons are excellent as the young Nuckys. Ian Hart is dastardly as the younger Ethan Thompson and John Ellison Conlee is able to give the younger Commodore the appropriate gravitas required.
Boardwalk Empire often has to go through a ringer to keep Nucky in the midst of everything even though frankly the supporting characters are more interesting. It’s not a knock on Steve Buscemi’s performance, which remains stellar, it’s the reality that is not a show led by one man. It’s an ensemble piece. That neglect sometimes means that characters who deserve more screen time like Margaret during the first half of Season 4 and Chalky in Season 3 are neglected in favor of Nucky’s dealings. That does hurt the show, there is no denying. But it doesn’t deliver the death blow that some of Boardwalk’s critics label it with. No show is for everyone and perhaps the stylized character builds aren’t exciting enough. Perhaps some don’t care for too many characters and certainly there aren’t very many characters to like. But drama, and good drama at that, isn’t ever concerned with making sure you love everyone, hate everyone, or see a bloodbath every week. A good, a great drama, is concerned primarily with its characters and if the narrative reflects their thematic odyssey with honesty. No gangster ever goes quietly. Nor will this show.
P.S. Richard Harrow, we still miss you.
Title: Golden Days for Boys and Girls
Written By: Howard Korder
Directed By: Tim Van Patten
Image Courtesy: IGN, Den of Geek, HBO Asia