All Empires Must Fall
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“Ah! What pleasant visions haunt me as I gave upon the sea. All the old romantic legends, all my dreams come back to me, sails of silk and ropes of sandal, such as gleam in ancient lore, and the singing…”
The Empire of Prohibition fell tonight. And the fall was unflinching, unsparing, and the best finale for a series that I have ever seen. For me as a fan of the show, I knew what ending I wanted. I also knew that it was far more likely that that ending is not the one the show would deliver. But I didn’t know until that final shot when Nucky was shot three times by Tommy Darmody on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. As a series finale, Eldorado stands out in my memory as one of the best finales in history. I was emotionally moved to my core, which is earnestly the best praise I can give to an episode of television. Yet there is also a sense as each frame moves by that this episode did suffer the most from the ridiculous eight-episode order for the final season. Perhaps the fifth season should have been the last as it was, but it deserved a full season to wrap itself up.
The title Eldorado refers to the legendary city of gold where the Holy Grail lay. It was a masterpiece of a city, overflowing with all the treasure that existed in the world and hiding the Holy Graik. For Boardwalk Empire, that legendary city of wealth was Atlantic City. That golden, beautiful city with the churning waves thundering against the immortal Boardwalk was the Eldorado that drew so many Holy Grail claimants into its grasps, often leaving them in a bloody repose with no turning back. For Nucky, the moment that always would close the series in hindsight and became more and more apparent as time went on, was the moment where he decided to give young Gillian over to the Commodore. He stepped onto that fabled Eldorado road at the price of his soul and at that moment, there was no turning back.
The episode eschews the suited Nucky opening credits and instead opens up with a beautiful shot of a stripped, older Nucky swimming through the turbulent waves of the Atlantic City shore. Tim Van Patten’s camera goes back and forth as he swims beyond the limit, pulling back to make him nearly a nonentity in the vast, turbulent waters. The tidal waves come in and the tidal waves come out, a perfect metaphor for the turbulence of Nucky’s entire existence. Yet Nucky always found a pathway to remove that turbulence out of his life and throw it into the winds: money. It’s a simple solution but it’s like throwing an empty rope out into the middle of the sea. As the adult Nucky makes his final farewells as if he knows the fate that awaits him, he opts for the same methodology of simply throwing money at the problem instead of facing the emotional truths of the matter. He stops by Eli’s apartment to a disheveled Shea Whigham, dropping a final good-bye to his brother. Eli’s not sure that June would take him back after what he did, but Nucky pushes him to go for it, anyway. “If you don’t try, you’ll always regret it,” he notes, adding a bit of emotion to him dropping off a bag of money and a shaving kit in his wake.
Perhaps the most satisfying payoff of the entire series is Margaret, a character who suffered from time to time by being pushed to the sidelines as the bootleggers crowded the narrative. Joe Kennedy makes a comeback, trying to push for his shareholders to keep the company afloat on the basis of Prohibition being repealed. He arrives to meet Margaret, rightfully accusing her and Nucky of shorting stock on the Mayflower Grain Corporation. Margaret, being the true genius that she is, devises a plan to push the Mayflower stock down and down and down to the price of $3.25 a share. She assumes quite rightfully that people would sell the shares in mass panic and then quickly she arranges for all the shares to be brought by Kennedy, herself, and Nucky. It’s a genius plan and Kennedy watches in absolute admiration as Margaret pulls the entire thing off. He admits he could never figure out the mind of a woman. Margaret’s response is pitch perfect. “Think about the things you want in life, then picture yourself in a dress.” She walks away with Kennedy’s business in her hand and a broad smile on her face. At the Eldorado Building, full of residential apartments that promise the best of the future, she has a last, graceful dance with Nucky. His admiration for her is palpable as she announces that he’s made $2,364,120 off of her stock scheme. Herself? She’s kept roughly ten percent of the earnings, a nice sum of $29,925 that gives her a tidy cushion and a great steady job. Nucky apologizes, but she stops him. “All you did was offer. I was the one that took,” she says quietly, acknowledging her own role in the distressing events that had taken over their lives. Here is one relationship where Nucky just can’t throw money at the problem because Margaret has the acute sensibility of recognizing the world around her and the realities within it. In sharp contrast to the rest of the cast so to speak, Margaret is one of the few characters on Boardwalk Empire with the ability to understand and know exactly what she wants and where the line is drawn. She could have taken all of the money, but she keeps just enough to help her out just in case while ensuring a steady source of income. What an amazing character and the ending to her story on this series is absolutely perfect.
Al Capone has been an amazing character on Boardwalk and certainly one I’ve enjoyed in relatively small doses. But here he drops the showmanship in a scene with his deaf son that is one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen depicted on screen. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done it for you,” he says quietly to his child in a scene ironically echoing what Eli told William last week. And in that moment, Capone becomes someone who came to America like so many other immigrants, looking for a better life for himself and his family. He just became something far, far more different and he knew that his comeuppance was coming. “Dad,” his son sobs as Capone hugs him one last time as I reach for my nearly empty box of Kleenexes. On the steps of the courthouse, he quickly reverts to his old persona, a fake public façade as he puts on his old swagger charm and that famous Capone smile. He meets the eyes of D’Angelo, knowing full well that his reckoning has come.
Young Nucky’s flashbacks come around full circle, beginning with him having taken Sheriff Lindsay’s old spot as he had resigned in disgust. The Commodore takes away his badge, openly displaying his disgust for Nucky. He’s torn apart by what he sees as a betrayal on his years of honest hard work and keeping his mouth shut. But then he receives the Sheriff’s badge in return for just one small favor, one in which he would seal his entire life. He finds young Gillian in a parade, quietly saying “I promise I’ll always look after you.” She grabs his hand and both of their fates are sealed. It’s an odd sort of thing that the series would find its crux with these two characters, but it makes sense. This was the moment when Enoch sold his soul to the devil he knew, becoming a friendless, lost child as a result. He climbed the ladder, but he chopped off the ends, leaving no path for him to go back. The expression on her face as she extends her hand is absolutely heartbreaking, sealing her fate without fully understanding the ramifications of what just happened.
The adult Nucky goes to meet Gillian, to try and compensate for what he did to her and her family. She stays quiet, breaking Nucky down without uttering a single world. He tells her that he cant just take her out of the asylum, but he got her a nice room all to herself and that when they release her, there’s money in a trust fund. Once again it’s Nucky trying to throw money at the problem to salvage some solution. Quietly, Gillian tries to get up, clutching her stomach in the process. She extends her hand to Nucky for one last time and he helps her get up. She quietly reminds him of some kindness still being alive, walking away with some hope, even if it may tragically not amount to much. It’s fittingly the best ending for these two and despite everything, I do hope she manages to survive as she has for so long and escape to something resembling a quiet, calm life. But for Nucky, that isn’t possible. As he walks on the Boardwalk, having rescued Joe Harper yet again, Joe reveals himself to be Tommy Darmody, a third generation victim of Nucky’s fatal sin. He shoots him twice before being reigned in by IRS officials but he comes back for a third shot, shooting Nucky right in the face. As the scene in front of him fades away, Nucky extends his hand forward as if trying to grab the hand of a young Gillian one last time. The scene fades away as Nucky breathes his last on the very Boardwalk where he had sold his soul. The camera zooms away to a child Nucky swimming in the waters of Atlantic City, triumphantly grabbing a coin in the darkened depths. And the screen fades away.
As the Commodore told young Enoch Thompson, “It’s what you leave behind. It’s the only thing that anyone is going to know about you.” Boardwalk Empire leaves behind an incredible legacy as one of the greatest series ever put to the screen. The production design alone puts every other show in history to pure shame. The music was perfect, the costumes were impeccable, the art direction was ingenious, right down to the tiniest detail. The direction was impeccable week after week and the writing remains one of the most incredible of any series that has ever aired or ever will. And the performances, oh my God. This series was blessed to have some of the greatest actors of modern age down to the smallest cameo. Everyone spun their incredible dialogue at one with another with absolute perfection, not just embodying their characters but becoming them. And more so than any other series outside of The Wire, Boardwalk Empire gave us one of the most significant portraits of black culture within America, damning the racist society so overwhelming then and so prevalent now. Women’s rights were a dominant theme in the series, opening with a keen look at the fight for women’s suffrage and crafting a narrative that damned the men who were so proud of being in charge. The immigrant culture and clashes at the early portions of the twentieth century were incredibly portrayed with a complexity rarely seen anywhere else. Even as a gangster show, Boardwalk Empire was far more concerned with the emotions and complexities of its characters, bringing their storyline to a close when necessary. Sure, there were badass gangster shootouts but the moments that grabbed us the most were the emotional notes when our characters bared their hopes, dreams, and souls. The most impressive historical fiction drama of all time comes to a close as one of the best questions of the series rings in our hearts, minds, and souls. “What are you in the end anyway?” One of the greats. Good-bye, Boardwalk Empire. I will always miss you.
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+A nickel becomes a dime, which manifests itself into a quarter
+Luciano remembering Rothstein’s death
+“You want to sail around the world.”
+The death of Dr. Narcisse at the hands of Luciano and company. It’s a tremendous scene where he gets shot in the middle of his sermon from Ecclesiastics and crawls away to try and escape. It’s a sharp contrast to the quiet dignity and grace with which Chalky had accepted his fate.
+The sequence of Mabel having lost her child and Nucky not being able to care for her was absolutely heartbreaking, especially considering what was yet to come.
+The final scene with Nucky and his family at their old home was beautiful in how heart-wrenching it was. They all scattered apart, never to unite again.
+“They’re called ladybugs. but how can you tell which one’s a lady?”
+“Just the best one I’ve got.”
+The sequence with Nucky seeing one of the earliest television sets is a haunting scene in hindsight, evidence of a new age in which Nucky tragically does not belong.
+Nucky before his unknowing final moments looking back at the letter addressed to Bellboy Enoch with Mabel’s note that she would kiss him.
+The image of Nucky’s death mirroring the poster for the final season was a brilliant move.
Written By: Howard Korder & Terence Winter
Directed By: Tim Van Patten
Image Courtesy: M Starz