HBO's Boardwalk Empire began its fifth and final season last night, and it did so in a fashion that may have you asking more than a few questions. Here are answers to those questions.
Did this show seriously just jump from 1924 to 1931?
Yes. Yes, it did. Creator and showrunner Terence Winter explained in this interview with Hitfix that he did so because it seemed appropriate to close out the show at the end of prohibition, just as it began with the start of the law. Now, prohibition isn't quite done for in 1931, but it's pretty obvious it's on the way out. That's what the show is playing with.
Did the show skip over anything historically significant?
It skipped over several things, actually, but let's boil it down to the three most important ones.
- The 1929 Atlantic City conference: The first major gathering of organized crime figures in the United States, this always seemed like it would be a major focus of one of the show's seasons. Indeed, Winter has talked in prior interviews about how important the conference was to the characters depicted on the show and how he couldn't wait to show it. Instead, the decision to end the show after five seasons means we won't get to see this conference, unless there's a flashback.
- The death of Arnold Rothstein: As played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Rothstein was always one of the show's most unexpectedly amusing characters. But the series has simply skipped right over his death in 1928, which means that Rothstein — who seemed like he was being set up for a major arc in the fourth season finale — is now a non-entity.
- The crash of 1929: To be sure, the characters are all dealing with the after-effects of the crash in 1931 (even if it's easy to feel as if the event hasn't impacted most of the main characters — who have plenty of money — at all). But it's easy to imagine a season that featured the one-two punch of the crime conference and the financial crash. That could have been a very good season indeed.
Was this forced on the show by HBO?
That's hard to say. Certainly the eight-episode order for the final season, along with the fact that previous seasons' ratings have steadily declined, suggests that HBO had plenty of reason to pull the plug and did so at the first opportunity. (Even with a reduced budget, this is still a very expensive show.) But in that Hitfix interview, Winter argues that the show is Nucky Thompson's story, and Nucky Thompson's story has almost run out.
He's more or less right about that, too. One of the things that made season four so great was that it largely left Nucky behind, turning him into a supporting character on his own show. He took on a role similar to that of Rothstein or Al Capone in previous seasons: a major underworld heavyweight who could hurt or help the other characters as he decided. Instead, season four focused on the struggle between Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), which was all the more remarkable for being about very different, conflicting attempts at self-definition by two black men.
But season five returns its focus to Nucky in a big way, as you can tell from all of the flashbacks to his childhood scattered throughout the premiere. Steve Buscemi, who plays Nucky, is a great actor, and there have been hints of something more to the character over the years, but it's also not hard to feel slightly disappointed by this shift in focus. Nucky was never as interesting as his supporting cast, even when the show was forthrightly focused on him.
Assuming Winter really did have the idea to wrap up the show (and he might be playing nice because he wants HBO to pick up his next show), it's disappointing he didn't realize how much mileage there might have been from Nucky shifting to the sidelines for a few more seasons, before finally returning to centerstage when the show was ready to end.
Is being set during the Great Depression helping at all?
Not really, no. There are occasional hints of the chaos sweeping American society at this point — as when Margaret's boss commits suicide in front of his employees or when Chalky breaks free from a prison chain gang — but for the most part, the characters are insulated from economic disaster. Hell, Nucky spends the bulk of the episode living it up in Havana (yet another location on the show's long list of them) before someone makes an attempt on his life.
On the other hand, this premiere focuses so much on Nucky that it's hard to tell just how the Depression will affect the show as a whole. As the scope of the series gradually broadens, perhaps we'll get a stronger sense of just how the Depression has hurt even the show's richest characters, at least a little bit.
Should we write off the show based on this premiere?
Are you kidding? You've watched this show before, right?
Boardwalk Empire always starts slowly, with a bunch of stories that seem to have nothing to do with each other, then slowly begins to weave them all together, often in thrilling fashion. This premiere was one of the show's weaker ones, and it didn't do much to justify the time jump (nor the frequent jumps back to Nucky's childhood), but it was still beautifully made television, and it suggested several intriguing places for the show to go in the seven episodes left to it. That's more than enough for me, at least for right now.
What will this show's legacy be?
Boardwalk Empire — with its Martin Scorsese-directed pilot and "gangsters in the ‘20s" vibe — will probably always seem like a slightly disappointing footnote in HBO's overall history. It was meant to be the network's next Sopranos, and instead, Game of Thrones came in and stole all of its thunder. Then, it steadily lost ratings power from season to season, and the launch of its final season almost feels like an afterthought.
But Boardwalk Empire, even if it's rarely touched true greatness, has usually been a very good, very solid sort of drama, the kind of handsomely mounted show that would have felt revelatory last decade but now feels ever so slightly tired in this age of hyper-crazed storytelling. Each season of this show has felt satisfying both in and of itself and as part of a larger whole. And if this final season can make that larger whole make sense, this will be a real treat for those who stumble upon it in the decades to come. Here's hoping it can manage that trick.