October 27, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “Boardwalk Empire”


BOARDWALK EMPIRE was, from its start, HBO at its best and most frustrating.  The show was sumptuously produced, on a scale that no other small-screen purveyor of content could match, famously including the recreation of a chunk of the 1920’s-era Atlantic City boardwalk.  Its ambitious were enormous, ranging eventually through four decades and at least three major American cities, as series creator Terence Winter and showrunner Howard Korder dared to invoke comparisons with The Godfather Parts I and II, using their gangster story as a social history of the United States in the early 20th century, and touching on everything from gender to race, politics and morality between the bullets.  It was cast not for star value but in depth, with a phalanx of mostly indie talents that started with lead Steve Buscemi and included people like Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Macdonald, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pitt, Jack Huston and Gretchen Mol.  (The stars instead were on the Executive Producing team, which included Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg.)

The series was also stultifyingly self-serious, ponderous and sometimes just short of boring.  HBO tends to be loyal to its series creators to a fault–if a show isn’t working, the network will cancel it, but it rarely forces major changes–and Boardwalk‘s sprawl was too much for it to handle.  Opening up what amounted to an entire wing of the series in Chicago when former federal agent Van Alden (Shannon) moved there, and adding to its narrative the saga of Al Capone (the vivid Stephen Graham), unbalanced the entire narrative.  Characters like Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, capable of burning a hole in the TV screen) would be treated at times as critically important, and then episodes would go by when they’d have two or three minutes of screen time.  Some stories played out at almost slow-motion length, while others were abrupt and undeveloped.

These problems were accentuated in the final season, which was curtailed by HBO to a mere 8 episodes.  That would already have made for overcrowding, with so many widely separated narratives to wind up, but Winter and Korder decided to add to the burden by layering in a new structure of flashbacks, telling the turn of the century origins story of Nucky Thompson (Buscemi in the present, the remarkable Marc Pickering, who evoked Buscemi without imitating him, in the past).  Although beautifully realized, these extended sequences told us very little about Nucky that we didn’t already know, and as a consequence, they didn’t have anywhere near the impact that Winter and Korder clearly intended.

As it turned out in tonight’s series finale, written by Winter and Korder and directed by Tim Van Patten, this grand design was all leading to the show’s final sequence, which cut together Boardwalk‘s past and present to reveal that Nucky’s Original Sin had been his willingness to present the child version of Gillian Darmody (played in the present by Mol, as a girl by Madeleine Rose Yen) to the Commodore (who was John Ellison Conlee in flashbacks, and would eventually be played by Dabney Coleman).  That moment not only ruined Gillian’s life and rotted Nucky’s soul, but it led directly to Nucky’s death, as he was gunned down on the boardwalk by that odd quasi-protege who’d been hanging around for the last few episodes, who was in fact Tommy Darmody, Gillian’s grandson and the son of Jimmy (Pitt), Nucky’s real protege, whom he’d murdered at the end of Season 2.  It all came full circle for Nucky, but we in the audience had known for seasons that Nucky had been responsible for supplying Gillian to the Commodore, so although the great amount of time spent on the situation this season made his motives more complex and understandable (the Commodore was an even more horrible mentor than we’d seen in his present-tense scenes), it wasn’t any kind of shattering epiphany.

With so much time spent in the past, the finale did an efficient but not exciting job of resolving many of the other characters’ storylines:  Capone turned himself into the authorities for tax evasion; Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) successfully launched their “Commission” rule of the American mob that would go on for decades, along the way having the independent-minded Dr. Narcisse (Wright) assassinated in Harlem; Nucky’s ex-wife Margaret (Macdonald) successfully tagged along on Nucky’s shorting of a stock and made considerable profit, as well as a favorable impression on Joseph Kennedy (a very entertaining Matt Lescher); Nucky’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham) got a parting gift from Nucky of a bagful of money.  Other major characters, like Van Alden, Chalky, Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) and Sally Wheel (Patricia Arquette) had been wiped out earlier in the season.

Boardwalk Empire offered such considerable style, history, intelligence and general expertise through its five seasons that it seems ungrateful to note that it was rarely as captivating as it should have been, but such is the case.  Buscemi’s casting made more sense after Season 1, where Nucky had been unconvincingly depicted as a bon vivant and master politician more than a gangster, but he never quite carried Boardwalk in the way that icons like James Gandolfini, Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm have carried their shows, and Winter and Korder sometimes fumbled with other major characters, for example painting Van Alden as a near-psychopath in some stretches and a patsy in others.  The fabulous sets and costumes were at times more evocative than the people within them.  Seeking mournful, tragic weight, often Boardwalk just felt heavy.

Boardwalk Empire was a consistently fine, accomplished piece of television drama, but it happened to exist at a time when “fine” meant less than the very best.  Several of its makers (Winter, Scorsese, Cannavale) will likely soon be back on HBO with a new series set in the world of 1970s rock and roll, and perhaps that one will hit the target more squarely.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."