All empires eventually end. Of the TV series that have gone on to the great DVR in the sky in the past year (or are headed there in the coming months), HBO's Boardwalk Empire seems to be going extra quietly, despite what the advertisements doth protest. Despite critically acclaimed performances and at least one universally praised season—that'd be last year's incredibly morose Greek tragedy—the show's never blown up culturally the way most HBO vehicles are expected to, which almost definitely led to the "creative decision" to end the series with this last eight episode batch that began last night.
Whatever the initial plan though, we're here now, marching to a definitive ending. The action has skipped forward to 1931, where the gangsters we've watched make their bones through Prohibition are buckling down for its end. Will Nucky Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) final bid for power and legacy validate him as a protagonist? Will the conflict between Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) match the highs of last season? Will Al Capone (Stephen Graham) actually do his taxes and change crime history as we know it? Complex Pop Culture staff writers Frazier Tharpe, a day one fan of the series, and Nathan Reese, a skeptic who has nonetheless seen every episode, chatted this morning about last night's premiere and where they hope the show's heading.
Nathan: So you're a big fan of the show—I'm not so much. How are you feeling going into the final season? Is this where you thought the show would go when you started watching, in 2010?
Frazier: The end of Prohibition feels appropriately full circle. But, to be honest, I never would've imagined a time jump this large. Not that it doesn't work, but it was so obviously not part of the original plan. *Pours out some illegal booze for Arnold Rothstein.*
Nathan: I'm actually pleased that they just said, Screw it, let's fast forward things so we can tackle a different era. It is odd that very little seems to have changed in Nucky's life over the last seven years, especially considering how much went down in a few short years at the beginning of the decade. I'm happy to see that he's still with Patricia Arquette's character, and that we're still heading down south. Chalky however seems to have had a rough time. It'll be interesting to see what happened to him in the interim. Overall, though, I don't think the logistics matter. I'm just glad the writers put the characters in a place where they can do what they want with them.
Frazier: The biggest feature from last night we have to talk about though: FLASHBACKS. Are we feeling them or are the Adventures of Little Nucky another entry in poor cable series flashbacks, word to Dick Whitman?
Nathan: Definitely more of the latter, unfortunately. Flashbacks, as a whole, aren't my favorite plot device. Why are they showing us more of what we've already learned? Little Nucky had an abusive father, and pulled himself up even though he was terrible at finding rich people's hats and coins? This is is not exactly a big reveal. Speaking of which—what's up with rich people throwing money at kids all the time? Was this really a thing?
Frazier: Flashbacks have been a washed narrative crutch since every TV writer started studying LOST too hard. But the glimpses of Nucky's origins here—the plan is for them to occur all season, I believe—can potentially solve a problem I didn't realize the show had: giving viewers a reason to care about Nucky, our de facto protagonist.
Nathan: "De facto protagonist" is definitely how I'd refer to Nucky. But what don't we already know about his past? We know the Commodore took him in. We know he slowly turned to crime, because "you can't be half a gangster." I think the giving-a-shit-about-Nucky train left when the tracks were finished in Atlantic City. There are characters I'm still invested in on this show (i.g. Chalky), but I think it's just too little too late for Nucky. Plus, where's the drama when we know the historical Nucky made it out of the '30s alive?
Frazier: I DIDN'T KNOW THAT THANKS FOR SPOILING ME WITH HISTORY! But in all seriousness, the vague, cipher of a middle-aged white antihero is plaguing TV all over, but something about Steve Buscemi sells the magnetism Nucky's coasted on all of these years. I've never been bored by him and didn't realize the other 67 loyal Boardwalk viewers were until last year when he took a backseat and everyone rejoiced.
But the main story I hope to get out of these flashbacks though, circles back to the most important relationship Nucky had, one that Terence Winter and co have never been able to match. At some point, we have to see him basically hand a 13 year-old Gillian over to the Commodore.
Nathan: Ah, right. I hadn't thought of Gillian. Poor Gillian. I suppose that would symbolize his first big ethical compromise for power. We'll see how it plays out, but the flashback were my least favorite part of the episode. I think the show is at its best when it goes for shocking, bizarre violence though, and the Cuban ear-collecting bodyguard seems to be fulfilling that.
Just in more broader terms though, what do you want to see before the series' end? Is there some sort of closure you're looking for? I'm in a situation where I just watch the show to watch the who. It's not one of the shows that tells us much about the Meaning of Life™ (that would be Mad Men). It's just a beautifully made show that ultimately feels hollow to me. But maybe the real question I'm asking is: What do you think this show wants to say, and can it say whatever that is?
Frazier: One could argue that the hollowness that comes with chasing empires and legacies is in fact, The Statement. Nucky's fate is up in the air but we know how this ends for the Capones and Luciano's, for sure. I'm hoping for some juicy reflection from the likes of Nucky and Chalky on the pile of ashes their pursuit of power has gotten them. Then again, back in Season 1 I would've bet money on the show ending years before this with a changing of the guard as Capone, Luck, and Meyer ascended. So who knows. Given Meyer and Lucky's exploits IRL, it still could still be a major theme going forward.
Nathan: Ah, the pursuit of power. I guess that's probably what Terence Winter would say about the show: that it's about the relationships that power costs you. I think you're right about Chicago, we'll get to see Capone at the top; we'll see Meyer at the height of his powers; maybe we'll Nucky start to decline (or, better, they'll deviate from history and kill him off. I've been negative about the show overall, but I'm legitimately interested to see where we're headed.
But when it's over, I think the most interesting thing about Boardwalk Empire may be the meta lessons that that we learned about TV in general: that a show can make sweeping changes over its run for the better, and that you really do need a compelling protagonist for a show to work. (We just disagree about whether or not Buscemi was that guy.) I'm honestly surprised I made it to Season 5, and that's largely due to how great a job the writers did with last year's surprisingly fantastic season. If they can pull this one out, maybe the criticism that people have about the show will fade. To that end, maybe it doesn't need to "say" anything at all. Maybe Boardwalk Empire was just a pretty OK gangster show, and that's enough.
Frazier: Exactly. Dismissing a series because it's clearly not a GOAT contender is wack. In the end, Boardwalk validated itself when, just like it's protagonist, it buckled down against the pretensions and went Full Gangster. Sometimes it dug deeper to give us story lines like last year's groundbreaking African-American conflict. Most of the time it was merely great acting, gorgeous sets, and even more beautifully staged whackings. Five seasons well spent, in my opinion.