Just as his empire began on that Atlantic City boardwalk, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) story concluded on AC’s wooded walkway.
Though it’s never reached the level of hyperbolic acclaim as other HBO dramas, like The Sopranos or The Wire, Boardwalk Empire has quietly been one of modern-day television’s most fascinating shows. Overseen by one-time The Sopranos writer Terence Winter, the Prohibition-Era gangster series achieved as many moments of sheer greatness as it did frustrating character arcs, jumbled historical landmarks, and wayward characters portrayed by superior actors (Michael Shannon’s all-over-the-place Nelson Van Alden, for instance) forced to right the writers’ wrongs.
Last night, Boardwalk Empire’s shortened fifth and final season (four episodes less than the previous four) wrapped up with, keeping with the show’s tradition of nicely landed endings, a powerful final hour for Nucky. It was one of the show's best episodes, but was it enough to cement a lasting legacy for a prestige drama that’s never been able to transcend to small-screen greatness? Complex Pop Culture staffers Matt Barone, Nathan Reese, and Frazier Tharpe discuss where Boardwalk Empire stands now that its main character has fallen.
Matt Barone: I gotta say, that may have been the most instantly satisfying TV series finale I've ever seen. The Sopranos ending, I've grown to love over time, and I'm still a bit on-the-fence about how tidily everything wrapped up in Breaking Bad, but I love everything about how they ended Nucky's story on Boardwalk. I'll always appreciate Boardwalk Empire for many reasons, but chief among those will be how well the show killed off its strongest characters, and I can't think of a better ending for Nucky.
I definitely have some issues with this final season as a whole, but none with the finale itself.
Frazier Tharpe: I loved it. Totally validated the season-long flashbacks too, a decision that many people criticized what with the short episode order and so many characters to service. That intercutting in the final moment was immensely powerful and affecting.
Matt: That's one of the other things I'll miss about Boardwalk: even when the seasons started off slowly, they always concluded strongly. Terence Winter and his team really know how to bring storylines to a head.
Frazier: Terry the god might be the neatest writer out.
Nathan Reese: I felt like it worked pretty well also. I'm much less of a fan, overall, of the show. But it was all very tidy. I think it worked. I still have issues with the overall narrative, but I'm frankly amazed they were able to bring it together was well as they did.
Frazier: The pieces always fell perfectly each season.
Nathan: They do, but it's pretty clear that Winter didn't know where everything was going from the beginning. Jimmy was written out of the show for reasons that had more to do with Michael Pitt not wanting to be on the show, as far as I know, so since then they've gone in a lot of different directions to regain their footing. They could have dropped the Jimmy storyline so many times, but I think it's great that they used it as a through-line to connect the series.
Frazier: Specifically, they could've dropped Gillian many times. I feel like they always had some idea of what they had there and what her history represents with Nucky. She's that living reminder.
Matt: Once the episode ended last night, I wanted to go back and start the series over to see if all fits, in terms of the Nucky/Gillian/Jimmy/Tommy dynamic. But, regardless, I'm glad they kept Gillian around. I've always liked her mostly for the haunted quality she brought to the show. There's a tragedy to her, and this final season did a great job of showing why that's the case, and how she's worse off staying alive and being a Cuckoo's Nest-like vegetable in the psych ward than if they'd just killed her off whenever before.
Nathan: I actually think there was a bit of a wobbly narrative regarding what Tommy actually wanted. Like what does it take for a 15-year-old kid to kill a guy? Were things that bad with Richard's sister that he felt justified in doing it? I thought the whole reason Richard died (and had that awesome shootout in the brothel) was so he could ensure Tommy's future. But I guess he failed, too. It sure puts a darker spin on his last actions.
Frazier: I think Tommy lost too many people in his life to ever grow up truly okay. As he came into his own, he probably became more obsessed with his past.
Nathan: Nobody died for anything. Richard's valiant effort was a failure. Chalky lost everything. Nucky left no legacy. The message here is very bleak. The show is about the futility of leaving something behind.
Matt: Aside from Richard, the characters all died for past sins. So in a way, it's just as moralistic as it is bleak and cynical. And in that, it's the anti-Dexter, which spent eight years following a serial killer and then let him live as a fucking lumberjack. (Sorry, I can't pass up a chance to slander Dexter.)
Frazier: I definitely didn't expect Gillian's story to end as bleakly as it did. But despite these flashbacks framing her tragedy, she has her own sins to pay for. Eli might've had the happiest ending.
Nathan: Yeah, oddly enough there's hope there. He's got some money for a new suit. Maybe his wife will take him back. The real winner is Margaret though. She's going to be hanging with the Kennedys playing the market.
Matt: It's interesting how much more I liked Margaret this season than in the past.
Frazier: She came into her own during the seasons where her screen-time was relatively limited, ironically.
Nathan: Yeah, it's because she was actually given some agency. It didn't feel forced.
Matt: Unlike, say, the war between Luciano and Nucky, the season's biggest tragedy. That's the one knock I have against this season: its condensed, eight-episode run meant they had to sacrifice a lot of story, the most prominent one being the chance to watch the full rise of Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel. Trimming the war down to a montage (a badass montage, yes, but a montage nonetheless) in the penultimate episode was a big missed opportunity. Thankfully, the actors playing those characters were so great that I ultimately forgive the show for doing that.
Frazier: Seriously. A spin-off continuing that trio's story is the greatest show that will never happen.
Nathan: One criticism I had was that Narcisse's death seemed, to me, just seemed like a way to create tension for the Nucky narrative. It would have been easy enough to let him be win out, and but lose by having to acquiesce to Luciano. I don't see any benefit to killing him off after Chalky is out of the picture. But yea, agree that Lanksy, Luciano, and Seigel would make for a great spinoff. I really loved Siegel this season. That actor [Michael Zegen] stole so many scenes.
Matt: In addition to a Luciano/Lansky/Siegel show, I’d love an all “Stephen Graham as Al Capone” spin-off series. My favorite scene in last night's finale was, oddly enough, not with Nucky, but with Al Capone. The moment between Capone and his son was, not to sound corny here, beautiful. It speaks to one of Boardwalk's strongest yet most unsung attributes: how well it humanized these historical gangster figures whom we only hear about for being ruthless criminals. Capone's biggest moments showed him as just that, but I love that Winter and company cared enough about him to give him one last moment of humanity. I definitely didn't expect that to happen in the finale.
Frazier: Winter and company weren't just writers exploiting history for a Scorsese-lite series. They have a real affection for this era and its figures that shows, which is why at times Capone and others were more compelling than Nucky even.
Nathan: Let's talk about the show's legacy, though, since that's sort of the show’s theme. Will people come back to Boardwalk Empire? Or is this just a footnote in the prestige gangster drama narrative?
Frazier: As it stands, I'm going to go with footnote, unfortunately. It probably isn't premature to declare this as one of the most underrated series finales ever. This show was never a hit, relatively speaking, at least from my perspective.
Matt: I hope people will come back to it. There's a large number of people who haven't even started it to begin with, so I can see its reach expanding over time, the more critics go back to it in years to come and realize, "You know, that show was a lot better than I gave it credit for." It's an uneven show, sure, and messy at times, but when it works, it can be amazing. People tend to focus on its weaknesses too much and ignore the things it's done brilliantly.
There's too much greatness within the show's run for it to completely fade away or become a footnote. Or maybe I'm just being too romantic here, since I've always loved Boardwalk and never totally understood why it's been so overlooked in the broader conversations about modern-day television.
Frazier: Same. I hope its legacy fares better than Nucky Thompson’s.
Nathan: I’m going to be the hater here. I obviously stuck with it for the entirety of the series, which says something, but I think that as good of a job as they managed with this finale it was too uneven to be considered a great show. With Deadwood out there, and people still sleeping on it, I think that's the one that people will continue to find.
Matt: There's no reason why people can't discover both Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood.
Frazier: If I'm right and these crime/mob/gangster type shows have fallen off and out of development, I think fans of the genre might double back to Boardwalk for refuge.
Nathan: That's true. But people only have so much time. I do like this idea of Nucky's narrative being similar to this show's though, for better or worse. He was a prestige-hungry guy who never quite became a great man. Maybe that's Winter poking fun at a show that had all the building blocks for greatness but never quite made it there. Maybe that's sort of thin, but I think you could see it that way. And don't get me wrong: the highs were really high. Richard was a truly great character. And last seasons Narcisse/Chalky competition was done really well.
There's a lot there for people who are willing to look for it.
Matt: I like that correlation between Nucky and the show itself. And if we want to take it further, the final image of young Nucky reaching for that coin, the thing that's always out of his reach, isn't unlike the show ending with a moment of undeniable greatness, that thing Terence Winter and company always strived for but couldn't fully have.
Nathan: I’m not sure it's a narrative that Winter would agree with, but I do like the analogy.
Frazier: Where would we rank this finale among the greats? That's been a pertinent convo again in the wake of Breaking Bad.
Nathan: That's a tough question. As a single episode, it was really well executed. But since I wasn't as invested, I just didn't care as much.
Matt: Like I said at the start of this convo, it's definitely one of the best series finales I've personally ever seen, if not the best. And, for me, that's because of how finite it is while also being somewhat unexpected. Back in seasons 1 or 2, I never would have guessed that it'd all boil down to Nucky and Gillian's history. The other big series finales all have problems in their execution or resolutions. Boardwalk's finale is executed greatly, and the resolution for its main character is satisfying and justified.
Frazier: I agree. More so than the show's general legacy, I suspect that, down the line, this finale will be heralded. It's definitely top 10 in my opinion. I’m going there: it's a better episode than "Felina." Breaking Bad’s ending was more of a sum-of-its-parts thing.
Nathan: [Laughs.] Matt, you're saying you liked this better than The Sopranos or Six Feet Under? I respectfully, but heartily disagree.
Matt: It's a tough call, but I think so. Six Feet Under's is great too; that's one I'll put up against Boardwalk's in the future and maybe reevaluate my stance here. But The Sopranos ending is one I'll always appreciate for its audacity but never fully love because of its okey-doke nature.
I respect Winter for committing to his story and ending it. I love ambiguous endings as much as the next guy, maybe more, but a character like Nucky deserved a resolution. Granted, it's tough because Boardwalk ended less than 12 hours ago. [Laughs.] Admittedly it's not right for me to be so hyperbolic so quickly. I just know that the feeling I had last night once the finale ended was better than the feelings I had when every other show I've loved ended. And I think there's something to be said about that instantaneous satisfaction.
Nathan: I think any finale is going to be a sum of its parts, though. That's the nature of the beast. Felina was more audacious tonally, but wasn't my favorite episode that season of Breaking Bad. The Sopranos finale is, in my humble opinion, the best of any TV series ever. I just don't think you can beat it. The best I can say about the Boardwalk Empire finale is that it ended as well as it could have considering where we ended up. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I think it really took some narrative juggling to make it work. It's a credit to the writers that they made it as effective as it was for me.