This week, Complex Pop Culture staffers will write about the one pop culture event of 2014 that let them down the most, because we're all Grinches. Today, news editor Andrew Gruttadaro grapples with the ending of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. [Ed. note: This is essay is rife with spoilers. You have been warned.]
Since bootleg bottles of whiskey began rolling onto shore in the opening credits of Boardwalk Empire, the show has been criticized for being only skin-deep—it looks like an HBO Prestige Drama, but at the same time it's completely bereft of emotion. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote, "Boardwalk’s assemblage of expensive talent and extravagant detail ultimately felt less like a story that needed to be told and more like one that only HBO could afford to tell." In 2011, Emily Nussbaum called the show’s “emptiness” the apex of a "troubling trend of shows throughout cable television, seemingly ambitious series whose lacquered looks crack apart when you apply the slightest pressure."
Boardwalk Empire has always received harsh criticism, but to some degree the show itself is responsible for fostering such high expectations. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and is one of its producers, Mark Wahlberg is an executive producer, and its creator/showrunner, Terence Winter, also worked on The Sopranos. On top of that, Boardwalk Empire has some of the best production values ever seen on TV, and a cast of heavyweight actors (including Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, and Michael K. Williams). What did you expect? It's been nitpicked for the same reason LeBron James was nitpicked after the 2010 playoffs: People could taste the untapped potential.
That said, I'd always felt that the criticism against Boardwalk Empire was a little unfair. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson and his government-to-gangster story is truly compelling, and while ancillary characters like Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) outpaced him, he never became dead weight. The show did thematic, full-season plots better than most, and made hard decisions that many other shows wouldn’t. Deep down I don’t think people were mad when Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) was killed off in season two—they were just really sad to see him go. And when the focus turned towards Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White in the fourth season, it finally started to feel like I was right to have put so much faith in Boardwalk Empire. That season proved to everyone that Terence Winter's series was the multi-layered, emotional drama I'd felt it was for so long.
And then a shortened final season happened this year.
Certain circumstances—mainly that HBO only gave the show eight episodes to wrap up its story rather than the usual ten—worked against it. Additionally, Winter and co. made things harder on themselves in a variety of ways. First, they fast-forwarded to the end of Prohibition, jumping from 1924 to 1931. Then, somehow figuring they had time to burn even though their last season had been cut down by a fifth, they decided to devote a hefty chunk of it to flashbacks and Nucky’s origin story. Furthermore, after becoming an integral part of the show in the previous season, Chalky was criminally underserved; Boardwalk Empire stuffed his highlights, namely the home invasion and the final showdown with Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), into just two episodes. And for every excellent moment featuring Capone—the scene in which he says goodbye to his deaf son is easily one of the best the show ever did—there was a mind-numbingly violent counterpart. (Miniature Chrysler Building murder scene, I’m looking at you.)
Overall, Boardwalk Empire's final season played out okay. The fall of Prohibition, the point at which the old mob became the new mob, was a logical endpoint. My disappointment sets in when when I think of the flashbacks. The tacked-on scenes from 1884 and 1897 weren’t there to tell us things we didn’t already know (besides maybe the fact that Nucky had enormous teeth as a young man)—they were there to make us feel the impact of Nucky’s fatal flaw. Every grisly, corrupt, evil move Nucky made could be traced back to his first, Boardwalk Empire argued, when he handed over the adolescent Gillian to the Commodore in exchange for the job as Atlantic City Sheriff. Splicing that moment together with Nucky’s final moments on the boardwalk in the series finale, Winter clearly wanted us to feel the tragedy of Nucky’s life, how he abandoned an honest path to get ahead, and how it ended up not really mattering anyway. And when Nucky got capped by Tommy Darmody, Gillian’s grandson—the most literal example of cause-and-effect ever—it was supposed to hit us like a locomotive. But it never did.
At least it missed me. It took Nucky dying to make me realize that I never really cared that much about him at all. I spent four-plus seasons telling myself that this guy was likable, but really, I could do with or without him. I was hit harder when Lane Pryce—merely a recurring character—took his own life on Mad Men.
My vacant reaction to Nucky taking that bullet to the left cheek is representative of how I felt about Boardwalk Empire’s ending as a whole. The series finale might have been the coldest, most unfeeling one I’ve ever seen. It went about its business and tied its ends in what felt like dead space, as if the show had actually ended an episode or two before. Nucky swam into the middle of the ocean to start the episode and from then on it felt like I was drowning with him in—to quote Emily Nussbaum—emptiness.
Perhaps Boardwalk Empire was commenting on the nature of power and the feeling of meaninglessness it can produce. That’s a pretty strong insight if so, but insight alone does not equal good TV. And when a show you’ve spent years supporting and defending goes out with a "blah" like Boardwalk? Damn, that’s disappointing.