March 01, 2016

The Final Shot - A Farewell to Boardwalk Empire

It's been 16 months since the series Boardwalk Empire took it's final bow, and I still miss the show deeply. It will always hold a special place in my heart and will always be in my top ten best shows of all time.

This series may not have gained the popular acclaim of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos but it is one of the most exceptional, multi-layered television dramas of the past 25 years.
After five seasons, the 56th and final episode was aired here in Canada on October 26th, 2014, and the dramatic and sombre finale tied together events with a bittersweet touch.

The story is set in the 1920s' America, after the Great War when any man can live a lavish life for a few dollars, legally or illegally. A county political figure, Enoch gains prominence and takes control of the famous Atlantic City during the Prohibition period when the Wall Street sees a boom, women get the right to vote, radio makes its way into the market in the changing times.

The central figure of the drama was Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson (based on Atlantic City criminal Enoch L Johnson), who has been played with such subtlety by Steve Buscemi. By gambling on Buscemi, series creator Terence Winter – one of the men behind The Sopranos – and executive producer Martin Scorsese showed that they were casting an anti-hero who relied on guile and emotion. Buscemi has incredibly sad eyes, and he put them to fine use as he looked back, throughout season five, on his damaged childhood.

Boardwalk Empire has always been something of a mystery in the crowd of paid-cable prestige dramas. Its creative and production pedigree was unparalleled when it premiered nearly 6 years ago, with a Martin Scorsese-helmed pilot that carried a $4 million budget and was studded with movie talent. It’s never suffered from a particularly large viewership, perhaps because the slow-burn pacing and occasional unevenness of some of the many meandering subplots kept Boardwalk from becoming the compulsively watchable hit HBO must have hoped for. But it’s remained a show incredibly rich in details, both aesthetic and narrative.

Its returning stable of directors (familiar enough that it’s fitting Tim Van Patten turned the lights off) offered a distinctly cinematic aesthetic, and the ensemble of writers (including Winter, Howard Korder, Steve Kornacki, and Christine Chambers) handled a daunting ensemble, who from the leads to the day players were one of the most impeccable casts on TV.

[ Spoilers Ahead ]
The finale started with a stark image. The iconic opening-credits sequence, in which a dapper Nucky strode into the surf fully dressed, was missing. Instead, our protagonist was stripped bare as he went for an early morning swim. But his sins would not be washed clean. We knew his downfall was coming and we knew he deserved it. We were shown how he sold his soul for a piece of silver (in the form of a sheriff's badge) after talking a young, impressionable teenage girl into becoming the sex slave of a paedophile.

By giving Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) to the Commodore, he sent himself and her into a downward spiral that would destroy both their lives. Nucky had one final chance to made amends to Gillian, by rescuing her from an insane asylum. He made a point of telling her this would not happen. In the end, it wasn't a gangster that did for Nucky, it was Gillian's grandson, Tommy Darmody.
The moral messages about greed ran thick through Boardwalk Empire (the finale was called Eldorado) and it was no coincidence that Nucky was killed after he proved incapable of giving genuine sympathy to the young Tommy (whom he believed to be a 'hick' called Joel Harper), attempting to buy him off rather than help him.

The younger Nucky was played well by Marc Pickering, who imitated Buscemi's facial ticks and voice well in the flashback scenes, but it was Buscemi who had the most telling scene. Just when it seemd an escape was possible, when he had made $2million through a stock market scam, he danced to the Bing Crosby song It Must be True with his estranged wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald). It was a moving moment, the two of them flirting with the idea of rebuilding a future together, but it was not to be. There seemed little doubt that Nucky would have to pay for his sins (the real life Nucky died in 1968, aged 85, at a convalescent home in New Jersey) but it was a nice touch that when the bullets finally came, they included one right below the eye, where Nucky had shot Tommy's father.
The deaths came thick and fast in the final season, as key characters – including Michael Shannon's Nelson Van Alden and the superb Michael Kenneth Williams's Albert 'Chalky' White – were killed off. In the finale, Dr Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) was also slaughtered in the middle of another hypocritical religious talk. Only Nucky's brother Eli ostensibly escaped, with a bag of money, a shaving kit and a memory stocked with brutal violence.

One of the triumphs of the series, and especially the final season, was This is England's Combo, Stephen Graham, as Al Capone. Graham was personally picked by Scorsese to play the role. His Brooklyn accent has been good and he brought something different to the tricky task of playing a mobster everyone knows from previous portrayals by Robert de Niro, Ben Gazzara and Rod Steiger. Graham showed the menacing and volatile Capone but also softened the character with humour. There was a fine scene in which Capone kept re-watching newsreel footage of himself, laughing manically while surrounded by his scared and fawning crew.

Buscemi and Graham both have in common the capacity to make you feel sympathy for such disgusting and amoral characters. In Capone's case, it was particularly in the way he loved his deaf son, Sonny. When Capone told his son he was going to jail, he said: “Be a good boy. Remember all I did was for you." The boy did a "put up your dukes" signal with his hands, asking for a hug. It was a painful and moving scene, especially if you know that in real life the boy lived on until 2004, changing his name to hide the family shame. Graham must surely be in line for an award for this season's performance.

'Eldorado' (the title for the final episode) was co-written by series creator Howard Korder and Terence Winter (who are the show runners on HBO's new series 'Vinyl' -- set in 1973's world of the rock 'n' roll music industry in), and directed by HBO veteran Tim Van Patten. How they oozed class. But what made the series such a success overall was that it was so intricate. It was always about more than just Prohibition and crime, and explored interesting areas such as politics, the war, women's rights and race relations in Twenties and Thirties America. But probably most important of all Boardwalk Empire proved beyond doubt that Buscemi is one of the modern greats of acting, this series will be Buscemi's ever-lasting legacy.

[ End of Spoilers ]

It wasn’t always a smooth road; many of the series’ women petered out after strong introductions, sidelined or ground under the story wheels, and this season in particular has often felt as if loose threads were getting caught in the breeze thanks to a time jump, a shortened season order, and the flashbacks that never quite paid their rent. But perhaps it’s best to leave a show with things left unsaid. The grief of life is inevitable; some of it can wait.

In its characterization and dialogue, in its shots of the lonely shore or a smoky nightclub, in the moments of dry humor or unexpected tenderness, Boardwalk Empire was an often-fascinating portrait of an age. It came and went quietly, but at its best, it told one hell of a story.

But overall it's an amazing show, if you're a lover of film, if you like period pieces and amazing character-acting, you'll fall in love with this masterpiece and you'll appreciate this series for its dedication and commitment. I highly recommend it to anyone (though it does have harsh language and some brutal violence at times). I just stumbled upon this HBO special, if you haven't seen the series at all, I guarantee you won't be disappointed, but this video does have SPOILERS:

See my study on the cinematography of Boardwalk Empire here.

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