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A Farewell to Empires: A Boardwalk Empire Eulogy

*Spoiler Warning: The following article spoils significant portions of Boardwalk Empire’s run and American history during the late … but mostly Boardwalk Empire.*

After 56 episodes of bootlegging, flapper girls and introspective torment, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has finished its walk down the Jersey beaches. No longer will we get our weekly dose of Steve Buscemi’s annoyed frowns, Michael K. Williams’ grimace of rage or Michael Shannon’s intense stare that’ll make you crap your pants.


No, those days are now gone with the airing of the series finale “Eldorado.” But, what is the mark that Boardwalk Empire will leave on television? Admittingly, in terms of the popularity of HBO shows, it’s no Sopranos or Game of Thrones. Its best shot at fame at this point seems to be a The Wire style retroactive popularity that’ll be shared by a small group of fans and dusted off with a “Oh, I’ve wanted to see it” response from those outside of said group.

Yet, is that a bad thing? Boardwalk has had its fair share of praise and five seasons is a solid amount of time to tell this story of bootlegging alcohol in the 1920s and the history behind the corruption that came in its wake. In that fashion, the show had a sort of Batman-esque element of tension and fear throughout. It feeds on that principle element of huge change causing powerfully menacing people to come out of the woodwork. Sometimes this came in the form of fierce villains like the whirlwind brutality of a Gyp Rosetti, sometimes it’s the ice cold chilling menace of Dr. Narcisse, but at the same time more specific emotional heartbreak came in more personal and pensive forms, like Nucky Thompson’s inner turmoil about his past or Nelson Van Alden’s sudden shift in direction of his life that secretly burns him inside. At its heart, the prohibition element of Boardwalk was more about how it metaphorically matched the lives of its characters rather than seeing barrels and bath tubs filled with booze.

“I ain’t buildin no bookcase.”

At the time of its premiere back in 2010, Boardwalk Empire had much of its hype centered around the involvement of one of leading living cinematic master Martin Scorsese. Despite only directing the series’ seminal pilot, Scorsese’s influence can be felt throughout the series. Some of this may have to do with Scorsese’s documented heavy involvement as a sort of godfather for the show, but creator Terence Winter and his staff of writers still clearly carry the guidance of Scorsese’s touch and morph it into something all their own. You can tell right off the bat from the diverse and talented cast that has taken a trek onto the shore of Empire, from the consistently evolving performances of main cast members like Steve Buscemi, Shea Whigham & Michael K. Williams to the recurring yet always memorable appearances by Michael Pitt, Bobby Cannavale & Jeffrey Wright.

Scorsese’s filmography has consistently been focused on making characters with despicable attitudes so damn fascinating that you can’t help but feel invested in their trials and tribulations. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, the list goes on. He’s never been shy about showcasing the ugliness of society through his usual tricks like heavy period accuracy, extremely detailed costume & production design, a dense & diverse soundtrack and a more grounded yet usually intense character based focus on the setting, all of which Boardwalk firmly understood during its run. After all, dealing with the prohibition era means that you’re going to run into many less than savory types.

better place
“Find a better place to live.”

Few people in Boardwalk‘s sprawling cast are inherently likable. Sure, we do see compassionate sides to these monsters, yet, at the same time, we never forget how horrible they can be. Every endearing or sympathetic detail we get about Nucky or Eli Thompson’s childhood is constantly in the shadow of their violent corrupt hold over Atlantic City. The moments of love between Gillian & her son Jimmy are turned completely on their head by the horrific reveal of their brief incestuous fling. Richard Harrow continued to be the quiet and caring victim of war, even after he showed his willingness to gun down a group of men in cold blood. Even Al Capone, with all his wonton destruction and smarmy behavior, gets moments of genuine connection with his deaf son. Many of these characters (with a few obvious exceptions) are all morally complex in a way that any number of modern shows would portray, but there’s the extra layer of tragedy that few of those shows really have; the oncoming tragedy of history.

Anyone going into Boardwalk Empire should hopefully be aware that the story of a man who made most of his money bootlegging won’t end too happily. Every member of Boardwalk‘s crew knew this and, rather than treat it as twist to be revealed, they made it a recurring theme throughout the series. Every character has some sort of misery looming over them throughout the series, whether it be the threats to Nucky’s titular domain in Atlantic City, Chalky White losing a grip on his home life as he ventures further into a life of crime, Gillian Darmody revealing to the world her horrible past sins that were all in service of hiding her true self, Nelson Van Alden being outed as the low scum he used to supposedly protect his country from or Eli constantly living in the shadow of his brother & the disappointment he feels for not being able to provide for his large family without him. There are many more, but the point still stands: the characters are always running from an oncoming storm.

“Hmm. The Tin Woodsman. That’s me. I think I need some oil.”

The finale itself left things on the exact note I thought it would end with: rather depressing, but in a very beautiful & melancholy way. The entire fifth and final season really has just been build up to the whimper of these peoples’ last stories. Even when we’ve seen people fight, it seems like avoiding the inevitable rather than an actual fighting chance. Much like Al Capone giving one last show for the press before facing his tax trial or Nucky attempting to right the wrongs of his past with Margaret, Eli & Gillian, it all feels like one last desperate attempt at avoiding their ultimate fates. Admittingly, this isn’t as satisfying as the more action and gangster crime heavy elements of Season 3 or 4, but there’s an artful quietness to the way the season slowly left things. Nucky, Chalky, Rothstein, Nelson and several others meet their fates this season in abruptly cold fashions, all being men of a time that’s long gone by, but that’s the point. They aren’t those gangsters from before. They’re broken and won’t be getting up unless it’s to die on their feet rather than in the shadowy corner they’ve made for themselves and there’s a strange beauty to that.

Ultimately though, Boardwalk Empire isn’t always a show that’s memorable for it’s individual episodes as much as its many individual moments. Chalky talking bookcases with the KKK member. Nelson’s bug eyed expression as he beat that salesman with an iron. Gyp Rosetti riding in on his horse in true Napoleonic fashion. Richard Harrow escaping the club in a hail of gunfire before dying with visions of his family. Billie Kent being engulfed in the flames of the explosion at Babette’s. Al Capone biding his deaf son a final farewell before his trial. All of these moments and more added to the powerful yet contemplative spirit of Empire. The recurring tagline for the final season was ‘No One Goes Quietly’ and while there was much sound and fury during some of those deaths, most of them did go quietly and without much fanfare. Most of the catharsis or irony in their deaths is only felt by the very dead man who’s walking in the last few moments of their life. So, despite how many times a character bit the dust, they all came to the same morbid, unglamorous and powerful realization; no one is free from the fate brought on by their environment and their own actions, especially if they allow it.

“All a dream to begin with. Ain’t nobody ever been free.”

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