An apocryphal quote going around is, “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” It sums up the fifth and final season of “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO’s prohibition-era drama whose gratuitous sex, violence and profanity makes the tragic plight of Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” look tame.
Produced by Martin Scorsese, it was only natural that “Empire” would air on a cable network known for no-holds-barred television, a place where you can depict smoking, drinking, cursing and fornication with impunity. After all, Scorsese’s projects — most recently “The Wolf of Wall Street” — aren’t usually known for their G-rated moments. Luckily, the show’s creator Terence Winter, a writer and executive producer of “The Sopranos,” was able to turn Nelson Johnson’s book “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City” into a Jazz Age “Goodfellas.”
Set in the early Roaring ’20s, “Empire” is the saga of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the corrupt, bootlegging treasurer of Atlantic City who treads the fine line between vice-ridden public official and full-blown gangster. Technically, he’s based on the real-life ‘Nucky’ Johnson, but let’s not get bogged down in details. The show sure doesn’t and often deviates from history with abandon, writing its own thrilling accounts of what happened. Like Nucky says in the first episode of season one, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Each season, Thompson brushes shoulders with historical bigwigs and mobsters-in-training: Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, Joe Masseria, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Al Capone and Joseph Kennedy. Some of the best characters never existed in our reality, like the volatile Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), the marksman with half a face Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the kosher butcher Manny Horvitz (William Forsythe), the hoarse-voiced gagster Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the disillusioned World War I veteran Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald) and Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) proved to be strong female characters who took charge in a predominately male cast.
Alliances are forged and broken, alcohol is illegally consumed, and people are killed. Being a crime drama, it just wouldn’t live up to the title without a bunch of bullets blowing holes in a bunch of unsuspecting heads. There’s something so fun about seeing the dark side of a time thought to be so simple and care-free.
At its core, however, the show is a tale of the American Dream, a rags-to-riches epic worthy of Horatio Alger with a hint of irony. Every character comes from nothing and, through hard work, rise to the top. Each season Nucky faces off with a different villain to maintain control of his empire which crumbles bit by bit into the ocean that the Boardwalk overlooks. But it was never in vain. We saw some pretty great bad guys: irrelevant Commodore Kaestner, mad dog Gyp Rosetti and scripture-quoting Dr. Narcisse (the Libyan!).
While the players are great, it was high production values and keen attention to detail that kept viewers coming back. For an hour every week we were transported to a time of three-piece suits, speakeasies and flappers; a time when Jews, Irishmen, Italians and African Americans proved they could rise above the prejudices against them, which often meant leading a life of crime to gain influence and notoriety.
With tons of elaborate costumes, sets and period-specific music, never once did it feel like a television show. Nightclubs, whorehouses and tenement buildings were brought to vivid life. We could travel to New Jersey, Chicago, New York, Florida and Cuba without having to leave the comfort of our homes, explore important historical events without ever having to open a textbook. Even the time-lapsing opening credit sequence, set to the anachronistic “Straight Up and Down” by Brian Jonestown Massacre, cemented the idea of gangsters as the rock stars of their time.
The world of “Boardwalk Empire” was just too big for any other medium. It luckily came at a time when the small screen was truly becoming a home box office. Both “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” were blowing up on AMC, proving that individual episodes, produced for millions of dollars each, could play out like mini-movies. The arrival of “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective” and “House of Cards” only reinforced the idea.
After five years, the series came to an end Oct. 26 after a sluggish, truncated season of only eight episodes that never quite lived up to its marketing slogan: “No one goes quietly.” The final season broke the format of its predecessors by jumping seven years forward in the future to 1931. The Great Depression is raging and Prohibition’s got one foot out the door as our gangster buddies scramble to cling to power or risk losing everything they have.
This couldn’t be more true for Nucky, who attempts to strike a distribution deal with Bacardi Rum in Cuba before the 18th Amendment is repealed. Despite his best efforts to create a legacy, he slowly fades into obscurity and all he can do is stare helplessly. It plays into the intentions of Lansky and Luciano to kill off of the “old guard” of mobsters to pave the way for a unified National Crime Syndicate.
Season five’s uniqueness also came from its generous use of flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood to give more insight on the character’s origins. Sadly, the plot device isn’t very interesting and detracts from the superior, interweaving stories of the present. Some great moments made up for it where we bade farewell to our favorite people, but a definite sense of closure never came. Nucky hardly explored his personal relationships — especially the one with his brother Eli — not even making an effort to right some wrongs that would surely have saved him. And where were the great bank robbers of the age, Dillinger and Nelson? A whole new chapter of crime was just itching to be told. In the finale, we were given two highlights: 1) Al Capone showed some redemption-worthy humanity 2) Surprising poetic justice was served.
For some, Franklin Roosevelt’s theme song rings true as it blasts from large wooden radios, “Happy Days are Here Again.” For others, the halcyon days are long gone. Like Gatsby, Nucky is so determined to achieve his goal that he ignores the finer details, only focused on the big picture. It’s selfish, blind ambition that proves to be his undoing. Just like that, his beach kingdom and a great television show are gone. To the lost.