Early on in Boardwalk Empire‘s final season, Nucky Thompson and his business partner/independent womanfriend Sally Wheet have the Depression-era version of a Skype date. Sally counts out pesos at her bar in Havana, where there’s money to be made from legal booze. Nucky drifts around his empty office in Atlantic City, flipping through his mail. Both silently listen, alone in gorgeous, empty rooms, while “Happy Days Are Here Again” plays in the background. Welcome back to the boardwalk, two years after the crash: worldview still black, comic relief even blacker.
On paper, Boardwalk Empire‘s swan song sounds like a radical departure from its status quo. Showrunner Terence Winter has opted to bring Nucky’s story to a close by looking both forward and backward: the main plot has jumped a full seven years forward, from 1924 to 1931, while the major subplot doesn’t flesh out a Villain of the Month or a previously flat secondary character, but Nucky himself. About every third scene rewinds to the late 19th century, when a very young Enoch Thompson learns that a father figure with questionably legal cash is better than a law-abiding actual dad with a drinking problem.
Those two changes do have an impact the tone of the show. Given that the entire series to date has covered less than four years of real time, a seven-year leap into the future involves a certain amount of whiplash. Arnold Rothstein is dead, a fact that’s brutally dropped on the viewer in passing. Al Capone has gone from obnoxious upstart to obnoxious kingpin, scream-laughing up a storm while he counts mountains of cash. And, of course, the Depression is on, which has all kinds of ramifications: the repeal of Prohibition is in the air; working girls like Margaret can’t count on steady employment; and in a particularly wonderful gag, Mickey Doyle would rather painstakingly pour good booze back in the bottle than let it go to waste.
Then there’s the flashbacks, which threaten to be trite and formulaic until they suddenly aren’t. Mr. Thompson is a penniless, abusive asshole, which we knew already. What we didn’t know is that Nucky and Eli had a terminally ill sister who died young, although that doesn’t mean anything for how we see Nucky. Then the Commodore shows up, and Nucky begins work as a sweeper before getting promoted to general-interest errand boy. Parts of these segments have a pleasantly dreamlike quality; the season’s first scene sees Nucky and a dozen other boys floating in the ocean, scrambling for coins in slow motion. Later, there’s a particularly haunting scene on the beach involving white sand, Nucky’s biblical namesake, and a creepy customer at the Commodore’s boardwalk hotel who shows up out of nowhere.
Despite those two major caveats, however, Winter and company are largely bringing Boardwalk to a close by staying true to form. There’s violence — a suicide, an assassination, a would-be assassination, a knife to the back, and a hammer to the neck, all in the first three episodes. There’s wink-heavy introductions of historical heavyweights, including a go-getter Prohie by the name of Eliot Ness. And there’s the pacing, which some would call leisurely and others glacial. The three episodes offered to critics make up almost half of the eight-episode season, shorter by a third than Boardwalk‘s usual 12. Major players like Gillian Darmody and Nelson van Alden/George Mueller still get mere minutes of screen time, as if the writers still had another nine episodes to bring their stories to a satisfying conclusion.
Boardwalk Empire has earned our trust, though, and the absence of supporting players is partially made up for by the renewed focus on Nucky. In the inevitable end of Prohibition, you see, our hero sees a golden opportunity: the chance to take his criminal empire and make it legit, removing the risk from bootlegging and making for an easy transition to life after gangland. Like a snazzily dressed, murderous version of today’s big-league marijuana growers.
So Nucky embarks on a mission to, for lack of a better word, rebrand. He makes distribution deals with foreign manufacturers. He courts Wall Street for investment money. And he inevitably discovers that saying you’re done being a criminal and actually being done with it are two very different things: the straight world might not want him, and the crooked one might not let him go. That’s Nucky’s last journey in a nutshell, and it’s an extremely compelling direction for both the character and the show.
Chalky, Eli, Margaret, Lucky — they’re all still here. But Boardwalk‘s exit strategy isn’t to take us on a greatest-hits tour of its cast, or to cram in a closure-giving subplot or two where there isn’t really space for them. Instead, it’s to double down on its antihero’s past, present, and future as Prohibition, the era that’s defined this show from the bulk of its plot to its opening credits, comes to a close.