For a show that’s so tied to The Sopranos—in a way, Boardwalk Empire is both that show’s successor and predecessor—Boardwalk couldn’t have ended more differently. Where The Sopranos was maddening in its ambiguity, Boardwalk comes to a definitive conclusion; where The Sopranos threw the idea of dramatic exits, or thematic unity, or even karma in its audience’s face, Boardwalk Empire embraces them all. “Eldorado” is an episode dedicated to tying up loose ends, with last week’s ending montage serving as a mission statement. And it does an incredible job, wrapping up eight episodes of looking back at Nucky’s past while pivoting towards a look forward at the future of what Nucky’s left behind.
So, yes: Nucky dies. He dies because he deserves it, because now that he’s through with his empire, it’s time to pay the piper for the act that started his empire in the first place. He dies because we can’t escape our families and our histories, and Nucky is tied to Gillian is tied to Tommy is tied to Nucky. He dies because he’s a grasper who will never stop reaching for that coin in the water, that bigger apartment in the Eldorado, until someone stops him.
Before Tommy reaches him on the boardwalk (where else would Nucky Thompson meet his end but the boardwalk?), Nucky makes a point of settling his accounts. As he tells Tommy, our protagonist doesn’t have a better solution to his problems than throwing money at them. So helping Margaret, Eli, and even Gillian get back on their feet is Nucky’s way of making sense out of his emotional debts: turning them into monetary ones.
First, he teaches Margaret how to fish, or at least invest. Somewhere over the last few episodes, Mrs. Thompson’s gotten her very own office at Connors & Gould, but Nucky’s stock-shorting scheme wins her $30,000, a business partner, and the confidence to strike out on her own. By the end of a riveting trading-floor scene, it feels like we’re watching Peggy Olson nail one of her first big campaigns. Yet that scene in the Eldorado ensures that Margaret’s given the moral reckoning she deserves, not just a sendoff into the financial sunset. She’s a Carmela who has the courage to say what Carmela never would, in response to Nucky’s tentative apology: “All you did was offer. I was the one who took.”
Margaret knows herself, a destination Eli’s only now taking his first baby steps toward. His wife won’t speak to him and his brother walks out on him, leaving Eli without the only two things that gave his life direction. There’s loss in that, though not much more of a loss than Eli’s been wading through in an alcoholic daze for the last half decade. There’s also opportunity, which Nucky recognizes with both a paper bag full of cash and a verbal kick in the pants: “What am I supposed to do with myself?” “Aren’t you tired of me telling you?” Eli has the blank slate Nucky’s place at the top, and original betrayal, meant he could never have. Which makes Nucky’s gift of independence perhaps the most meaningful thing he could pass on to his younger brother.
In Chicago, Al Capone is also attempting to secure his legacy. In public, he’s strenuously maintaining the persona that will make the papers, and later the history books. The wisecracks, the white suits, and the cigars become more important than ever once he loses his freedom; control over his image is one of the few things Capone has left. At home, however, the focus narrows. We see Capone’s surprisingly modest house for the first time in ages, as well as his wife and deaf son. It’s been hard to maintain our sense of Capone as a three-dimensional character since he’s attained wise-cracking top dog status, so grounding him with a one-on-one with his kid, complete with the sign language he’s learned since the last time we saw them interact, is a wise decision on Boardwalk‘s part.
And then there’s Gillian, whose near-lobotomized, post-operative state is the first sign that Nucky has to go. He’s too late to salvage the life he ruined all those years ago, so he’ll have to redeem himself some other way. Gillian remains wordless, staring at a ladybug as Nucky tries to convince himself he doesn’t owe her anything. She’ll have a private room now, thanks to him, and obviously money. So he asks her the exact same question he once asked his wife: “What do you expect of me?”
Not much, as it turns out; Mabel once said that Nucky wants to be good and doesn’t know how. Instead, desperate to escape his family by birth and unable to find solace in his family by choice, he takes his cues from the Commodore. Louis Kaestner sees Nucky for the directionless striver he is—”I’m what I need to be.” “How is that anything at all?”—and demands Nucky actually dedicate himself to something before laying out his devil’s bargain. Since his wife and child are no longer the source of motivation they once were, Nucky seizes on the Commodore’s philosophy of success: do whatever you do, as long as you leave something monumental for people to remember you by. Like Atlantic City.
But Nucky’s lost Atlantic City, and he learns from Tommy that betraying a child has its consequences after all. Nucky’s also aware that the future is already making itself without his help; in a gorgeous, dreamlike sequence, Nucky gets a final glimpse at what lies ahead in the form of…a talkie. It’s grainy and it’s rudimentary, but even “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” can be earth-shaking when you’ve never seen a motion picture with sound before, and the scene sells the impact of that tiny screen with all it’s got.
And Nucky’s left the club, the city, and the future of American organized crime to Luciano and Lansky, the architects of a syndicate whose philosophy is “What’s good for business is good for us.” Luciano’s round table is the beginning of an era, the “something” that Tony Soprano came in at the end of. It’s progress, and a reminder that history will roll steadily onward even without Nucky Thompson.