Warning: If you haven’t watched ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ and are considering doing so, now that the series has concluded, you will want to skip this blog, because it will contain spoilers. For those of you, who have been watching since the show’s inception, but haven’t seen the series through to its final episode, you will definitely, not want to continue reading this particular blog, until you have watched the series’ finale.
As is evident from the title of this blog, the following is not a recap of the five seasons – from September 2010 through October of 2014 – that “Boardwalk Empire” ran on HBO. The series, which is a mixture of the genres of crime, drama, and history, during its run won the Golden Globe in 2011 for Best Television Drama. The show takes place primarily in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of American history, the arrival of the law that led to Prohibition started with The Temperance Movement. Their rank and file mainly consisted of religious women, who were tired of the men in their lives consuming alcohol, and taking their frustrations out on them or their children, in a physical manner. Additionally, the movement blamed other societal ills on alcohol, such as crime and poverty; and Temperance Movement members, and those that supported them, regularly espoused the dangerous toll intoxication took on a person’s health.
With a steadfast determination, those in the movement eventually were successful in getting the United States government to enact The Volstead Act, legislation that led to the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. What the law did was make the buying, transporting, or selling of liquor, illegal in America. Naturally, sensing an opportunity to give the public what they craved, criminals began operating lucrative establishments known as speakeasys, where liquor was served. Speakeasys were not the only places available to purchase alcohol, different businesses were also used as fronts for the sole purpose of the sale of liquor. (As an aside: America’s 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, initially vetoed the legislation that would lead to Prohibition, but because congress had the necessary two thirds majority to override his veto, his attempt at stopping the law failed.)
The series main protagonist, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs) was one such person who answered the public’s thirst for liquor. Initially, the character he portrays is a politician, the treasurer of Atlantic City. When he resigns that position later on in the series, he becomes a gangster/business man, which in essence, he already was. His political title was mostly for show. Nucky routinely broke the law, or made the necessary deals, to advance his money making agenda, at any given time during the series’ run.
While Buscemi’s character was fictional, over the course of the series, the writers on the show, cleverly weaved criminals of historical significance into the plot, for Nucky to have business dealings or disputes with. At one point or another, the series featured: BAFTA nominated, Stephen Graham (This is England) as Al Capone; Vincent Piazza (Jersey Boys) as Lucky Luciano; Golden Globe nominated actor Michael Stuhlbarg (Men in Black 3) as Arnold Rothstein; and Anatol Yusef (The Gathering) in the role of Meyer Lansky; as well as a host of other famous and lesser known gangsters. Because of the involvement of the criminal element in the illegal ‘bootlegging’ business, as it was commonly known, the Eighteenth Amendment did more harm than good. Alcohol was being consumed at a higher rate than before the law was enacted. Members of law enforcement, who tried to stop those from partaking in illegal drinking or the selling of it, were often murdered. The money that was being made from customers was not taxed, so an immeasurable amount of revenue, in what at the time was a porous economy, was lost to the government. On December 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had run on a platform of repealing Prohibition, saw to it that congress, overwhelmingly passed the necessary legislation to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, ending the Prohibition Era. (As an aside: The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is still the only amendment to ever be repealed.)
The fifth season was flashback heavy, focusing on scenes of Nucky as a child (Nolan Lyons), and as a young man, making the transition from adolescence into adulthood, when he becomes Deputy Sheriff Thompson (Marc Pickering). Two women, more than any other people, had a direct influence on the trajectory of Nucky’s life. The first was Mabel Jeffries (Maya Kazan), which was literally a case of love at first sight. She was a woman he would marry, and attempt to have children with, but sadly, she miscarried twice, and died while attempting to give birth to the second child. Even forty-five years later, as he is gathering his personal belongings from his office, he still has the first thing she ever gave him. The item is a hand written card, on which are the following words: “We are here for a few weeks every summer, Mabel Jeffries. P.S. I would have let you kiss me.”
As previously stated, this blog is not a recap of the fifth, or any of the other seasons, but certain information needs to be brought up. It is while Nucky is working as the Deputy Sheriff, that he first encounters a prepubescent Gillian (Madeleine Rose Yen). The older Gillian Darmody, portrayed by Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page) throughout the other seasons, was a main character on the show, but it wasn’t until the end, that I realized how vital, the connection she and Nucky had to one another was; how their relationship helped to shape, or more accurately destroy, one another’s lives.
Nucky catches Gillian trying to sell cigarettes she has stolen, to people on the boardwalk. He doesn’t want to throw her in jail, so he takes her home for the evening. There Gillian tells Mabel her story, about where she ran away from, and why she doesn’t want to go back. Nucky, has no choice, but to return her to the children’s orphanage she has escaped from. Even though she begs and pleads that she can help his wife around the house, and with the eventual raising of the child. Nucky can’t afford to keep Gillian with him and Mabel. He can barely afford things for just the two of them. When he returns from work, one evening, a few nights later, he learns that Gillian has run away. He makes no attempt to go after her.
During the next day’s Neptune Parade, it turns out she didn’t run away at all. In fact, he spots Gillian in the parade. When he confronts her about why she is still in Atlantic City, she lets him know that “she thought it would be fun to be in the parade.” Unbeknownst to Nucky, at the time, a conversation he has with Gillian foreshadows what is to transpire in a few short minutes. Gillian tells Nucky that Mabel told her that he wants to be good, he just doesn’t know how to? Up until that point, was Mabel Jeffries right in her line of thinking when it came to her husband? Nucky certainly demonstrated, time and again, during the series’ run, that he was quick witted, intelligent, and had a keen awareness of the right words to use when speaking to any given individual. Could he have been a doctor, lawyer, reputable business man, and amassed just as large a fortune through legal means? Sure, it most likely would have taken more time to achieve the sort of lifestyle he craved, but in the end, he might have died peacefully in his bed, as an old man, surrounded by loved ones, instead of violently. While Nucky is speaking with Gillian, someone informs him that The Commodore, the main boss of Atlantic City, wants to speak with him.
Commodore, Louis Kaestner, is initially played as a much older man, earlier in the series, by Primetime Emmy winner, Dabney Coleman (The Slap Maxwell Story). The younger version of The Commodore (John Ellison Conlee) appears throughout the fifth season. What business does he want Nucky to attend to? Unbelievably, it is the surrendering of his badge, considering the unquestioning service Nucky has performed at the behest of the Commodore, through his boss, the former sheriff, who had resigned, a short time earlier. Nucky, ever the dutiful employee, does as he is told, and then is dismissed. Refusing to let things go at that, he states all that he has done for the man, while in his employ, something which The Commodore is not impressed by. The Commodore lets Nucky know that he doesn’t have faith in him. Does The Commodore see in Thompson the same good his wife knows exists within him? Is that why he can’t allow Nucky to be the law in Atlantic City? Anyone who had been watching since the start, is aware that The Commodore is a vile individual, who besides being involved in the commission of other crimes, has sick sexual proclivities when it comes to children.
A dejected Nucky, who appears to be on the verge of tears, walks back to Gillian. After briefly speaking with her, he is approached by The Commodore’s second in command. The man informs Nucky, that there is a youth that The Commodore wishes to place into service. The child is Gillian. Nucky wants to know what that has to do with him. He is told, that, that type of job is performed by the Sheriff. The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out the Sheriff’s badge, offering it to Thompson. Again, perhaps demonstrating the good that still resided in him up until that very moment, Nucky doesn’t snatch the badge out of the man’s hand, grab hold of Gillian without a second thought, and take her to The Commodore’s home. He hesitates, and stops to think before acting. Unfortunately, his confliction doesn’t last long. He takes the badge, and turns around to talk Gillian into allowing The Commodore to help her out. It is in that brief moment, that Nucky irrevocably changes both of their lives forever. The chance for advancement, to have what he never did, growing up the poor son of a drunkard, is too great a temptation for him to resist. Nucky convinces Gillian to let The Commodore help her, knowing full well, that by help, he means, tending to the man’s disgusting sexual desires. In that moment, whatever goodness had been present in Nucky’s heart, left him forever; especially when he takes her hand and promises Gillian that he will always look out for her.
Years later, as he is walking on the boardwalk, the same boardwalk he once ruled over with an iron fist, and that made him wealthier than he could have ever dreamed, he begins to sense the past closing in on him. First is a billboard, which he looks up at; on it is a picture of King Neptune, advertising the parade. That is followed quickly by four drunken fraternity brothers, who stop directly in front of him; one of them begins reciting “The Spell Of The Yukon” which is a poem by Robert W. Service:
I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.
After the fraternity brothers take off, Nucky spots two men, whom he thinks are perhaps out to kill him. He turns around to escape death at their hands, only to come face to face with another who seeks revenge. As Nucky lays dying, shot three times by Jillian’s grandson, Tommy (Travis Tope) – to explain how and where he came from, would require an additional blog, unto itself – Nucky’s last thoughts are of Jillian. He reaches his hand out, dreaming in the throes of death, that the young Jillian, who he always promised to protect, is standing there in front of him. Why is that moment so prevalent in his dying thoughts? Does he realize, or has he always known the terrible mistake he made all those years earlier? In his confused state, while waiting for death to take hold of him, was his dying wish to change history, in the very spot that served as the catalyst for his life of crime? What are your thoughts and theories regarding the series finale of “Boardwalk Empire?” Please feel free to answer any of the questions I posed throughout the blog, or offer your own analysis. I very much welcome either.