Boardwalk Empire: Eldorado
Well, that was both great and depressingly predictable.
**Click below if you’ve seen the final episode of Boardwalk Empire we’ll have a chat about it.**
Since the series began, the creators of HBO’s great Boardwalk Empire have been playing a coy game with its viewers. As I’ve mentioned in my articles here over the past few years, there is a delicate balance in the demands of a historical piece of drama that prominently features fictional characters. Real life figures such as Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano, and Meyer Lansky have their ends prescribed for them by the history books (unless you subscribe to the Quentin Tarrantino school of historical film), while the fictional folks populating your story can be largely treated as you see fit.
But in which of these categories has Nucky Thompson resided? The series was directly inspired by the historical book of the same name by Nelson Johnson which in part featured the true-life character Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. The character Steve Buscemi has been playing over the last five seasons clearly takes its inspiration from this fellow who shares his first name and resulting nickname. By changing the last name, Terence Winter, Howard Korder, Tim VanPatten and crew ensured that they could free to fictionalize Nucky’s story. They certainly did so over the course of the series, but not in large strokes. The big facts of Enoch Johnson’s life, still high-rolling until an arrest in 1941, then living out his days with his brother, remained within reach for Enoch Thompson right up through most of Sunday’s series finale.
For the first time in my memory, Boardwalk Empire dove straight into its episode with no revisiting of its iconic guitar-bathed intro. Instead of the familiar sight of Nucky squinting toward the Atlantic Ocean’s horizon as bottles of booze wash ashore, we got the bookend image of grownup Nucky swimming out toward that same horizon with no idea if he would turn around and come back.
While we spent a little time watching Al Capone walk in denial toward his own incarceration and the meeting which expressed Luciano and Lansky’s vision for the future of organized crime, this series, and also this episode in the end is about Nucky Thompson. His conflicting impulses as both a selfless savior and a selfish, aspirational sleaze bag are on full display in this final hour. We see him protect his Mother from his abusive Father, but this seems like a fleeting memory in comparison to his biggest failure, the one which he pretends is not still haunting him.
The last minute of Boardwalk Empire’s penultimate episode suggested that Nucky may find redemption by finally rescuing Gillian Darmody from her newest suffering, but he rejected that possibility on his own. He was too late, anyway, as Gillian was clearly removed from the realities of her life past and present. It was a powerful scene which actually made me feel for a character who has been well-established as monstrous in her own right.
Nucky makes his rounds this episode like a recovering alcoholic, but not quite making amends with the remaining people in his life. In the end, all he really knows how to do is to make money appear, and he continues to try to buy himself and others out of their pain. He has a rather fond farewell with estranged wife Margeret, who is proving quite capable in her new role as a Wall Street employee, and shares one last dance in a desired New York apartment named El Dorado, which the episode takes its title from. This is a none-too-subtle bit of symbolism indicating the ultimately fictional destination which materialism promises and Nucky admits as much in describing his insatiable desire for more as a youngster. A nickel was not enough and neither was a dime.
He seems positively tranquil in his scene with Eli, in which he insists they will not see one another again, then leaves behind a paper bag full of cash and toiletries. There is every indication that this is a man who believes he will die soon, and there are clues that it may at last be at the hands of Luciano and Lansky’s men. We hear them order a public hit on someone, but that turns out to be planned for Dr. Narcisse, a finely choreographed and shot bit of poetic screen violence.
Instead of falling the way Nucky expected to, a plot twist snuck up on him. Unfortunately it did not sneak up on the rest of us. The internet Boardwalk Empire community has been predicting that the young man hanging around Atlantic City all season was actually Tommy Darmody since he first appeared. I’m not going to go into the math involved in making the Tommy we saw last season old enough to be this kid just seven years later, but it certainly looks like justice to have Tommy pull the trigger on Nucky when we consider his betrayal of Gillian and murder of Jimmy. In a particularly on-the-nose touch, the final bullet hole in Nucky goes under his left eye, just like the most memorable wound Nucky gave Tommy’s Father Jimmy at the end of season 2. It would have been a master stroke if we hadn’t seen it coming. As it is, it was merely satisfying.
only in his moment of death does Nucky finally grab that fleeting, floating gold coin.