Season 5 Boardwalk Empire starts off with a slow burn to its final episode.
In 2010, Boardwalk Empire gave us HBO’s best historical setting since Deadwood with a highly detailed 1920s world that featured Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago. It introduced an impressive cast of characters, ranging from real historical figures to fictionalized stand-ins. It produced stunning sets and costumes that would have forced other period serials into an early cancellation, yet Boardwalk Empire‘s tale of prohibition-era gangsters proved successful enough to thrive for five years, leading to a final season premiere this past Sunday.
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Unfortunately, Boardwalk Empire developed its characters so well that after a certain point, there was nowhere else to take them. Oh, the show remains immensely watchable, but there’s only so long the same conflicts between prohibition-era mobsters stay fresh. We’ve seen Steve Buscemi’s Enoch Thompson go from a corrupt-but-pragmatic politician to a ruthless mob kingpin who can’t sink much lower. After the escalating wars of its first three years, season 4 was noticeably calmer, focusing on personal stories of characters that addressed the consequences of previous episodes. It’s time to either shake things up or end the show, and HBO seems to want both for season 5. Whether that will make a difference this late in the game remains to be seen.
On the plus side, it’s hard to imagine a bigger shake-up than the Great Depression. Season 5 marks the biggest time jump of the entire series, moving from the post-war optimism of the 1920s to the final days of prohibition in the 1930s. When we last saw Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, it was 1924. Nucky had left the Atlantic City with Sally Wheet to avoid attention from the Feds. Chalky White had lost his influence, the support of his family, and even one of his daughters. Gillian was arrested for murder. Eli fled to Chicago. And most importantly, Al Capone finally took his place as Chicago’s criminal kingpin.
But now it’s 1931, and much has changed. America’s Great Depression is well underway thanks to the stock market crash, and we’re seeing the first rumblings that prohibition is about to end. Nucky, always sensing opportunity, intends to be the first to transition his illegal liquor trade to a legitimate business. But even now he faces opposition on two fronts: a stubborn politician resisting the change, and an unnamed assassin seeking his life.
Chalky White’s life has also taken a downward turn, even more so than when we last saw him. Attached to an all-black prison chain gang for an undisclosed crime, Chalky is a shell of the man he once was. Nothing seems to be going his way, and even the simple ability to tie his shoes in peace is denied to him. But when chance allows him to to escape, he leaps at the opportunity, and finds himself saddled to an unlikely chain gang partner in the process. This might be the first opportunity Chalky’s had to fix his sudden downward spiral in season 4, but it will still be a few episodes to see where the path takes him.
Of course, that’s the problem with any HBO drama: the premiere is just a preamble for the full season, not a standalone tale. Outside of Nucky and Chalky, this episode only reintroduces a small handful of characters and saves the rest for later. How’s Gillian handling her prison sentence? No idea. What’s Chicago like under Al Capone’s rule? Beats me. We don’t even know the state of Nucky’s alcohol business in Atlantic City, presumably left in the care of Mickey Doyle.
So what do we see? Charlie “Lucky” Luciano finally makes his big break, turning on Joe Masseria and inducted into Salvatore Maranzano’s Mafia families. That’s a big deal if you follow Mafia history: Luciano ultimately became one of the most powerful mobsters of all time, so after four seasons of hardship, this marks his crucial turning point in New York’s criminal underworld. Margaret Schroeder/Thompson/Rohan also returns as a main cast member, digging up Arnold Rothstein’s old records after her job with the bank is dramatically threatened. Her scenes drive home the stark economic change from previous seasons, and the question of what she plans to do is an intriguing mystery. Still, for such seemingly significant moments, these are tiny bit parts set against Nucky’s main story.
I fully expect the issue to be resolved next week, but after the jam-packed episodes of season 4, the slow burn is jarring. With only eight episodes and so few original cast members remaining (you’re deeply missed, Richard Harrow) it would be nice to spend more time with the few characters we have left. We’ve already lost Michael Stuhlbarg’s terrific Arnold Rothstein between seasons, thanks to the character’s murder in 1929. As a consolation, Boardwalk Empire usually pulls off a satisfying slow burn, so I suspect any time spent away from these figures is building to something impressive.
What we have instead is a promising stylistic change: an extended flashback side plot introducing a young Nucky Thompson. Set in a sepia-toned 1884, we finally see the environment which drove the Thompson brothers to corruption and crime, complete with poverty, an abusive father, and a sickly sister. This is also when Nucky first meets the Commodore, who teaches him that honesty and goodwill never get one ahead in the world. It’s not a perfect sequence: the new Commodore actor isn’t quite as memorable as Dabney Coleman, and we’ve already seen the “Nucky-sacrifices-his-innocence” plot countless times. But the juxtaposition of young and old personas works pretty well, and future flashbacks could address other chapters of Nucky’s life that we haven’t seen yet. Especially his relationship with his first wife.
Otherwise, things are as much the same as any Boardwalk Empire episode. The costumes are fantastic and period-appropriate. The music is catchy and highlights the opulence or poverty of its characters. The action sequences are unexpectedly gory. And the acting is top notch, including the young Nucky Thompson, giving perhaps the best child actor performance Boardwalk Empire has seen.
All told, it’s a serviceable premiere, lacking in familiar faces while setting up a dramatic end to prohibition. I wasn’t certain that Boardwalk Empire would bring Nucky to the end of the Volstead Act at all, let alone via a dramatic time jump. Regardless, now that we’re here, I find myself excited to see how everyone’s stories will end.