“What’s the sense in looking back? It never does any good.”
As we creep toward the finish line (let’s be honest, this isn’t a highly-adrenalized race to the finish like Breaking Bad) of the peculiar series that is HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, I find myself begging creator Terrence Winter to take the advice of his own strikingly boring protagonist: get me the hell out of Atlantic City and give me as much time as possible with the brilliantly damaged characters that truly carry your show’s legacy.
Look, I am sympathetic with the fact that Empire’s creative team feels an obligatory need to bring the focus of the series back around to concluding Nucky Thompson’s story – even if the show’s middle years wisely understood that the peripheral characters were far more engaging, Nucky was indeed our entry point to this bloody saga. And sure, the flashback sequences depicted so far have been exquisitely photographed and scored marvelously – the golden sheen that infects each frame of Atlantic City in 1884 feels particularly surreal, and an out-of-character (for this series) orchestral score lends a sense of profound sadness that feels tonally refreshing.
But I sincerely don’t think I’m learning anything new about Nucky that I wasn’t already aware of since the first few seasons. And frankly, this abundance of reflective, stop-and-start storytelling has left me fairly disappointed by the decision to forgo the astonishing momentum left over from Empire’s haunting and explosive fourth season. The “1931” title card plastered over the humid color of Havana, Cuba – meant to signify a staggering seven-year time jump – should’ve given the audience a jolt of excitement and disorientation, but instead, nothing in this world really feels like it has changed all that much.
The writers can throw as many signposts at me as they want – Rothstein is dead, Chalky now has an unkempt and peppery beard, Lucky Luciano’s eye now has its trademark droop – but if they mostly spend the entire final stretch doubling down on Nucky grappling with his criminal incompetence AND his childhood trauma, then it becomes awfully hard to view as anything other than a hugely squandered opportunity.
I still can’t shake the sheer devastation that was inflicted by a single edit in this season’s premiere, and none its emotional impact could even be remotely associated with our “protagonist.” As Nucky casually dances with Sally in the warm color of Havana, he muses, “Me? I’m always happy” before we immediately cut away to a startlingly colorless and claustrophobic frame – oppressively occupied by Michael K. Williams’ emotionally shattered Chalky White, who is crammed between a dozen other black prisoners in the back of a paddy wagon – and the agony of that visual whiplash alone cuts far deeper than any personal revelation realized by Nucky over these three episodes.
And honestly, the same goes for the thrill that comes with any multitude of subtle moments surrounding the supporting players… When we hear Lucky Luciano bark “What are ya, 14?!” at one of his horny underlings, when the audience clearly remembers Lucky being that same horny kid four seasons earlier. Or when we sadly observe the coke-fueled, manic energy emitted by a now-soulless and unfunny Al Capone, when we can easily recall the same complicated man struggling with the heartbreak of a deaf son. Or when we take an abstract swirl through the drunk, broken, and lonely mind of Eli Thompson, and realize that such a fate is hardly a much better alternative than if Nucky had actually pulled the trigger on his brother at the end of last season.
Moments like these, along with the unfailingly razor-sharp direction (contributed by veterans like Tim Van Patten) and at least a half dozen award-worthy acting performances, are what make me feel so fortunate to have five more hours in this world. And those are the reasons why I’ll still sit through the remaining flashback sequences that ultimately ring so hollow.
Because I am fairly certain that, just like Nucky, Terrence Winter would say that his goal in the final stretch of this confounding and unconventional series is this: “I want to leave something behind.” And the truth is, Winter has already won – the truly remarkable characters that orbit the world of Enoch Thompson already are a beautiful accomplishment to leave behind.
I am more than happy to salute them in the twilight hours of this quietly great program.