End of an Empire: The Verdict on HBO's Boardwalk Empire by Donald McCarthy

“This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?”
“We all have to decide how much sin we can live with.”
-Nucky Thompson

“All you gotta worry about is when you run out of booze, and you run out of company, and the only person left to judge you is your-”
-Jimmy Darmody, last words

When Boardwalk Empire arrived on the scene in September 2010, it was expected to be a ratings hit for HBO. With Martin Scorsese directing the pilot, former The Sopranos writer Terence Winter scripting, longtime actor Steve Buscemi as the star, and a gangland setting in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire had a lot going for it. The premiere episode had about 5 million live viewers. By the time the season finale rolled around, the ratings would be around 3 million. Currently, during its last season, Boardwalk Empire, averages around 2 million live viewers per episode.

HBO’s On Demand services and its HBO Go app make the initial ratings of Boardwalk Empire less meaningful than if it was on another channel, but the ratings do tell a somewhat accurate story. The HBO drama premiered with huge expectations, but ended up becoming a steady, but quiet show. There has been much debate over the reasons for this. Esquire recently wrote a piece on how the show as a whole has been disappointing and Grantland had a piece that, while not quite as harsh, ended up saying much the same. Complaints revolve around Steve Buscemi not being right for the part of Nucky Thompson to the show’s plotting being too torpid.

Other critics who appreciate the show, such as Alan Sepinwall, have pointed out that Boardwalk Empire requires an investment, one that pays off if the viewer watches the whole season. However, that can be a lot to ask since Boardwalk Empire has a tendency to begin its seasons slow. In his season four review for The AV Club, Todd VanDer Werff said much the same: “Maybe more than any other show on TV, Boardwalk Empire is interested in delivering satisfaction to viewers. Stories will seem to be marooned on an island of their own for weeks at a time until, like a bolt out of the blue, creator Terence Winter and his writers reveal the hidden structure that’s been propelling the season all along. That novelistic formula could grow tiresome; that it remains satisfying four seasons in is perhaps the show’s signature achievement.”

From my vantage point, Boardwalk Empire’s lack of cultural momentum has very little to do with the show’s flaws and more to do with the audience’s expectations. Audiences expecting a Martin Scorsese kill fest a la Casino or The Departed would be sorely disappointed by Boardwalk Empire. Violence no doubt occurred, but episodes would pass by with only a few scuffles and nothing too explosive. When violence did occur, it was often sickening, feeling un-choreographed, more dirty. A key example of this comes in the phenomenal episode “To the Lost” in which Nucky executes his protégé, Jimmy Darmody, played by Michael Pitt, with a gunshot to the head. This is the first instance we see Nucky kill someone and it’s a nasty moment. Jimmy chokes on his own blood for a little bit as Nucky stands over his body. Nucky tells him, “I’m not interested in your forgiveness” before finishing him off with one more shot. As delivered by any other “anti-hero” character, the line might come across as some sort of badass retort. In this case, Buscemi delivers the line in a strained tone, as if Nucky is unskilled at this, not positive what is expected of him in the moment. It’s hard to imagine Walter White, he of “Stay out of my territory,” uttering a line like that with so little conviction. Or consider Vic Mackay telling a criminal this line and sounding uncertain of himself; that would be a completely different version of The Shield.

Audiences that hoped for some of the over the top characters that populated Goodfellas or the angry, uninhibited men in Raging Bull would not find such characters in Boardwalk Empire, at least not initially. Nucky is a much more reserved character, especially for cable dramas, not as prone to angry outbursts as Tony Soprano, fits of mania like Carrie Mathison, explosive solutions like Vic Mackay, or impulsive violence like Walter White. He’s patient and tends to keep to himself. He gets irritated, but rarely becomes overly emotional. Often his thought process is oblique to both the characters and to the audience. There are very few instances of him feeling any sense of satisfaction, even fleeting ones. His victories are hard-earned and he seems to carry the weight of the cost more than the pleasures that come with the victory. In some ways, this makes Nucky a harder character to like. He commits crimes yet gets nothing out of it. He doesn’t have a family he’s trying to support outside of his brief marriage to Margaret in seasons two and half of season three. His relationship with his sibling, Eli, is estranged, to put it mildly. There are no moments where the audience feels like they are living vicariously through Nucky. Nucky never gets the fist pump moments of a Don Draper speech or the power of a king like Walter White. Nucky’s journey is one of failing upward. No matter how large he builds his empire, he is destined to find that it brings him no happiness. He fell prey to the American Dream at a young age and pursued it and, in many ways, reached it. The results? Nothing to write home about.

At the top of this article, I put a quote from Jimmy Darmody. He speaks this line just before Nucky pulls the trigger on him. His line is prophetic because season five shows that Nucky has only himself to counsel with. His company is gone or dead, prohibition will soon be ending, and he can sense his time is passing.

In the wake of The Sopranos (still television’s best drama), television exploded with unrepentant men and women who would cross lines and give the finger to morality: The Shield, Mad Men, Justified, Brotherhood, Boss, Magic City, Sons of Anarchy, Damages, and more. Some of these shows were compelling and some were pale imitations. Boardwalk Empire falls into this same category, but it stands out with Nucky because Nucky is aware that he is unhappy and aware that he has made grievous mistakes. In the series’ penultimate episode, “Friendless Child,” Nucky admits to Meyer Lansky what he’s known for a while: “You’re much smarter than I gave you credit for.” When Lansky follows up by asking what that makes Nucky, Nucky replies, “Dumber than I knew.”

This is a remarkable moment for a myriad of reasons. For one, Nucky has always been a character whose intelligence is his greatest weapon. He’d rather react in a measured fashion than go for an all-out assault. For him to admit he’s underestimated others is a big blow to his ego, something not many of our screen gangsters would allow.

The second reason, and the one most crucial to the final season’s themes, is that Nucky yields to Luciano and Lansky in order to save his nephew, Willie. For five seasons we’ve watched as Nucky has gained power and influence. In one moment he gives it all away for his nephew, the son of a brother he long ago disavowed. He doesn’t have a back-up plan and he doesn’t think up a way to get himself out from under Lansky and Luciano. He wants his nephew back safe and sound and will not do anything, even try to save his own empire, that might interfere with that outcome.

At the end of “Friendless Child,” Nucky receives a letter from Gillian Darmody, who is in an insane asylum. Gillian represents Nucky’s first sin. He turned her away when she was a child and needed help and gave her into the hands of the Commodore, who proceeded to rape her. Nucky tried to justify it as charity, because Gillian would no longer be homeless, and pointless to resist because someone else would end up doing it, but he knew, deep inside, those justifications were bullshit and he followed the orders of the devil. Gillian gave birth to Jimmy, who Nucky tried to mentor in order to make up for his negligence, but that ended poorly, with Jimmy’s death.

But Gillian’s letter acts as one last chance for Nucky to save himself. Nucky has committed many crimes, but there has been kindness in him and he is not interested in wanton cruelty. Nevertheless, he’s ruined lives, sometimes many times over. As the final season shows us Nucky’s backstory and shows us what happens when he faces himself in the present, we are asked whether or not Nucky Thompson can redeem himself. Nucky is not a good man and he has not lived a good life. Can he, at least partially, atone for that? Can he fully face this fact?

When you think back to the endings of other dramas, questions of who will live and who will die and who will be punished hang over the finales. While there are similar questions here, it is a remarkable reversal of the cable drama format to have the question revolve around whether or not the main character can try to make up for past behavior. When, in the wake of The Sopranos, shows tried to, and often continue to try to, see just how horrible they can make their lead characters, it’s brave that Boardwalk Empire instead asks us if we can offer even a little forgiveness, or at least some understanding, of the criminal characters we’ve been watching. Terence Winter is putting half of the show’s ending into the hands of the audience, allowing us to make the final verdict on Nucky Thompson.

The finale, “Eldorado,” does a lot of work towards this. Nucky makes what amounts to a farewell tour of the characters we’ve met in Atlantic City. He reconciles, to a degree, with his brother Eli, a man he dragged into corruption. He meets with Margaret, a woman whom he both helped and ruined, and they leave on good terms. And then, most importantly, he meets with Gillian Darmody, in what amounts to one of the most moving scenes in Boardwalk Empire’s history.

Gillian’s time in the mental institute has already ruined her, but Nucky does what he can to help her monetarily, assuring that she has a room to herself going forward and a trust fund for when she is released. At first, he can’t quite face what he did to her, telling her “the past is the past.” This doesn’t last, though. He breaks slightly, asking her what she expects of him and Gillian refuses to offer an answer. Some phenomenal work is done by Buscemi here; he allows us to see Nucky’s pain for a moment, but he doesn’t oversell it. It’s heartbreaking, but also deserving, because the crime Nucky committed was an abhorrent one.

None of these farewell moments relieve Nucky of his guilt, but he makes steps towards acceptance and remorse that he has never done in the past. He starts to let go of the weight that’s been on him by taking small actions that at hint at some personal responsibility for the world around him. He’s still stuck in his capitalist mindset, witness how he sees giving away money as the solution to all problems, but this is a humbled Nucky we’ve never seen, one who is starting to learn from his many mistakes.

The last moments of the show, when we see Nucky take Gillian to the Commodore as he tries to convince himself it’s an act of charity in the late 1800s, and we see Nucky’s death in 1931, the show is presenting us with Nucky’s original sin and with his comeuppance. Has he paid the price? Can he ever truly make up for what he’s done? Is he embracing death? The latter question is perhaps unanswerable, but his earlier conversation with Eli about swimming out far enough into the ocean to where he can turn back no more makes me lean towards a yes. He seems somewhat at peace, or at least on terms with, his death in the show’s final moments, as if accepting that his life’s decisions have lead up to this. Nucky’s depressed persona has been a defining character trait and we see why. He’s ruined so many lives, including his own, in his quest to achieve the America Dream and it’s brought him only corruption of his soul and his eventual death. He’s had to make too many moral bargains, had to ignore too many warning signs, and had to lose too many friends and family members to get his empire. As Jimmy Darmody predicted in the season two finale, Nucky is left with little at the end. Before he died, Nucky may have had riches thanks to the stock market, but he has nothing else. His quest for the American Dream ruined him.

It’s a damning statement to go out on. And a brave one. Nucky Thompson decided to bring himself up by his boot straps when he was a little kid when the world turned its back on him. The rest of his life showed how horrible such a process could be.

I find saying goodbye to Boardwalk Empire difficult. I loved it as it aired, but with its ending I find the show even more worthy than I previously thought. It took interesting storytelling approaches and used unique structures, especially in season four. The direction was always outstanding, witness the overhead shot of Capone walking up to the courthouse in the finale, and the editing was sharper than ever in the finale, with the scenes cutting back and forth between Nucky’s past and present. And then there’s the writing. Has any show had sharper, more stylistic dialogue? The monologues the characters give are superb and thought-provoking. I think back to Arnold Rothstein’s speech in the fourth season premiere about how all of man’s problems could be solved if he managed to sit by himself in a room.

Boardwalk Empire is an underrated show. With HBO Go and its new streaming service on the horizon, I have a suspicion that people will find it and wonder how they missed such a gem the first time around.


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.