- Macall B. Polay/HBO
- Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson
Be honest and true, boys
Whatever you do, boys
Let this be your motto in life
These words, with their Polonius-like tone, introduce the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s gorgeous period drama set (mostly) in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Viewers mulled these words as they watched “Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” but Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has had a lifetime to interpret their meaning. And as he repeats them to himself near the end of the episode, they sound less like advice, and more like regret.
With a premiere that’s heavy on flashbacks and not much else, executive producer Terence Winter looks to burst out of the corner into which he’s painted himself. He recently admitted that the show’s somewhat precipitous end is due in part to the writers giving their protagonist what he wants: a way out. And they’re doing it in a truncated season.
Though it’s been almost a year (in real time) since the season four finale, the show’s characters have had seven years to deal with the fallout from 1924. Sunday night’s premiere was, in typical Boardwalk fashion, deliberately paced—we got a lot of talking, politicking, and reminiscing before there was any action to advance or undo what’s been set in motion. What was unusual was its focus: rather than jumping around the different cities and sets, we mostly saw a young Nucky (Nolan Lyons) struggling in Atlantic City, and present-day Nucky scheming in Havana. We also got a peek at Chalky White’s (Michael K. Williams) Depression-era life, and it’s depressing: he’s on a chain gang for as-yet-unknown reasons.
Something else we’ve come to expect of the show is the beautiful cinematography, which the premiere really delivers (this show has always been, if nothing else, a pleasure to look at). But the director (Timothy Van Patten) isn’t just showing off here; the use of of sepia tones for Nucky’s boyhood along the pier, followed by honey hues in Havana, illustrate the show’s arc, from his nostalgia-lit past to the dimming glow of what it’s safe to assume are his twilight years. Nucky might not be the most interesting character on the show anymore, but he’s where we started, and he’s where we’ll finish.
As lovely as they were, though, the flashbacks mostly felt like a missed opportunity. If you’re going to use flashbacks, especially after skipping seven years of more recent history, they ought to fill in blanks, not underscore things we already know (like that Nucky had a shitty childhood). A time jump is nothing new for Boardwalk Empire, but this lengthier leap ends up leaving a lot to the imagination, including the death of fan favorite Arnold Rothstein, who was played with velvety menace by Michael Stuhlbarg. The show also skips past the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre (if you’ll recall your mob history), and Black Tuesday, two events that would certainly affect most of its players.
If Winter & Co. were working with a full season, I might be less anxious about the flow of information; however, there are only eight (now seven) hours in which to find out what will happen to Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), and Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), among others. By the end of the hour Chalky was on the lam, and Nucky had survived an assassination attempt. But the action that we got along with all the exposition and elaborate set design felt too little, too late. The slow-burn approach is too much of a gamble at this point in the series. We—the show’s writers, Nucky, the viewers—just don’t have that much time left.
Boardwalk Empire, HBO, Sundays at 8 PM