In the same way that Boardwalk Empire was never the show anyone hoped it would be, its conclusion “Eldorado” was not an instant, controversial classic like that of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. Instead, it was what the show deserved. Boardwalk Empire’s conclusion was workmanlike and not particularly surprising. Instead of blazing a trail, it chose to offer up something safe, something easy to digest and understand. And whenever it got close to something truly engrossing, there were always the flashbacks to hammer home every point being made by the present-day story. In short, it was another typical episode of Boardwalk Empire. And while it would’ve been nice if the show’s creators had been saving something special for its conclusion, instead (like its lead character), the finale simply tried very hard and hoped that things would work out well in the end.
In the present-day, which almost felt peripheral to the non-stop flashbacks, Nucky is now deposed and it’s only a matter for him to set his affairs in order, and decide on what next to do. Even before the show’s last few moments, which I won’t spoil—but shouldn’t be terribly surprising to anyone familiar with this genre of television—Nucky is walking around New York and Atlantic City as if he’s already dead. He visits Peggy, he reunites with Gillian Darmody, and even makes up with his brother. Nucky is essentially working through a bucket list of regrets that the flashbacks are hammering home, and they offer us a few more great performances (yes, even from Gretchen Mol) before the final credits roll. None of these scenes are particularly memorable, but given Boardwalk Empire’s methodical plotting, they feel necessary. It just wouldn’t be the same show if Nucky weren’t allowed to see all of them one more time, even though that’s a pretty pat and simplistic direction for the last episode to take.
There’s more than enough closure to go around, too. Al Capone is now going to trial for tax evasion, which we know he’ll eventually lose. Boardwalk Empire tries to give him some pathos in showing us his deaf son one more time, and giving him some self-consciousness—which he never has in front of his gangster goons. For me this didn’t really work, and your mileage will likely vary. More telling, though, was his glance at the man who posed as his friend for years before turning him in. Here, Capone’s swagger is reduced, and it’s not intentional.
And back in New York, Luciano sets down the rules for the modern mafia setup. It’s not a terribly interesting scene, but it also feels necessary, considering the emphasis the show put on this story. Their hit on Narcisse feels even more like an afterthought, and helped hammer home how bad Boardwalk Empire was with black people and women. There are no loose threads here, but that’s really the best that can be said for these stories. Narcisse never really developed, Luciano and Lansky never went beyond cyphers for the next generation of the mafia, and Capone became fascinating up until the show tried to depict him as someone more complex (which sounds backwards, but complexity just isn’t Boardwalk Empire’s strong suit). He may have been this conflicted character in reality, but trying to counteract hours of his ridiculousness with one minute between him and his son is just too cheap and easy for me to really appreciate.
Intercut with all of this were the flashbacks that, in a way, were the season’s real climax. Nucky fights his dad, he stumbles upon Gillian, and he ultimately makes the deal with the Commodore that will damn him forever. These flashbacks are perhaps the best we’ve had so far, but the inevitability of telling us a story we already know drains them of any real power. Even when cross-cut with Nucky’s complete refusal to do anything to help Gillian in the present, it’s all too easy, especially with Boardwalk Empire constantly harping on the fact that he’s actually remembering these scenes, they’re not just for the audience.
It’s disappointing that Boardwalk Empire ended up hinging on Nucky’s relationship with the least interesting characters of its large ensemble, the Darmody’s. Whereas so many great actors and actresses made the rest of the cast feel, despite the accents and clothing, real, the Darmody’s never felt like anything beyond an over-the-top fictional concept. They were the part of the show that never quite worked, yet Boardwalk Empire stuck with them until the very end, as if their relationship with Nucky were particularly deep. In the end, the show wasn’t about Nucky so much as it was his relationship with them, which also helps explain why it never worked. Buscemi made Nucky interesting, but Gretchen Mol and Michael Pitt never succeeded in turning their family’s contorted, Victorian horror-esque history into something that made much sense with the rest of the world’s gangsters and politicians.
The most interesting moment in the episode was also one of the few times that Boardwalk Empire has ever gone meta. Nucky, wandering the boardwalks one last time, gets recruited by a beautiful woman to “see the future.” He’s curious enough to pay and find out what this means, and inside an eerie, ghostlike tent filled with billowing curtains he sees a proto-television in front of him. This is fitting because Boardwalk Empire, for much of its run, felt like it wasn’t so much a prestige drama as it was about prestige dramas, inadvertently stumbling through every genre cliche it could while on the way. Entertainment Weekly posted this brilliant chart years ago, but it fails to note why exactly the show was all of these great HBO shows (and Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, etc. as well), without working. Boardwalk Empire never found its own identity, its singular purpose for telling us these stories, and instead it existed for the same reason as that booth on the beach: to exchange money for spectacle. The show sometimes verged on the artistic passion that so many other works on television crank out week after week, but it never actually achieved anything beyond offering up a lavish, somewhat exploitational gangster story.
Boardwalk Empire was a strange hybrid beast, with pulp stories and characters offered up the most glamorous treatment they could be given. No, the show never lived up to its promise, but it managed to be entertaining nonetheless. And what it did do right, which is to say the big moments, the centerpieces that it seemed to somehow find week after week, were often astounding. Ultimately, there’s a place on television for this type of story, too, the kind that misses the mark, but doesn’t become dull. Not everything can be great, and there were plenty of memorable moments and pleasures to be had in Boardwalk Empire, regardless of how little the show actually had to say.