'Boardwalk Empire' Finale: What Was and What Might Have Been

The HBO drama, which ends tonight, may best be appreciated for its sum, not its weekly parts
Abbot Genser/HBO

Oh, Boardwalk Empire, you confounding little gem. Even as you end, you’re not making it easy to send you off.

Through its five seasons — this current and final season had a truncated eight-episode run, which ends tonight — I’ve thought a lot about and written a little about the issues I’ve always struggled with when it comes to Terence Winter’s prohibition/power/mobster epic set in Atlantic City and starring Steve Buscemi.

I think the main issue is that Boardwalk Empire had everything it takes to be a great show, but often suffered under the weight of that potential. It reached greatness numerous times — sustaining it was always the problem.

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It would be easy just to say, sure, Boardwalk Empire was often more brilliant than anything else on TV, even though it didn’t capture the country like Mad Men or Breaking Bad did. Or, for that matter, The Sopranos, which was the show where Winters made his name. It’s easy to get nostalgic or softly appreciative of really strong series when they bow out, and it might be seen as pointless nitpicking to express frustration at what wasn’t achieved.

Again, that goes back to expectations. And if it seems unfair to say that Boardwalk Empire could have or should have been better, it’s only because it was held to the highest of standards, with an expectation among many critics that the series would secure its place in the pantheon of great television.

As Boardwalk Empire departs, with a season that has been a microcosm of previous creative hits and misses, I find myself wanting to amend my one long-held, fiercely defended position on it: that the show was not compelling.

I would never miss a live episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men — or even The Walking Dead. They are (or were, in the former case) shows that compel you to watch the moment they air. In contrast, I could let two or three episodes of Boardwalk Empire pile up on the DVR with little or no compulsion to find out what happened.

The amendment I’d make is this: The show wasn’t immediately compelling. Watching it in a Netflix-ish binge, like I did much of this season, makes that clear. The storytelling and the characters and the dialogue have always been fantastic, but it’s always a slow burn with this show.

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Even this season, despite the lower episode count, was frustratingly structured as a gradual build where everything blows up (entertainingly, sometimes majestically) in the last few episodes. That’s a classic, old-school way to make television and could only be done on a premium channel like HBO, where you pay for your own patience. Previous seasons were maddening (and yes, not compelling) in the early going, building as the episodes did to that last-four-episode fireworks display.

By the third season, I was pretty much done with that tease. Only a creative return to form in season four kept me on the bandwagon, and that season was exhibit A for another one of the main problems with Boardwalk Empire: Many of the supporting characters were more interesting than Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson.

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Note that I’m talking about the characters, not the actors. While some doubted pre-Boardwalk whether Buscemi, who has a career full of memorable supporting characters in film and television, could pull off the lead in a weekly series, his incredible acting rendered those misgivings obsolete almost instantly.

But his character was, for the first few seasons, far less interesting than those around him. That’s not Buscemi’s fault at all. Winter and his writers weren’t able to make Nucky a standout lead a la Tony Soprano, Walter White or Don Draper. Nucky Thompson seeking power was a lot less interesting than him gaining it, suffering from it and trying to hold on to it, which the last couple of seasons have focused on. (That’s another Boardwalk Empire slow burn for you.)

But when considering their entire arcs, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and the brilliant Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) were all more interesting than Nucky.

Hell, if you’d told this story from the perspective of Harrow or Chalky, things might be different. Then again, Nucky built the Boardwalk Empire, so there's your show.

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Still, this nagging issue will, for me, always complicate my appreciation for the series. Hell, I love Kelly Macdonald as an actress but never felt much for her Margaret. Which means, for the most part, the first couple seasons were built around two of the least compelling characters, though both were played by magnificent actors.

Gah!

I’m not sure Boardwalk Empire could ever truly realize its potential because of that. And killing Jimmy Darmody was like an exclamation point on this issue.

Where the series gets immense credit, clearly, is making the aforementioned supporting characters so memorable.

Though I wasn’t a fan of Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) — who seemed so obviously created to supplant the weakness of the Nucky character, or Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), who also seemed manufactured to give Margaret more depth — they certainly spiced up the episodes they were in.

And if you go back and look at that list of amazing supporting characters, you’ll also note a troubling truism: The writers couldn’t create or sustain a great female character. Margaret was too meek (though, in typical Boardwalk Empire style, she slowly became something else); the mad lust of Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) was short-lived, as was the brooding interior world of Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino); ditto the entrepreneurial sass of Sally (Patricia Arquette). The closest the show got to something else entirely was Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), and it was as if the creepiness there was derailed with Jimmy, and suddenly the character was adrift.

Perhaps there are too many cracks in the monument to properly appreciate it, but there was also something else that can’t be ignored (and is, all these seasons later, still difficult to define). And that is the fact that Boardwalk Empire, once you stopped wanting it to be better than it was, stopped wishing it would pick up the pace and become more compelling and thus necessary, was still satisfying as the seasons ended, like a book you struggle through and want to put down, then end up recommending.

As tonight’s finale approaches, that’s where I find myself as a critic and a fan (though I wouldn’t say a fanatic): wondering about what was and what might have been, while also hoping others will discover it at some point, perhaps as a box set or in streamable seasons. Because Boardwalk Empire seems best as a series fully told, not one to be anticipated weekly, or weakly, as was often the case.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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