Boardwalk Empire, considered
Boardwalk Empire is coming to a close tonight, and it seems like it’s going before its time. The fast-forwarded plot of this last truncated season has felt perfunctory, like someone being hooked from an awards show stage before they can finish thanking everyone on their list. And that may very well be the case, why we’ve been rocketed out of the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression on the eve of Prohibition’s repeal. It might be that all the available HBO production money is being vacuumed up by the wildly successful Game of Thrones, and a more intellectual critical darling like Empire, which has never enjoyed as wide an audience, has drawn the short budgetary straw. Maybe we should just be thankful that it’s getting to wind up loose ends and isn’t being left to dangle, like Deadwood or Carnivale, two tragically abbreviated shows of yore. Take a moment to recall that Al Swearengen came and went in three years, but we got eighty goddamn seasons of that insufferable Sex in the City crap. Life isn’t fair, you know? Take what you can get, and enjoy it.
Anyway. To flip our Shakespeare: We come not to bury Boardwalk Empire, but to praise it. And praise it we shall.
Empire made its debut with much ballyhoo, befitting its status as A) an HBO drama, B) about organized crime, C) from Martin Scorsese and D) starring Steve Buscemi. Loosely based on the life and crimes of a very real and very corrupt Atlantic City politician, it promised to weave this somewhat uncharted dark history of a burg on the make into the much more well-known rise of American gangsterism. Indeed, in the first episode as we were becoming acquainted with Buscemi’s glad-handing bootlegger “Nucky” Thompson, we met a lowly driver for a Chicago boss, and that driver’s name left no bell unrung. Al Capone has been a key component of this ensemble ever since.
The strength of the show has rested on several sturdy legs. Beyond the wonderful cast — more on them in a moment — there’s the lush set and costume design, which do as much as anything else to bring alive a world close to a century old. The hats, thick wool and muted colors form a vibrant tapestry, and drive home one observation: the people in the old days, even the poor, had a sense of decorum. (What a relief to go someplace where not everyone is decked out in sandals and t-shirts, you know?) And the musical beats, whether in scratchy recordings at the end of every episode or in live revues at an oceanside nightclub — perhaps headlined by Eddie Cantor, occasional comic book subject and one of the historic character roles — have fleshed things out wonderfully. You get the sense that a lot of time and care went into making every nook and cranny of what’s on screen look and sound as authentically old-timey as possible. The old unearthed tunes that play like they were pressed onto wax cylinders meld hypnotically with the quiet of the daily life of not so long ago, before an omnipresent electric hum droned in our ears from cradle to grave. If there’s an aural signature for Empire, it’s surf and seagulls.
But the bedrock of it all is without doubt the cast, which has debuted new faces while letting old friends shine. Empire introduced Michael Shannon to the wide world, a man whose range encompasses both General Zod and deranged sorority sisters. His fallen prohibition agent, Van Alden, has gone from creepy, to scary, to bumblingly funny, back around to terrifyingly funny, and then just scary, and has been one of the main selling points of the show. Michael Kenneth Williams, known forever as The Wire‘s Omar (Omar’s coming yo!), has perhaps surpassed that defining role with “Chalky” White, Nucky’s old ally and the lead black gangster in Atlantic City, whose descent is the most sudden and drastic of anyone’s. His calm assurance is all the more remarkable since his existence in 1920s America is doubly tenuous thanks to his trade and the color of his skin. Eli Thompson started off as just being Nucky’s lesser, on-the-take sheriff brother, but has evolved into one of the most interesting threads in the plot. Shea Wigham has delivered a quiet, steely performance, and his multiple “Dad loved you more!” showdowns with Buscemi have been seat-grippers. (He also had what may be my favorite line from the entire run, uttered upon emerging from a prison stint and finding annoying bootlegger Mickey Doyle there to pick him up: “Let me ask you something, Mickey. How the fuck is it you’re still alive?”) And, of course, there was Richard Harrow, the man with half a face portrayed by Jack Huston. In a lesser show this horrifically scarred World War I veteran with the eerie Phantom of the Opera prosthesis would have been outlandish. Silly. Over the top. But here he became an improbable anchor, a coolly efficient killer, yet a guardian angel of innocence — and a man who, though he’s already suffered a gruesome fate, meets an even more tragic end.
You could go on. Gretchen Mol’s beautiful, scheming, ultimately sad strumpet. Stephen Root’s joyously crooked Justice Department bureaucrat. The aforementioned Capone, played by Stephen Graham as a jocular brute who’s almost likeable when he’s not shoving a gun in someone’s mouth. Gyp Rosetti’s hat.
And Buscemi. How can we forget? Though he’s never had the most colorful dramatic plumage of the ensemble, his gravitational pull has augmented and propelled the doings since the start. In a career that’s seen great success both in front of and behind the camera (when you’ve directed perhaps the best episode of The Sopranos, you can certainly lay claim to the latter) this will likely be his apotheosis — all sixty hours of it. Enoch Thompson is a man with money and power, but with a vulnerability born of psychic wounds that only the reedy, big-eyed Buscemi could convey with such inner depth. He never blindly lashes out, and rarely gives in to the animal rages that inform so many other mob performances. When he kills there’s calculation behind it, even when there are personal reasons bound up within. It’s his calculation that makes us root for him, the knowledge that this fisherman’s son has always been the underdog in life no matter how far he has come, and will remain so until they either put a bullet in his head or toss him in the slammer. Buscemi has had his share of accolades for this role, but that there hasn’t been a higher pile at his feet is one of the more mystifying elements of this five-year run. (Of course there was the “Say my name” specter of Walter White stalking the halls of awards shows during this time, so…)
Yes there have been hiccups along the way, as there are in everything, no matter how good. Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody was killed off after two seasons, despite being along with Buscemi one of the two poles upon which the early plot revolved. This allowed the show and Nucky’s character to evolve — as Jimmy said, “You can’t be half a gangster” — but it left some in the audience wondering whether all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the character the previous two years had been worth it. (Rumors indicated that Pitt was trouble on the set and/or wasn’t keen on a TV shooting schedule, necessitating his removal.) And then there’s Margaret. Dear, sweet, loathed Margaret. The quiet, humble Irish immigrant (played by the very talented Kelly Macdonald) who winds up marrying Nucky — the man who had her drunkenly abusive husband killed — has never been an audience favorite. Her screentime is always seen as coming at the expense of the criminal machinations that are what everyone is tuning in to see, and this debit was exacerbated in season three, in an endless and I mean endless subplot about Margaret fighting for women’s reproductive health in a charity hospital. As many an internet wag commented: Yeah, because what the show needed was more Margaret, and more Margaret worrying about ‘ginas. That she was largely absent from the fourth season may have been coincidental, simply a legitimate narrative choice. Or maybe not. She’s become a bit more interesting in this last fifth season dance, but yes — less is more.
Soon this fine troupe will be on to maybe bigger but probably not better things. This last season has tied up loose ends well so far, and necessary good-byes have been made early to some of the cast — fare-thee-wells more bloody in this sort of project than they are in others. And the recurrent and lengthy flashbacks Nucky has been having to his youth have been excellent, surprising considering that this is a trope which can play all too much like plot thumb-twiddling. (Well, they were at least good until twentysomething Nucky turned up, and these interludes turned into 90% his teeth.) The proceedings have most definitely felt rushed, an impression only amplified by excellent characters like Arnold Rothstein disappearing from the scene in the interregnum between seasons. But thus far it’s been a sufficient valedictory, even if you want to pull the tasseled brake cord and slow this Pullman car down.
There are still good shows on television — we all can’t wait for the next season of True Detective — but we miss the Breaking Bads of the world. And we’re going to miss Boardwalk Empire, probably more than we collectively realize. No other show has been able to transport and titillate quite like it — calling it Downton Abbey meets The Sopranos meets Deadwood is clumsy and not all that accurate, but it’s not totally wrong. Series mastermind Terence Winter and the assorted writing room hands have told an epic of another era, one with a lot of moving parts, and never has it threatened to spin out of control. It’s the literacy of Empire that may be what we’ll long for most — it’s a show that you absorb like a great book, one that you can only fully appreciate when you sit down, think about it and maybe talk about it with your more intelligent friends. What some confuse as meandering is actually meditative. The symbolism and narrative parallels don’t club you over the head, but let you uncover them like ancient pottery at an archeological dig, with fine brushes and gentle strokes. It’s TV drama as art.
And though you should always leave them wanting more, it definitely feels like it’s ambling off the boardwalk far too soon.