[This is a review of Boardwalk Empire season 5, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
When Nucky Thompson sank to his knees in front of Lucky Luciano near the end of last week's episode, Boardwalk Empire achieved a catharsis of sorts. After weeks of off-screen violence and turmoil, Atlantic City wasn't pried from Nucky's cold dead hands; it was given freely, in exchange for the life of his nephew. There was a sense of selflessness in the act that was appropriately out of character for someone who, just one episode later, would describe himself as constantly wanting more. To give up everything for the sake of someone else was monumental; it was the end and yet there was still an hour to go.
So, with the primary conclusion already reached, what was there to keep the series busy for another hour that would feel more end-worthy than what had been presented in 'Friendless Child'? After all, Nucky Thompson was without his titular empire. Sure, there were still some dangling threads in need of being tied up (or snipped), but would the show be able to deliver in a way that the goings-on didn't feel like a mere addendum?
The answer to that question may come from that fact that, aside from a cold (apparently very cold) open, almost 30 minutes go by before Steve Buscemi actively takes part in anything unfolding onscreen. Nearly half the episode is divided among efforts to seal the fates of Al Capone and Valetin Narcisse, as well as handing Margaret and Joseph Kennedy something exciting to do that gave the latter a charming send off and the former an opportunity to meet one last time with her estranged husband.
All in all, 'Eldorado' certainly had more than its fair share of loose threads to deal with. Whether or not it was all a mere post script or something more will likely be decided by what audiences got out of seeing Capone grandstanding on the courthouse steps as he walked in to what would prove to be his end, or Narcisse meeting a much quicker fate by order of Luciano. And it will certainly be influenced by the finale's efforts to justify the season's flashbacks by tying in Nucky's ultimate fate to his decision to trade young Gillian Darmody to a ruthless pedophile for a tin badge and a title.
That's a lot of heavy lifting and connecting of somewhat disparate plots for a final episode that had seemed rather unburdened to begin with. To its credit (or maybe its detriment), 'Eldorado' sought to connect everything by means of having as many characters as possible mention the word "legacy" (or some variation of it) -- which goes a long way in making a finale seem poignant as all get out.
While some of the heavy-handedness on the legacy front wore thin after a while, there were some beautiful moments that, perhaps not coincidentally, helped solidify Boardwalk Empire's legacy as one of the most exquisitely photographed series on television. The long shots of Nucky wading into the ocean, then swimming out to some unseen destination, just felt like the end. So, too, did the close up of Margaret and Nucky slow dancing to nothing at all. There was something mournful in the former couple's exchange that, even though they seemed on the verge of reconciliation, they both knew there was no going back. As Siegel says, "It's all about moving forward."
And still, it felt like the right place to leave things between the two. The series had always struggled to find a suitable place for Margaret, so to have it end on a mostly positive note was uplifting without exaggerating their connection for the sake of a happy ending. Still, given how good she is during her delightful exchange with Matt Letscher's Kennedy (and the conversation in the three-bedroom apartment in the titular Eldorado with Steve Buscemi), the big takeaway is how big of a crime it was Kelly Macdonald wasn't made better use of throughout the series' run.
The same can't really be said for Gretchen Mol's Gillian Darmody, a character with more screen time than anyone could possibly have imagined. Her appearance here in the final season was definitely something of a surprise, given her situation at the end of season 4. It was also something of a shock to see the series working so hard to make the character's plight sympathetic. There'll undoubtedly be some debate over whether or not this season was successful in turning the audience's opinion of Gillian around, but all the focus on building young Nucky toward his fateful choice on the boardwalk that day certainly managed to paint her in a new light. And if that wasn't enough, leaving her fate open-ended, suffering the aftereffects of a forced hysterectomy, most likely did the trick.
Although it was certainly successful in the undertaking, 'Eldorado' couldn't consist merely on the tidying up of plotlines. There had to be something at stake, or some sense of tension hanging in the air. In that regard, then, Luciano remains a threat. Everything Nucky does - from delivering a parting gift to Eli, to stopping by the institution where Gillian is housed - is filled with the expectation that something nasty is waiting behind every corner. But in the end, the end comes from someone Nucky ought to know.
To be honest, revealing Nucky's killer as Tommy Darmody (a.k.a. Joe Harper, played by Travis Tope) feels equal parts petty narrative trickery and a stroke of genius that played the tremendous time jump just right. And frankly, by the episode's end, there was really no other way to play things out. Structurally speaking – thanks to the flashback's anyway – Nucky's character had been torn down to such a degree that his actions against Gillian, and her subsequent pitiful state, left the episode with no other choice. Was it the right choice? It's hard to say. Before 'Eldorado' painted the character into a corner, death did not seem like the only option that was left for Nucky. In fact, he seemed on the road to becoming a different man.
In a sense, Tommy's public murder of a semi-reformed Nucky worked; but it worked because the show was able to depict everything at once: a wicked man getting his just desserts and a tragedy of a fallen ruler all rolled into one. But playing both sides can sometimes result in the ending coming off a bit diluted, like the conclusion was too safe or it was unwilling to make a statement about what the show wanted to be. It seems strange to suggest that killing your protagonist in the final moments of the series is playing it safe, but in this case, the circumstances under which Nucky Thompson met his end felt something akin to that.
Boardwalk Empire was never a morality tale, so to shift toward the idea of the universe balancing itself out feels like an oddly unassertive move for a show that never hid its convictions. But maybe that's the point. For a series finale as obsessed with the notion of legacy as 'Eldorado' was, being unsure what your main character's legacy is may be exactly the kind of assertion that's called for. Either way, the series seems content to let the audience think about such things. Everyone involved is too busy moving forward.